Gun Violence and Games

[Originally posted June 18, 2016]

On June 12th, as news broke of the shooting in Orlando, Justin McElroy expressed the following paraphrased sentiment on twitter: What do we, as an industry, think of our participation in the glorification of weaponry and gun culture? This is a heady topic, so I’d like to stress a few things here before I begin:

  1. These are not even remotely his exact words. They are MY interpretation of the meaning behind tweets he has since deleted – an action that was his reasoned, justifiable prerogative. If I could, I would provide the exactly worded tweet, but I cannot find it. If someone has access to a screenshot, please let me know in the comments so that I may find it and include it for greater and improved context.
  2. This is not a piece about Mr. McElroy, but rather the idea he expressed – as outlined above. This is an interrogation and exploration of said idea, and is – in no way – meant to convey a moral absolute. This is a topic of hurt, and pain, and sorrow – and is therefore made up almost exclusively of shades of grey. I wish this were not the case. I will certainly arrive at logical touchstones, but these are – by no means – conclusions. Do not make the mistake of interpreting them as my final, concrete beliefs. Though I may put my views to page, I do not carve them into stone.
  3. I fully realize I’m poking the bear here, so I welcome you all to weigh in with whatever tone, tenor, or language you wish. Understand, however, that I hold my own positions and rhetorical standards, and may – therefore – not reply to every comment (if there are any). This is not meant as personal snub or rebuttal – I merely do not wish to involve myself in a discussion that I feel will be unproductive on both ends. I will express one hard line, however: I will suffer no fools that make the rhetorical misjudgment of attacking Mr. McElroy. As stated previously, this is an interrogation of the idea, not the man. If you wish to discuss, leave his name – as well as the names of those who expressed similar sentiments – out. I’m here for ideas. Not petty talk. Period.

We all on (relatively) the same page? I hope so.


Gun Violence. Reads a little different when you split it up. Gun. Violence.Clearly, the implications of each component of gun violence are not mutually exclusive. Still though, it’s worth exploring each term – just on its own – and its place in games and the broader culture.

Violence. Violence comes before gun, because guns are not a necessity of violence. Violence is also a much broader topic, whose implications have been explored by psychology and theory. Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n was a glut of psychological evidence disproving a causal relationship between games and violence. I would highly recommend that those interested do their research into these studies. Some are flawed, some are not. Many, however, reach the same conclusion – games are not (directly) responsible for violence. On the theory end of things – Alison Rapp wrote an excellent piece about the implications of ‘cultivation theory’ and video game violence. Tl;dr: media’s effects are most visible at a cultural level, where media influences an individual’s beliefs about reality, rather than their actions. When applied to games, this means that players see the world through a despairing lens: the world is violent, and I am – therefore – more likely to be a victim of that violence. That’s pretty god-damn depressing. Not to mention scary. Nobody wants to be a victim. Nobody wants to carry around a perpetuity of fear. Nobody wants their thoughts to accidentally trail into the trauma of their past. It’s an issue of survival, and that’s why both sides of the gun control issue fight so fucking hard – they’re each on a different side of preventing victimhood. It’s why – in the face of over-whelming statistics – one side refuses to acquiesce their dogmas. It’s an issue of survival, and there’s a horrible part our animal brains that can not, will not, will never settle for logic. In a world where guns do not play a massive role in our culture, this is less of a problem.

But we do not live in a world without gun culture.

Unfortunately, there’s very little research for us to work with, as congress has banned any sort of funding for pro gun control research. There is also very little research concerning the specifics of guns as a tool of violence in video games. Is there a difference between a virtual AR-15 and a virtual spear? We don’t know. I certainly don’t. That being said, I don’t think it’s unfair to state that games love guns. Of the 121ish games I own, 64 include a form of gunplay. 45 of those include real-life guns – not sci-fi magic laser weaponry. This is a vastly disproportionate spread. Sure, you might chalk this up to personal taste, but that would fail to account for several cultural trends amongst gaming and gamers. The aughts were awash with first-person shooters, to the point where ‘FPS-fatigue’ grew into a term of cultural zeitgeist. The most popular games – nay, pieces of entertainment – of all time are first person shooters (Call of Duty: Black Ops, to be specific). Something about military shooters make seriousbank. Even on the independent side, we see huge mainstream success amongst titles like DayZ – built upon the grounds of the high fidelity military sim, ARMA. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to geographical player base data, and therefore cannot surmise where this game is most popular. Regardless… we love our guns. We gamers… love our guns. This is not inherently bad. In a virtual world, enjoying the capacities of weaponry is fine.

But we do not live in a virtual world.

‘Gun Culture’ is unique to the United States. Other countries have guns, of course – we live in an international infrastructure that perpetuates armament and military braggadocio – but the personal connection between an individual and their gun is stronger in the US than anywhere else. Part of me suspects that this was the reason for the uptick in first person shooters. It makes sense, no? Many of these FPS titles were developed in ‘the west’ and therefore had a much easier time finding an audience. Just look at box art. Movie posters. Anything. Lots of blues and oranges, often featuring a grizzly, 5-o-clock shadowed man (with a jawbone to boot), holding some sort of arm-length weapon. Rifle? Shotgun? Assault rifle? They’re all there. Shooters are a popular genre amongst developers because of their relatively simple conceptual thrust – point, shoot – but consumers are the ones who ultimately drive the market. To put the impetus of FPS popularity on their design concepts is to ignore a huge part of the cultural equation. It’s a vicious cycle, really. We like guns, so we center our mainstream artistic mediums around them. We love them, we enjoy them, and – through the aforementioned cultivation theory – we perceive them as a normality. As a necessary, normal part of our society and culture. In a world without mass shootings, this is fine.

But we do not live in a world without mass shootings.

We in the US are living through an epidemic of gun violence. There have been 182 mass shootings in 2016 alone ( This is bigger than crack, this is bigger than heroin, this is bigger than prescription opioids. The US is addicted to guns, all the same, but the difference between a gun and a Vicodin is the efficiency with which their addictions kill. With drugs, there is a narrative arc of dying. Prescriptions lead to addictions lead to hard drugs lead to death. It is a process of months, if not years. Not so with guns. We all play games, we’re familiar with the progression. Point. Shoot. Dead. The arc that brings us to gun violence comes not from the gun, but rather from the culture. And that’s what’s so difficult about this discussion. Changing culture – particularly one as stubborn as ours – is no easy feat. ZAM recently ran an article suggesting that part of our problem – as an industry – is that we have a bit of a hero complex. We like feeling that we’re justified when we empty a magazine into a virtual foe. I don’t know if I believe that it’s as easy as turning the player character into a villain, however. We have these narratives. Postal. Far Cry 3. Shadow of the Colossus. Games love to trick its players, to tell them, ‘you were the villain the whole time!’ These narratives still possess the components that influence our perceptions of the world, as well as our perceptions of culture. I don’t believe the answer is ‘no more shooters,’ either. The removal of a genre would feel… disingenuous – to me. Like a lie we tell ourselves to provide us with some sort of artificial moral supremacy. But would it be worth it? Would it be worth it for our industry to remove itself from contributing to this cultural problem – even if only temporarily? It seems as uncertain as it does unfeasible. We chase profit because we must in our society, and the most direct route – it seems – is through shooters. So what do we do? Do we educate ourselves? Many seem actively opposed to the notion. Do we protest the genre? Game culture is hostile enough as it is, and profit is often more powerful than protest. Do we give up? In a world without solutions, maybe.

But we do not live in a world without solutions.

I hate this topic – it’s one of brick walls and dead ends. It seems fruitless, despairing. But the one thing that I believe we must regularly and alwaysdo is engage in discourse. We need to fight each other, and disagree with each other, and tell each other why we believe that the other is wrong. It seems like argument is the one language we can all understand, and – while it gets out of hand more often than not – the small percentage of productive discourse will always, always, always be worthwhile. In a rational world, this discussion is over. We have reached a consensus, and – thereby – a solution.

But we do not live in a rational world. We need to talk about this until we do.

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