Guns and Games
I have a confession to make: I have become an all-American semi-automatic owning secret gun lover. Fifteen years ago I was giving money to anti-gun groups, and now I am a gun owner with a membership to the local firing range.
How did this happen? You know what I’m about to say, but before you start throwing rocks at my head, please hear me out.
The video games made me do it.
Let me be crystal clear about this: SHOOTING GUNS IN REAL LIFE IS NOT THE SAME AS SHOOTING VIRTUAL GUNS. A few years ago, I asked my vegetarian friend Billy how he could refuse to eat anything with a face and yet spend his life making games where you kill people. Without missing a beat, he responded: “Amy, games are make-believe. They’re not real. No one is actually being killed.” He made a very good point. Everyone who plays Call of Duty is not going to go out and buy assault rifles. Everyone who likes to go to the shooting range is not going to enjoy sitting in front of an Xbox. It would be like thinking that everyone who enjoys watching a movie about ghosts will want to move into a haunted house. It just doesn’t work that way. One definitely does not equal the other. Penn and Teller make this point very well in the episode of their show Bullshit where they investigate the link between violence and video games. Playing games does not turn you into a homicidal maniac living for the kill, and there have been many studies to back that up.
A few years ago, I asked my friend Alicia to take me to the gun range. I had never fired a real weapon, and I figured that as a game designer, this might be a pretty good experience to have. Alicia grew up with guns. Her father is a former military guy. Every member of her immediate family has guns and knows how to use them. So one sunny Sunday, I drove down to Orange County, and Alicia and her dad taught me how to shoot.
I loved it almost instantly. It wasn’t the feeling of power or the knowledge that I was using a deadly weapon that I liked. It was the concentration and precision – the stillness it took to line up the sights, relax, and squeeze the trigger. It was much more zen and stress-relieving than I ever expected it to be. Guns demand your attention. You cannot think about anything else when you hold one in your hand. I loved the way my mind would go completely quiet while shooting. Also, the gun went boom and blew a hole in something, and that was satisfying, in the same way popping bubble wrap is.
The surprising thing was that I had a bit of aptitude for firing guns. I knew it wasn’t “natural” hand-eye coordination. Any of my gym teachers over the years could attest to that. It was the surprising byproduct of many evenings spent playing Unreal Tournament with the guys in the lab in college. Granted, firing a real gun is a very different experience than pointing and clicking, but what happens with your eye and your steadiness of hand is actually quite similar. Your brain learns how to get your eye to tell your hand where to go to make something happen. We, as an industry, have actually done a pretty good job in our virtual simulations of mimicking the skills that are needed in real life to successfully hit a target. And I am a sucker for anything I am “naturally” good at. How could I not fall in love with guns when clearly they loved me?
Again, let me just reiterate that this does not mean that everyone who plays a game where they shoot someone virtually will go out and shoot anything or ever even have any desire to fire a real weapon. It doesn’t mean that they will even know how to load or fire a real gun. In real life you don’t press A or shoot offscreen to reload. You need to know things like how to use the safety and how to check if the chamber is loaded. In virtual worlds, you don’t have to deal with things like guns jamming or cleaning weapons. In many ways, guns in real life are totally annoying compared to virtual guns. It is sort of like how falling in love seems wonderful in movies but is actually an exhausting roller coaster in reality. Guns, in real life, require a bunch of skills that virtual guns don’t. Virtual guns are just make-believe shortcuts of the real life version – icons and symbols of what a real guns are. The true skill that is learned from games is the improvement in hand-eye coordination, not any sort of facility with the weapon.
I wanted to test my theory, so I attended a beginner archery class. A real bow is definitely more complicated than using the Wii remote to shoot virtual arrows at targets, and my first three shots hit high of the target. I was thinking that my theory of how games make you better at this stuff was flawed, when an instructor came up and complimented me on my shooting. “But they all went high,” I pointed out. “Yes,” he said, “but they are all grouped nicely in a line. It just means you just need more practice to learn how to aim lower.”
What it boils down to is this: video games definitely give you the hand-eye coordination to be better with projectile weapons. What they don’t do is give you an idea of how to mechanically use weapons. That still requires years of practice to learn and master.
The byproduct of games, especially good games, is getting better at something over time, whether it is arranging falling virtual blocks, making the little guy eat the dots, or killing zombies. People learn while they are playing. Even animals learn through playing, as anyone with a dog can tell you. Playing shooters made me better than I would have been when shooting guns in real life than I would have been if I hadn’t ever played that type of game. Apparently this is also true for other things like performing surgery, which is NOT to say that playing a game will make you into a surgeon any more than playing a shooter will make you a real-life sniper.
So what does that mean for me as a game designer?
I am not going to get into the argument of desensitization to violence or how it is okay to show someone getting shot on TV but not someone having sex. I am going to take society out of the equation for a moment.
I believe that giving someone better hand-eye coordination isn’t a negative thing at all. Learning is inherently good. Learning – getting better at something over time – is always a positive thing. It is up to the learner to take that knowledge and use it for good or evil. Just because I know how to shoot a gun – virtual or real – certainly doesn’t mean that I will ever shoot anyone.
Teaching someone skills that they may never even be conscious of brings up an interesting question: are there other unintended benefits or consequences to our games that we are not even aware of? And if we become aware, do we have a duty to our players to inform them? Do we slap warning stickers and/or advertisements on the side of boxes announcing that a game may make you a better shot or a better surgeon? And if we did, would our games sell more or less?
I believe that we, as game developers, do have a responsibility to our players, but not to be their moral compass. Rather, it is our duty to make our players the best virtual players of our games that we possibly can. I want my players to learn to be experts at playing my game. If this translates into skills far above and beyond the scope of my games, then great. It means I’ve done my job well. However, it is not up to me to dictate the morality of how my players use those skills beyond the scope of my creation. That is the choice of every individual. And if my players do decide to take up the sport of shooting in real life, then perhaps they will feel less frustration and waste less ammo, which is always a good thing.