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Guns Vs. Real Life
by William Coberly on 12/16/12 12:46:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article first appeared at Nightmare Mode, an excellent site you should absolutely check out.

There’s a line in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where a wizard describes a gun as “a kind of metal wand that Muggles use to kill each other.” It’s a joke in the book, another reference to the fact that wizards find Muggles and Muggle technology as mystifying as we find magic, but I found it to be an apt summation of the very serious problems we have with rhetoric around firearms in America.

Regardless of where we stand on issues surrounding firearms, we don’t much talk about guns for what they are:

Anti-gun rhetoric frequently describes firearms as terrible weapons of war, destroyers of communities and slayers of children–powerful artifacts too destructive to be controlled by the average citizen. Those who wish to own guns are painted as paranoid or selfish, and of possibly deranged mental state.

Pro-gun rhetoric, conversely, exalts the firearm as a symbol of self-reliance and rugged individuality. To own a gun is to have the power to defend your family and property from the vicious World Outside, to maintain some semblance of power against the threats and encroachments of criminals and corrupt authority. Those who wish to regulate private ownership of guns are painted as totalitarian and cowardly, with possibly tyrannical intentions.

Rhetoric around guns often sounds a lot more like discussion of the One Ring than it does reasoned debate about concrete, physical objects. Guns are neither nuclear warheads nor stalwart guardians of the helpless — they are, broadly, machines designed to launch projectiles of varying sizes at varying speeds. But due to the complex cultural relationship between American ideals of self-sufficiency, various corporate lobbies, theater and school shootings, and concerns about authoritarian control over the individual, gun rhetoric is a hotbed of angry, hyperbolic and complicated discourse.

Into this highly contested climate comes the shooter-game, including everything from Call of Duty to BioShock to Gears of War, wherein the player’s primary method of interaction with the game and its problems is through shooting things in the face. The meteoric rise of the modern military shooter, in particular, has cemented the cultural place of games-about-guns as the single most popular genre of videogame in the world. Literally millions of people have poured billions of hours into shooting virtual firearms at virtual people (and aliens and zombies). For most of these people, their time spent in Call of Duty and Gears of War will probably be their primary interaction with the concept of the firearm, and so it may be worthwhile to examine what these games teach us about the nature of guns.

Shooting a firearm in real life is a full-body experience. You have to stand just so, hold your hands out steady and focused, but relaxed enough not to shake. You align the sights with your eyes. You breathe, mentally prepare yourself for the sound and the flash and gently squeeze — not pull — the trigger. Even the smallest gun kicks up more than you would think. In most games, this whole set of actions and preparations is reduced to a single button press, occasionally two (one for aiming, and one for pulling the trigger).

Reloading is similarly abstracted. To reload a Glock 17, (a fairly common semi-automatic pistol which shows up in a lot of videogames) you press one button to release the magazine, then pull out the empty magazine, put 15 to 19 bullets back in it, one at a time, and then slide the magazine back into place, finally pulling back on the slide to load a bullet into the chamber. Granted, military and police generally carry a few pre-loaded magazines in addition to the one housed in the firearm, so such a person might not need to individually load bullets into a magazine for a while. But this still requires quickly grabbing a magazine from your belt and sliding it accurately into the gun while hopefully stowing your empty magazine somewhere so as not to leave it on the ground to be stepped on and ruined.

Reloading is even more complex with other weapons such as bolt-action rifles or belt-fed machine guns. Yet in most cases, reloading a firearm in a videogame requires only one press of a button.  Further, all of this is generally done very quickly. Videogame characters who have never handled a gun before will frequently operate and reload weapons with a speed and proficiency usually restricted to Special Forces operatives and competitive shooters. Alan Wake claims to have never fired a pistol before, yet he instinctively knows how to reload his revolver with unerring speed, and never so much as drops a bullet on the ground.

Finally, the underlying grammar of a given shooter (Press X to reload, press RT to fire) is generally identical across all of the firearms available in the game. While there are certainly differences between firing a handgun and an assault rifle in Black Ops, they are comparatively minor compared to the differences between doing so in the real world.

Now I understand that games are, by necessity, all about abstraction. Games take a collection of actions or ideas from the real world and combine them into a single operation or game element all the time. No one (who is not training to be a medic) really wants to play a game wherein the act of healing a wounded comrade takes 78 different steps and requires a working knowledge of field medicine. As QWOP shows, even the simple act of running requires a great deal of abstraction to be playable. Further, just as most able-bodied humans over the age of about five don’t have to think of running as moving a series of individual muscles, so too does a hardened soldier probably think of reloading as a single operation rather than a series of discrete actions.

But by abstracting the act of firing and reloading all guns to two button-presses, these games lose the element of physicality so present in the real-life experience of firing a gun. The controller may vibrate, and there may be some allowance made for recoil, yet by conflating the operation of a gun to two quick motions which are in turn identical across all firearms, these games portray firearm usage as both easy and unembodied. The player stops thinking of him or herself as a flesh-and-blood being operating a series of different weapons, each of which requires training in order to operate properly, and more as a mobile weapons platform gleefully playing with a variety of magic wands.

So if this is what shooter-games teach us to think about guns in the context of the game, what might this mean for how we view guns in the real world?

Any shooting instructor who is remotely responsible teaches his or her student to be careful with the gun. The usual phrase is “respect the weapon.” This is not (usually) out of some sort of idolatrous, anthropomorphic gun-worship, but because treating a firearm casually leads to treating the consequences of that firearm casually. My father-in-law, when teaching me to shoot, always advised me never to point a gun at anything I did not wish to destroy; I was taught to always act as though the gun was loaded, because one should never be dismissive of its potential for destruction. This is not because he feared I was so clumsy I might shoot someone by accident, it is because the mental state involved in handling a firearm should be one of constant awareness of what the weapon is capable of doing.

Most modern military shooter-games heavily market the authenticity of their weapons and equipment. Medal of Honor: Warfighter has an entire section on its marketing website dedicated only to descriptions and photographs of the various real-life weapons modeled in the game. The implication is clear: the marketers behind these games want you to think that this is how real warfare works, and that these are the tools used by real warriors.

The idea that these are real weapons that mimic real life is contradicted by the unembodiedness of firearms in the game. Gun usage in the modern military shooter does not foster the necessary respect for firearms. By using the same grammar as more obviously preposterous games such as Borderlands, these games teach that firearms are neat toys, magic wands to be used to “solve problems” and neutralize targets. Behind their cosmetic differences, smart-talking laser guns in Borderlands 2 and AK-47s in Call of Duty: Black Ops behave exactly the same.

This lack of respect seems to foster dissonance in both discussions of military action and civilian gun ownership. Even ignoring all the other ways the modern military shooter has little in common with real war, by ignoring the physicality of the soldier holding the gun and fostering a lack of respect for that particular gun, these games gloss over the fact that real war is fought by human beings against other human beings. Even in the most morally unambiguous of circumstances, shooting an enemy soldier causes him to fall to the ground with a piece of lead embedded in his body, tearing apart his internal organs. It’s a deeply physical and embodied experience, and decisions around if, when and where we should send American soldiers to shoot people need to be made with this in mind.

Finally, by conflating all the various types of firearms into the single, monolithic concept of the Gun (RT to fire, X to reload), these games further complicate political discourse around civilian gun ownership. Whatever your opinion on the topic (and it is not my intention here to endorse a particular mode of gun control or lack thereof), it’s manifestly true that the word Gun refers to a variety of different tools used for a variety of different purposes. There are substantial differences between civilian ownership of a .22 bolt-action hunting rifle (primarily useful for shooting squirrels), a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun (primarily useful for shooting people at relatively short range), a 5.56 mm assault rifle (primarily useful for combat operations), and a functional replica 17th-century flintlock (not useful for shooting much of anything with any degree of accuracy).

While there are various reasonable and defensible arguments to be made for which, if any, of the above weapons should or should not be be allowed in private possession, all of these arguments must acknowledge the myriad differences between these weapons, their capabilities, and the risks they pose to their owner’s neighbors.  It is one thing to own a hunting rifle, another to own a handgun designed for self-defense, and still another to own a military-grade assault weapon.

By making guns in videogames a sterile and similar experience across all types of guns and situations, we are fostering an uncritical audience unprepared for nuanced discussions of sociopolitical issues surrounding firearms and military action. This is not simply due to tired worries about “desensitization,” but because the traditional grammar of the shooter fosters no respect for the subtleties and embodied nuances of shooting and respecting firearms.

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k s
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Very well written piece.

I'd like to mention I've run into a few people who think cause they are good at call of duty they would make good soldiers but as you most astutely pointed out video games are abstractions and do not actually match real life. I've also heard people say they like call of duty for the fact all the guns in it are real but again we come back to the fact they are abstractions and do not really match the real thing.

I think I'll email a link to this to a non-programmer friend of mine in the hopes it enlightens him a little about the true nature of guns (in video games and real life).

Stanley de Bruyn
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That doesn't surprise me. But as a gamer with no real gun experience I know this. Even gamers should know online games the weapons are very balanced out. The campain is less balanced. More room for unbalanced so more reality possible.
Like the real vector V is very recoil compensated and fire the heavy .45CP surpase the MP5 with large margin with fullauto burst accuracy. The P90 range with its down scale high velocity rifle ammo and also less recoil due to small highvelocity bullit. That in BF3.

In reallife Weapons aren't balanced difference can be huge. And heavy stuff you need no headshot.

If your life depend on it I wouldn't take a heavy sniper rifle in to a small arena like map.
Like one of those .50BMG based Anti material rifle in a small arena sized map. Is even more silly.
Also people move online like they have no mass and unlimited stamina. Bunny hopping move like a fly is virtual exploid tactic doesn't work in reallife.

What is Realistic are the weapon models but they behavior is abstracted and very balanced so overall it is very arcade game mechanics. Totaly no milsim.
And with its very unrealistic fastpace its very competive play and with that a hardcore game.

Also for bit range is squad based destinated marksmen with a longbarel with acog4x scope enough.M39EBR

The real SVU-AS the A in there stands for Automatic. A urban medium range sniper with full auto option and large mag of 20.
So that gun make a bit sense to use in those small urban maps but is abstracted like a SVU-S

So the guns look real but do not behave real.

Michael Joseph
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"By making guns in videogames a sterile and similar experience across all types of guns and situations, we are fostering an uncritical audience unprepared for nuanced discussions of sociopolitical issues surrounding firearms and military action."

Nice post. What a can of worms you are opening! :)

I think we cannot have a reasonable national discussion about gun violence by starting out with the assumption that gun violence cases are these disassociated events within our culture. I think the NRA folks are just as guilty as the anti gun folks when it comes to wanting to keep the discussion limited to a very very narrow range of concepts. Our leadership (business and government) is afraid of open and honest discussions about most things. Open and honest discussions are bad for business (because most products are kinda garbage). Open and honest discussions means the majority of the people are brought together to solve problems and the minority that is the hardline ideologues are marginalized.

By failing to have an open and honest discussion, both sides tacitly admit that they're unwilling to discuss the possibility of changing any of the underlying causes so why even go there? That less than half hearted desire to "fix" issues is the beginning and the end of finding comprehensive solutions. The discussion we get in reality is, "Given that we want to maintain the status quo, how can we keep a lid on the violent expression of social malaise?"

As a nation, the United States gave up on the idea of evolving over time into a great society that would become the model to the rest of the world of what an advanced civilization looks like. We've settled for a society that has very little ambition or expectation for the vast majority of it's people.

I think the 'left' and 'right' in the USA are _alot_ closer than we realize.

David Navarro
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"I think the 'left' and 'right' in the USA are _alot_ closer than we realize."

As seen from Europe, where the political spectrum (as in, real parties with non-zero parliamentary representation) extends all the way from Fascism to Communism, this seems indeed to be the case.

Simon Ludgate
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I think your argument boils down to "video games make guns look easy to use, but they're not actually that easy to use, therefore video games should not be a major factor in deciding gun control laws." On this strict interpretation, I agree with you: I don't think video games should be a part of the gun control debate.

Conversely, the real-life reality is that people inexperienced and untrained with guns can obtain them and use them to kill a very large number of people with very little effort, little risk to the shooter, and with little defensive capability for the victim. I don't agree that the real life complexity of guns is an argument in favour of ensuring they remain easily accessible.

William Coberly
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That's not exactly what I mean. I sure don't intend to talk about whether or not guns should be accessible in this piece, just that the way videogames frequently portray guns isn't helpful and might create an inaccurate perception of how guns work, which won't help our problems with both pro and anti-gun rhetoric in America right now.

Simon Ludgate
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No, you're right, I understand where you're coming at, I guess I'm just sort of trying to scratch at the "so what?" surface. I suppose my question is: "how does an accurate portrayal of how guns work help solve the problems with pro- and anti-gun rhetoric?"

On a tangential note: do movies give a more accurate portrayal of how guns work than video games? Are all media portrayals of firearms at fault, or specifically video games for their abstractions in controls?

Amir Barak
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Guns and rifles (and tanks and rocket launchers) aren't really that hard to use. The best war-like equipment is designed to be fool-proof; it is, after all, given to soldiers on the field (not that they are fools mind you, it's just that you don't really get time to start thinking too hard when being in the midst of a battle).

That said, I don't think better physics would matter within the context of guns-in-video-games. The problem, as far as I can tell, is that the games themselves abstract away the consequences of using firearms and the implications of being in a live combat situation. If COD and its ilk gave players no save points, one shoot kills and no ability to replay the game for a period of time between deaths (and even that's an abstraction) I bet you it'll be a deeper impact than giving the guns better recoil mechanics.

Also, make the games model some of the enemy NPCs as people that the players love and see how easy it is to start shooting; hell, dunno how many (if at all) do this but how about we make all the enemy models look like the game developers, how comfortable would EA and Activision (etc) executives be if players were shooting them in the face with realistically modeled weapons?

Beyond all of that, the majority of players aren't crazy, they (and we) can understand the abstractions and are not affected. The crazy ones, the ones that open fire in schools and whatever... they'd do that just the same. Video games didn't invent crazy, neither did movies. Better gun control shouldn't be on the people who buy it but the people who sell 'em (legally and illegally). What do you think would happen if you make it perfectly legal to sell firearms but if that gun is used in an illegal action you make the seller accountable as well (not saying that's a solution, just an interesting exercise)?

William Coberly
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To your later question about whether or not movies give a more accurate portrayal, etc.: probably not, and the problems of hyperbolic and unhelpful rhetoric in the country come from lots of media other than videogames, too. But I chose to focus on videogames because, A, I'm a games writer, right?, but also, B, because the fact is that lots of folks spend much more time with games than with movies/TV/etc., and since much of that time will be spent shooting virtual people, for that subset of the population, games may be the primary way they interact with the concept of firearms.

Lots of folks won't ever play these games at all, but for those that do, their thinking about guns might well be informed by games, so I thought it would be worth looking at what most shooter-games say about guns.

Andreas Ahlborn
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While reading this article I constantly thought of a similar issue with Cars vs. Real Life.

From a Pickup to a Tank every vehicle in a video game follows the exact same dumbed down controll scheme that absolutely lacks any "reality".

I bet a lot more car accidents than weapon accidents happen every day worldwide, but since "traffic" and mobility are sth. that is widely accepted in society as "social acceptable", discussions about cars and traffic are generally a lot more rational than discussions around weapons.

If some sociopathical Teenie would try to reenact "GTA"s running over of civilians we would not consider to make the process of getting a drivers license more difficult for all adults. If some Teenie would take the key of his parents cars and going on a drunken death-ride, we probably wouldn`t invent a law that required all adults to hold their car keys locked up in a cabinet.

Simon Ludgate
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I thought about this, or something similar, when thinking about this article. The author was talking about how guns are harder to use than games make them out to be, and I realized a similar rationale can be applied to cars too.

It seems to me that going on a murder rampage with a car and killing 20+ people is a lot harder in real life than games make it out to be. It's not like you can drive a car through hallways and into classrooms. I'd imagine it's easy to smash into something and lose control of the vehicle, or suffer damage that makes the vehicle inoperable (unlike a video game where cars seem to take all sorts of lickings and keep on kicking).

Moreover, the types of motives that spur mass killings tend to be very focused, whereas vehicular killing tends to be quite random: whomever happens to be on the sidewalk at the time you drive by. nslaughter

What's interesting about vehicular massacres is that they tend to result in considerably more injuries than fatalities. If someone really wants to kill people, cars are simply not very effective tools.

Another problem is that sociopaths who go on killing sprees often intend to kill themselves after their rampage. Of the 15 most notable school shootings, for example, 13 ended in suicide. You can shoot yourself with a gun when you're done killing others, but it's much harder to run yourself over with a car after your murderous rampage. I wonder how much of a factor that plays.

I suppose one must also consider the pragmatic answer: how much practical value is derived from cars versus their risk as weapons, compared to practical value of guns versus risk as weapons. Even though cars can be used to kill, killing is not their primary purpose nor the purpose for which most people use them. Guns, on the other hand, are designed to kill and their primary purpose is killing. Eliminating private ownership of cars would bring a transportationally-starved society to a grinding halt; eliminating private ownership of guns would make a few people sad but little else.

Andreas Ahlborn
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"Guns, on the other hand, are designed to kill and their primary purpose is killing"
A police officer would not agree with this statement, the professional group that besides the military is associated the most with guns on a daily basis.

"The Law" could argue that guns`primary purpose is that of threating effectively so that violence-ready individuals shy away from acting out their violence. Absurdly enough what could work in a unbalanced power environment (the criminal with the baseball bat vs. the police officer with the gun): keeping peace by threatening "war" becomes a massacre when the criminal also has a gun: escalation is then guranteed.

Simon Ludgate
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""The Law" could argue that guns`primary purpose is that of threating effectively"

I'm under the impression that police officers are instructed to draw and point their weapon only when they intend to shoot the target.

For example, the Peoria, Arizona police department firearms manual:

States: Only point the muzzle in a "safe direction” or when legally justified, at something you have decided to use deadly force against.

I'm also under the impression that police are ordered to shoot-to-kill, never to shoot-to-maim or disable (when armed with a lethal weapon), but I couldn't find a quick source.

Thus, it is my understanding that police should never use their weapon to threaten unless they intend to kill the target. If there are any police officers reading that can confirm or deny, I'd be interested in an official interpretation.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Simon, the statement "guns ... are designed to kill and their primary purpose is killing" is false, an oft-repeated anti-gun talking point, and a good way to shut down factual discussion. I don't think you brought it up in bad faith; I'm sure it looks uncontroversial at first glance to many people with no practical experience on the subject. However, it is vague (for instance: are we talking about civilian-owned guns only? Are we talking about the purpose people buy guns today, the purpose for which those guns were originally designed, or what?) and when you start considering the possible interpretations individually, they do not hold water.

With that out of the way - I am not police, but I can answer your gun handling and tactics related questions better than the average policeman. Which is not saying much.

- "Only draw if you intend to shoot" is a good rule of thumb for self defense for multiple reasons, but not always correct. It is less relevant to professionals in use of force situations. Laws vary.

- "Only point a gun at something you are willing to destroy" shows up in standard gun safety rules everywhere with a handful of different phrasings. It is expressed in absolute terms and should be treated as such nearly all of the time, but a self defense or use of force situation is an exception. No police department anywhere in the world tells their officers "if you have aimed your gun at anyone for whatever reason, shoot". Violent situations can develop very, very fast and are full of uncertainty.

- Police attempting to use a lethal weapon to disable a suspect, e.g. deliberately shooting a leg, is extremely rare. The situations where it is correct are limited. To my knowledge it is not practiced in the US, presumably because their legal system is ill equipped to deal with it. Police departments would rather kill the suspect than risk getting sued to oblivion by a suspect whose life they saved with a leg shot. However, it does exist as a legally valid doctrine at least in some Scandinavian countries.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Question for the author: What do you think of a game like Americas Army, which is specifically designed as recruiting tool. Is there to be found a more realistic, respectful treatment of weapons than in the usual suspects (COD et al.)?

William Coberly
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I haven't played America's Army, and don't really plan to. A quick look at the wiki for the player controls implies that's it's still the standard "left click to fire, R to reload" control scheme, which implies its treatment of firearms is not substantially mechanically different from CoD's. But I might well be wrong!

Stanley de Bruyn
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Well I played it online from 1.2.1 up to 3.0 only training.
The difference is it got more depth is more realistic paced.
but has some online balance to. So no milsim training but still more a game.
It also offer stress as CEM, wenn shot at you aint gonna shoot well.
You got ROE and surviving as a team is also important. Also medic. Wenn been shot you need treatment to stabalize. Then you live but are somewhat limited. Also been in squad makes your CEM go down. So Teamplay has its value, also surpress fire.

But it is a long time ago wenn I played it. The last thing I remember that there where Civilian in it. Co-op maps where there is Asymatric warfare. My experience is more Up to 2.x

So it offer much more then COD.
Especialy medic treatment as you can bleed to dead.
ROE colletral damage and friendly fire must be avoided.
And get extra for surviving.
fire team and squad Leadership bringing your men alive home get bonus to.

So totaly not COD. It offers a lot of thing you realy mis in those games.

Axel Cholewa
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I missed a conclusion to your (otherwise good) article. You analyse the situation nicely, but what do you conclude? Do we need more accurate depiction in games of how guns work? Would that benefit the discussion? Should we leave games out of the discussion about gun laws? Do we have to consider games' depiction of weapons in the discussion? What consequences does this "portayal of how guns work" have?

William Coberly
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All I was trying to do was analyze the problem-- I'm not a AAA designer or a legislative expert, so I'm not sure much will be helped by just another blogger pontificating about "What We Need To Do."

Briefly, though, I would think it would be nice if games about shooting were a little more aware of the information they might be communicating along with the entertainment they provide. I'm not sure if it would be possible to make a mass-selling CoD-style game which did so, though, so it's probably not terribly likely to happen. :p

Bisse Mayrakoira
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William, I really don't understand what you are arguing for.

Suppose an AAA designer with completely free reign over their design is reading your post and decides to go all out on their next first-person shooter to "make it aware of the information it communicates". What kind of mechanics and content do you want that game to have? How should its guns operate?

And when that is done, assuming it works and players have picked up increased understanding of fine mechanics of guns and shooting, how is this supposed to make these people better equipped to deal with gun politics?

My take is, if we wanted to put realistic gunhandling in a game, there's no way to do it. None of the physical detail that really matters can be replicated with a mouse or a gamepad, on a 2D screen or at rate of 60 frames per second. Attempting to do so would merely result in a more tedious game instead of a more realistic or immersive or interesting one.

I have seen games do things like making a flick of a fire selector take half a second as opposed to it taking effect instantly like in Counterstrike. Devs probably thought this was "realistic", but it was just the opposite. When handling an actual gun and the selector switch is situated in an ergonomic location it is a reflexive action. The moment I'm pressing the button on the keyboard is equivalent to the moment I'd flick the actual switch, therefore it should work "instantly" in the game; the only lag is that between my decision and my physical action (whether flicking the switch or pressing a button on the keyboard).

Roger Tober
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I think this article misses the point that video games, movies, and media sensationalize guns and killing. It's not the abstraction of the gun, it's the abstraction of the ensuing death that keeps us from realizing how horrible killing can be.

TC Weidner
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agree 100%, Shooting another person should not be "entertaining" and for those that think video games and tv and movies content creators dont also need to take a deep look at what they are creating are fooling themselves. I think the govt is about to make some pretty bold steps with regard to guns in all forms, be it real assault one, or pixeled game ones, and personally, I am all for it.

Realistic Violence, killing need not and should not be "entertaining". Wile Coyote and the three stooges are one thing, the crap we see today is quite another.