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Guns and games have a symbiotic relationship | Opinion

Games don't cause gun violence, but some feed a cultural obsession that makes it harder to fix the larger problem

Blame defies basic mathematics.

Just because one person is 100% to blame for something, that doesn't mean others don't have their own portion of culpability.

For example, in last week's mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the shooter was to blame. He planned the shooting, he bought the guns to facilitate it, he pulled the trigger.

Yet if the blame was his and only his, there wouldn't be anything left to do, as he's now dead, and we can be certain he'll never do this again.

But everybody's arguing about next steps, because we all understand this shooting was not an isolated incident. Mass shootings have become so commonplace that most of them are barely a blip in the news cycle. Mass Shooting Tracker has identified 21 mass shootings -- four or more people shot -- in the US in the nine days since Uvalde, collectively killing 21 more people and injuring 93.

Drilling down into the individual shootings, we see a variety of motivations: bigotry, desperation, nihilism, revenge, and so on. But the common thread, of course, is guns.

These shootings are part of a larger trend across society, something happening the world over, but finding expression in the US with overwhelming regularity. If we assume the US has not cornered the market on bigotry, desperation, nihilism, and revenge, the differentiating factor would seem to be the abundance of firearms in the US, and the ease with which people can obtain them.

So who's to blame for that?

Politicians, for one. Like the politicians who made researching gun violence off limits to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who let the federal assault weapons ban lapse, who routinely do the gun lobby's work for it, who see the bloody results of a country with too many guns and believe the answer is always more guns.

Then there are the people who make and market the guns, whose livelihood is premised on their ability to get more deadly weapons into more people's hands, who sell people a fantasy of empowerment and lethal control over their fellow humans, whose marketing invites you to imagine how totally sweet it would be to snipe someone in an SUV downtown, utterly devoid of any kind of pretext about self-defense, hunting, a well-regulated militia, or any of the other reasons people supposedly have to own these weapons.

And of course there's the NRA, a lobbying group for gun owners that first ensures its membership is armed as heavily as possible, and then riles them up with propaganda about liberals and the media, toeing the line of incitement to violence laws by urging its members "to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth."

Each of these people and groups has had a hand in fostering the obsessive gun culture that is preventing movement on this issue in the US and enabling additional mass shootings on a daily basis. (2014 was the last year Mass Shooting Tracker recorded fewer mass shootings in the US than days in the year.)

And it's not too hard to pull back one more step and point to the people voting for those politicians, or putting money into the pockets of the NRA and the gun manufacturers. It's hard for a politician to do much without holding office, for a lobbying group to run ads and sway legislators without money, or for a business to stay afloat without customers.

But where does the blame stop? In the past week we've seen plenty of people in gaming say it stops well before it gets to our doorstep, often pointing to the numerous parties clearly more complicit in this long-running tragedy.

If guns and gun culture are The Problem, then anyone feeding into that culture, reinforcing it, or building their business off it must also have some culpability...

But if guns are The Problem and the popularity of guns and gun culture is keeping us from doing anything about it, then anyone feeding into that culture, reinforcing it, or building their business off it must also have some culpability, no matter how far removed and reduced from that of the person pulling the trigger.

And you really don't need to look very hard to see evidence of how the games industry feeds into -- and benefits from -- gun culture.

Developers of military shooters in particular have touted "authenticity" and "realism" as they bring real-world instruments of death to video game life in exacting detail while trivializing the damage they do with bullet sponge bad guys, achievements for headshot streaks, and regenerating health for the heroes.

And to go a step beyond the games themselves, we have M-rated brands like Call of Duty selling literal toys for kids ages 8 and up with marketing copy hyping up the "realistic" and "authentic" weapons the action figures wield.

In the past, publishers paid for the privilege of having the real-world brands in their games, building marketing campaigns around such authenticity.

At the height of that era, Medal of Honor Warfighter executive producer Greg Goodrich even wrote a series of blog posts on the game's official site celebrating the products of the gun and knife manufactures featured in the game.

"I first saw the completed CS5 [described as a 'concealable' sniper system] late last year, and was blown away," Goodrich said in the post for arms manufacturer McMillan Firearms, which had four guns in the game. He added that the company's weapons were "impressive" and "awe-inspiring," saying "It doesn't get any more authentic than this. Check out the McMillan website and shoot to win!"

(The Medal of Honor site also linked to sponsors selling Medal of Honor-branded Tomahawks and tactical sniper rifle kits, but that was a little too directly promoting weapon sales and generated public criticism, so EA pulled the plug on the tie-ins and took the blog posts down.)

Then the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in December of 2012, and everything changed.

No, not the gun laws, silly. I meant the overtly cozy and cross-promotional relationship between gun manufacturers and publishers changed.

Some months after the shootings and another round of governmental scrutiny about violent games, EA said it would stop licensing gun manufacturers but use the guns in their games anyway. Other major publishers quietly followed suit in the years to come, sometimes hiding clearly recognizable designs behind fictitious names.

Heckler & Koch's HKK 433 above, Call of Duty's KILO 141 below

Heckler & Koch's HKK 433 above, Call of Duty's KILO 141 below

Not paying for licenses took away some direct monetary support the industry was giving gun manufacturers, but that amount pales in comparison to the value of the visibility franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield can give these products.

And you can bank on that because we have yet to see a gun manufacturer sue over the unlicensed use of its weapons in video games. (Although we have seen a game developer consider legal action against a gun manufacturer for making a real gun out of their fictitious firearm, another example of how the two industries feed each other.)

On the other hand, back in 2011, Bell Helicopter had no problem suing EA over the unlicensed use of its aircraft in Battlefield 3, probably because the marketing aspect isn't as valuable when your average gamer will never be in a position to go out and impulse buy a military helicopter. (It's also telling that EA felt it had to license guns in the name of authenticity, but decided a helicopter company wasn't such an important brand to have formally on board.)

Gun manufacturers know it's good business to have an industry selling power fantasies in which your product is the source of power

It strikes me as being a lot like livestreaming, a key part of the games media ecosystem built almost entirely on technical violations of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Between the letter of the law and the average streamer's inability/unwillingness to fund a legal defense, game developers and publishers could keep their games off streaming platforms almost entirely, but they've been smart enough to recognize the incredible marketing potential that comes with having an army of content creators talking about and streaming their games.

As a result, they have (mostly) looked the other way when it comes to streamers.

Gun manufacturers appear to be doing the same thing, because they know it's good business to have an industry selling power fantasies in which your product is the source of power.

And that's the key point here. The games industry isn't putting guns in anybody's hands or pulling any triggers. It's just doing its absolute best to make real-world guns and pulling their triggers really fucking fun.

If anything bad ever comes from that, who are we to blame?

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Latest comments (3)

Drew Crecente Executive Director and Founder, Jennifer Ann's Group23 days ago
We agree. Thank you for writing this.

Gun violence (as with all forms of violence) is a public health issue. And as with other public health issues, social and cultural norms can help to either prevent or perpetuate violence. These norms are especially impactful during childhood.

(For more info check out CDC's Social Ecological Model. Or UNICEF's Social Ecological Model.)

Although our charity's annual game design challenge varies in some way from one year to the next, it always includes this rule: no onscreen depictions of violence.

We realize this is a complex nuanced issue. We recognize that not all violence is equal.

But we find violence to be limiting -- in the real world and through the media we consume. Our game design challenge's "violence-free" constraint has inspired many creative, engaging games.

We'll be launching our 15th annual game design challenge this month. No violence please.

Drew Crecente
Jennifer Ann's Group
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There are many people and factors to blame for the failures in American society that has led us to become GunWorldBangBangZone.

However when it comes to this tired argument of whether gaming deserves some share of the blame, to your point: first and foremost, if a game ain't fun, nobody will want to play it. Of course they have to make it fun. Game devs and publishers are in it to make money, the primary motivation of most businesses is to make profits after all. They are giving the consumer the product they want.

I do agree with your points about marketing real-world weapon systems within games that are clearly catered toward young gamers. I don’t care that the “ESRB” has rated a game M for Mature, the game publishers are obviously pushing for that young male demographic. Avid gamers are going to want the “coolest” and “best” weapons in their games. I do not feel that real-world manufacturers and weapon designs should be in video games.

However you kind of lost me at the point where you compare gaming “authenticity” and “realism” with reality. Gaming is nothing like reality. I was in the US Army for 9 years, and while I was never in combat, let me tell you - simply laying in the prone and shooting accurately is hard enough. Just to hit a target you need to gauge the range to target, breathe properly, not jerk the trigger, etc.

Compare that to sprinting across the battle field, leaping over cover, sliding into position, taking up a sight picture and snapping off a headshot; all while wearing armor and gear, which in real life can weigh between 35-50 lbs depending on ammo and equipment you’re carrying. Video games are just not close to reality, at all.

You contradict yourself a bit on this point because in the next sentence you talk about killstreaks and headshots and scores and points… this gamification of combat is what makes it an escape from reality. This is what makes it a fun game and not harrowing combat. Most rational gamers understand they are playing a game and not a combat simulator. They understand there are no respawns. Authentic and realistic in this context are just gaming buzzwords that companies use to market their products.

If shooter games were “realistic” your character would be hit once and go down, if they get killed you would have to shut off the game and never play it again.

Game publishers typically set out to make a game that will sell well and make a profit. So they will follow the culture and what is popular at the time. Gaming and pop culture are mirrors of society.

In the case of the US I believe the gun culture rapidly accelerating can be directly connected to the (somewhat understandable) rise in militarism and nationalism in the US post-9/11. That was 20 years ago, meaning an entire generation has now grown up in that militarized ambience where it was normal for young people to routinely go off for tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and other places around the world during a “global war on terror”.

But this is not even a new thing. Decades before 9/11, before there were even video games, Hollywood and TV was right there to shove guns in our faces and tell us that good guys with guns (or rocket launchers, miniguns, laser rifles, lightsabers, etc) like Dirty Harry or Magnum PI or RoboCop will stop the bad guys and win the day with violence.

Laying the responsibility for a shooting like this, for real-world violence, on gaming culture is just another exhausting retread of this same old trope that has been dusted off and laid out after every school shooting since the media found out in that Columbine Shooters Klebold and Harris were “avid players of DOOM.”

Video games and media are reflections of what is going on in society, and while in some ways it can contribute to the acceptance of gun culture and the gun obsession in the United States, attempting to lay any blame on gamers or game makers is still out of hand when there are so many layers of responsibility to consider before blaming game designers for simply giving customers the product they want.

Game publishers and game developers definitely need to be held to task over many crappy and nefarious practices they have (predatory lootboxes, unfinished games, abusive cultures of harassment, etc), and while curbing the promotion of “realistic” guns by real-world manufacturers in games could contribute in some way to de-glorifying all this rampant gun culture, it is long past the time that we put this trope to bed about blame and causation between video game violence and real-world violence.

In actuality, every story like this is damaging; just another smokescreen and another piece of propaganda to be trotted out and pointed to in order to avoid the (real) problems and absolve those who are truly to blame. When the politicians/media/leaders can just say “See? Its violent games/movies/TV/internet, NOT guns! Even the industry insiders think so!”, then the excuse remains for them to keep ignoring the actual gun problem.

The Actual Problem seems (to me) to be multi-faceted and includes that there are too many guns in the US. It is far too easy for anybody to get a hold of them, either illegally or legally; and the people who control the means of deciding who may or may not obtain a gun are profiting off of the manufacture and sale of guns and so are disinclined to take action.

These are the challenges that we are facing in our gun-saturated society, at least from my perspective, from my little corner of nowhere. Ultimately, While I agree that gaming devs should definitely re-evaluate their relationship with weapon manufacturers and merchants, I think violent video games and other violent media is a side-effect of this violent culture, not a cause; and it’s long past the point where blaming real-world violence on fictional media is acceptable.

Thank you.
-Christopher Gill
Student/Veteran/Gamer
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Alfonso Sexto Pereyra Quality Assurance Manager, DACS Laboratories GmbH17 days ago
Nice article indeed. But leaves me a bit torn.

Here in Germany we have over 15 million guns on civilian hands, it's quite easy to get a gun and. We also have violent videogames, most of then uncensored since some years already. yet we had 4 shooting in 10 years. Still horrible, of course, but low in number compared to the US. Similar argument goes for Switzerland.

None of those requirements mean that "our freedom is taken away" means that if you want to have a gun you need to prove that you won't be a danger to others.

That is because here it may be easy to get a gun, but you are required to go through training, have a reason (you being a hunter or an active member of a shooting club) and a clean record. Also, very important: a gun owner in Germany, like every other German and EU citizen living here, has easy access to mental therapies and asistances regardless of their income. Something that the US is lacking in a horrifying way. (Really, from an external P.O.V. it's really scary)

I belive the US society, in general, needs to stop beating around hte bushes when it comes to this. Not talking about your throughs in this articles, but about the excuses that we keep hearing. if "It's not guns who kill people; people kill people" then don't blame videogames or violence in media for the killin of people. If "It's a social/mental issue, not a gun problem" then your society should not have guns. And if they want to solve those "social/mental" problems that make people collapse and go on a rampage. Stop labeling any affordable healthcare initiative as "socialism" or "paying other people's bills". What you are paying is not "other people's bill" that is your family's safety
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