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.