Discussing the presence of guns in games can be rather ridiculous since they are already so seemingly pervasive and central to the medium. When examining particular games, it’s almost a given that it will include guns as a key component in how the player interacts with the space they are dropped into. Genres often dictate what kind of gun-play is involved, rather than whether they are even present to begin with.
Games whether they even include guns or not are often referred to as a first-person shooter (FPS) or third-person shooter (TPS) depending on what sort of mechanics and point-of-views it utilizes. For example a FPS game such as Gone Home which doesn’t include the presence of guns is still not that far removed from games like Bioshock or Half Life in its shared interactive and spatial systems. Even if the actual object of guns are not present, the mechanics of it are still in wide abundance harkening back to the days of Super Mario Bros where Mario would shoot fireballs as a projectile when picking up a flower power-up.
Avoiding discussions about the relevancy and appropriateness of violence and/or guns in an interactive medium, it is hard to argue against the fact that its inclusion does have effects on how they are ultimately perceived. And questions of social ramifications aside, guns do provide for an interesting model for mechanics to be based off of. Much of the development drive, technologically speaking, in regards to both hardware and game engines, can be linked to making guns feel and operate in a more complex manner, ultimately making them more interactively appealing.
We have gone from the auto-aiming, no sighting, and primitive mechanics of Doom to forming complex tactical systems that see players actually using firearms more akin to how they function in real life. No longer do players simply run around in large open spaces as if playing laser-tag, rather we engage in combat with a more strategical bent. We hide behind cover and utilize an array of different firearms to do away with different threats. Players actually have to switch from seeing a wide view of their surroundings to a narrow tunnel-vision when looking down the irons or optics of a rifle.
Assets such as animations, textures, and the manner in which players ultimately relate to guns have reached an incredibly sophisticated level, to the point that players often judge games based upon how guns “feel” when shooting them in an interactive space, whether or not the sounds, reloading animations, and general effectiveness all tie in to create a sense that one is actually firing a gun. The vast market of DLC geared towards gun customization and personalization in franchises like Call of Duty are indicative of our obsession with these simulated objects.
This shift into a more realistic paradigm ultimately isn’t an analogue for the real thing. Games are at the end of the day a simulation at best, and mechanics don’t always prove the most useful when being portrayed in intricate realistic detail, as QWOP or Surgeon Simulator 2013 can attest to.
That said there is definitely a link between mechanics in games and how they ultimately reflect back onto society in regards to the expectations and perceptions of firearms in the real world. While some of this reflection is in fact quite accurate, much of it isn’t and could prove problematic for an increasingly gun-interested gaming generation largely reliant upon these simulated perceptions, and a lack of real world experience.
Mechanically firearms in games have come a long way. In the early days of Doom or Wolfenstein, players simply interacted with guns by shooting in a general direction. There wasn’t a complex system of aiming, rather shots would essentially “auto-aim” towards an enemy when the player was facing them.
Largely this was due to the simple fact that movement in this era was limited to two axes of movement. This was a period where the mouse wasn’t a common input device, with games relying solely on a keyboard for interfacing. This meant that all movement had to be mapped to keyboard keys in a manner which was still easily workable. In this setting, arrow keys simply allowed players to move left-to-right (often simply rotating in place) and forward and back. There was no interface to allow for players to tilt their head up and down, or subsequently actually aim a gun with precision.
Proceeding titles like Heretic, Dark Forces, and System Shock explored this missing third axis of movement to limited effect. While innovative in their own right, mapping the third axis to the same keyboard was more problematic then actually offering any semblance of increased freedom. If anything the added complexity was often more limiting to ease of play, making a seemingly primitive game like Doom immediately more appealing.
It wasn’t until the mouse was finally utilized as a “free-look” interface with Bungie’s Marathon and Quake in 1996 that this third axis was naturally and fluidly explored with complete freedom. Moving the basic movement keys to W, A, S, and D while introducing strafing and using the mouse to aim and look (or two analog sticks on consoles) finally became a standard that hasn’t really been challenged to this day. Future titles like Halo or Call of Duty mechanically speaking followed these basic systems, just as nearly every other major FPS franchise out on the market.
In conjunction with the free-look of the mouse, this created a wide degree of freedom in regards to how players could ultimately interact with their spaces. Not only could one do complex patterns of actions like jumping while running while simultaneously spinning 180 degrees, it allowed for the actual aiming of guns while still engaging in spatial movement.
Players could drive vehicles or simply be running across a space while aiming down iron sights and targeting specific enemies, even going so far as to target specific points of anatomy to ensure a more effective hit. Auto-aiming was largely a thing of the past at least in the scope of first-person shooters and PC gaming.
Despite this, the standard movement system of shooting still has large flaws dependent on the limits of its current interfaces. Look and aim are bound together so that when players look in a certain direction, they are also aiming their gun in that same direction. While solely in the context of shooting this isn’t really an issue, it does have limits in replicating real world behavior and outside the combat-specific interactions.
There isn’t any obvious method for example to aim a gun at the ground to keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction when talking to an NPC that isn’t hostile. While there is often a “holster” key or action, this isn’t exactly the same thing nor does it rectify the larger issue of these two actions being bound together.
With the Oculus Rift and current VR technology, look and aim have finally become separated. For example, one can be shooting at an enemy in front of them and then look quickly to the left or right without pausing or moving the direction of their aim. This technology though is still far from being standardized but does provide a clear method in elaborating upon movement mechanics.
Taking a step back in time and also asking an obvious question, one might wonder why in the context of properly interfacing shooting, do we not simply make a controller that resembles a firearm more closely? And the obvious answer to this is that it has already been done, whether that be in Duck Hunt with the NES Zapper or going to your local arcade back in the day to play Time Crisis 2 or House of the Dead.
While these interfaces allowed for players to more properly simulate actually holding a gun-like object whilst aiming and shooting, it limited the potential for other systems of play. Popular arcade titles like those already mentioned only allow for the mechanics of shooting solely. Players couldn’t freely move around in their spaces like in Doom or Halo for example, rather were guided along like on a roller-coaster through a series of shooting galleries.
The issue with the “gun” interface is actually a simple one when considering it in a quantitative manner. A keyboard offers about 100 unique keys all of which can be bound to separate actions. While obviously our left hands don’t have enough digits to properly address all of those at the same time, it is quite easy for the index, ring, and middle finger to handle movement, crouch, sprint, reload, weapon selection, and a few other interactions in close proximity to WASD. And in addition our thumbs can rest on the spacebar to jump. Adding in the mouse, both hands can interface in a very complex manner. On controllers while this interface has been streamlined, we still have access to a similar wide set of keys in easy reach.
With the gun interface, both hands hold the gun which typically only has one key, the trigger. And this one key only performs one action and that is to shoot. This typically means the interface ends there but even considering a game like Time Crisis which introduces a pedal to allow players to hide and/or pop out of cover or even Police 911 which actually allowed players to use their whole bodies to dodge or hide behind cover, there isn’t much room left for expansion. Even Time Crisis with its added pedal had to resort to using the same interface to reload the gun, since it wasn’t as if they could have made players drop magazines to insert a new one, when the gun controller was one solid piece of plastic. Also hypothetically, where would the spent magazines go, as well as where would fresh ones come from? Especially considering one would likely reload hundreds of times in a single session.
While a sophisticated gun interface could potentially allow for complex weapon manipulations like one might see in an Art of the Dynamic Magpul video, such aspects of real world concern have never been attempted. The problematic nature of mag dropping and reloading has already been made clear, but manipulations of the slide or other mechanisms like the hammer, safeties, or slide catch have rarely been attempted on these interfaces. From a development standpoint, these exclusions might seem arbitrary but by this same logic, other seemingly realistic inclusions such as a reciprocating slide would fall under this same scrutiny but are still standardized at least in the realm of arcade machines.
Ultimately, shooting, at least in the context of being present with other systems of play, must be one that needs to exist with the more generalized interfaces of a keyboard or controller. While there are definite benefits to the “gun” interface, it provides more issues then it solves. And this reliance upon a non-conforming interface is what ultimately leads to a loss of translation between the two objects, but also some clever innovation in how to sufficiently replicate certain aspects in a convincing manner.
A generalization of mechanics.
While mechanics often aim to realistically transcribe real world actions into its system, this isn’t always possible given the obvious differences between the generalized interface of a controller or keyboard and mouse and the interfaces of its real world object such as a gun. And the problem is exponentially worse when one interface needs to be able to translate into various types of firearms, all with different types of actions and functional placement as well as the multitude of other spatial and interactive systems there are to address such as movement or general back-end play.
Receiver, with its almost QWOP-like detail, shows that it’s not as simple as merely mapping every function of a real world firearm onto a keyboard as this would make interaction way too complicated and confusing. But the manner in which the nature of guns gets simplified in most mainstream games is equally problematic.
When just taking a look at handguns in games, generally speaking, they all fire like striker-fired Glocks with no external safeties. Meaning, once you pull the gun out of your holster, it’s ready to fire, given a round is chambered. And the trigger pull on that first round and any other round is exactly the same.
In reality, this is completely inaccurate. Many handguns will have everything from external safeties, decockers, and other actions to deal with. A double-action/single-action for example has a much longer initial pull since it is performing two actions while each proceeding shot will have a lighter trigger pull.
And none of this is taken into account when simply drawing a weapon from a holster, which is typically automated by a press of a key or the scroll of a mouse wheel in games. In the real world, drawing a gun under stress is quite possibly one of the most difficult aspects to train for. One has to worry about drawing it safely and quickly, but also in a manner that is effective. CCW holders and law enforcement officers have to deal with when to put their finger on the trigger during the draw as well as dealing with any additional actions before they can begin to fire. For example, whether the safety needs to be disengaged or whether the slide needs to be racked to chamber a round.
When finally coming to pulling the trigger, again the action is nearly automatic in games. Simply hitting a key will initiate the action and if you are on target, you hit on target. Sniper Elite V2 attempted to make pulling the trigger a bit more daunting and realistic by including a breathing mechanic. While admirable, it still doesn’t take into account aspects such as flinching, heeling, or not pulling the trigger straight back which would all result in throwing off the bullet’s trajectory.
What has become common over the years though is a shift away from simply firing and the standardized requirement of right clicking or hitting a key on a controller to actually look down the iron sights of a gun, scope, or red dot. Typically, firing without sighting (firing from the hip) is still an option but at reduced accuracy. While this mechanic has both changed the pace of the more chaotic days of games like Unreal Tournament and seemingly shifted towards slower paced realism, it hasn’t properly addressed the real world difficulty or applications of these various sighting objects or mannerisms.
Red dots, which have become extremely common in games like Call of Duty, which often actually indirectly advertise real world products like EOTechs, have yet to simulate the benefits of actually using one such as retaining depth perception, situational awareness, or not having to line up a front and rear sight. And looking at the fine aim mechanics of iron sights, typically there is little to no stutter or movement allowing for perfect shots at great distances when in reality, holding and lining up sights is something that takes practice, and even being off a little can have drastic results, even out to 7 yards, when considering the limited sight radius of most handguns. And particularly with irons, depth of field and the correct point of focus is often never portrayed. A correct sight picture has the shooter focusing on the front sight post with the target blurry but in games, often both sights as well as the target are all in focus to retain its stunning visuals instead of obscuring them.
And guns, like any machinery, fail often and suffer from a wide range of issues in the field. A gun might fail to eject a round and “stove-pipe” rendering it inoperable until the issue is addressed. Far Cry 2 played around with this idea by introducing wear conditions to weapons, where a heavily-worn weapon would often jam and completely fail. As a mechanic, it was largely debatable on how well it worked. By most accounts, it seems popular player opinion found it mostly annoying and unnecessary. However, while I found the implementation flawed, the idea was novel and did in fact aid in creating tension when in combat and subsequently incentivizing players to actually keep weapons in good working order.
None of this is to say that this type of complexity should or shouldn’t be addressed in future development, rather that a generalization does in fact occur and it is largely unavoidable. Ultimately, interfacing is a balancing act where developers have to pinpoint that certain sweet spot where the complexities of its systems are robust enough to be engaging and immersive, but also not so convoluted that performing certain actions can become somewhat of a chore.
Military simulator Arma III provides several examples of added complexity actually working in the game’s favor. Bullet drop plays a factor but unlike the exaggerated and rather unrealistic ballistics of Sniper Elite V2, Arma III largely tackles it in a realistic manner that doesn’t introduce elements of artificial difficulty or annoyance. Bullets actually arc instead of traveling in straight lines and lose velocity over distance and through mass. The bullet drop is also calculated upon real data and the general U.S. Marine standard of zeroing to 300m. Meaning a shot at 300m will hit where one aims, while a shot at 100m will be about 5in high, and at 200m 7in high.
As a game mechanic, this achieves several things. Primarily, it allows players to actually get a sense of the real effective distances of bullets. But secondly, and in the context of gameplay, it incentivizes players to not go for headshots like what one might do in a session of Counterstrike or other competitive titles, and rather to aim for center-mass. While I doubt this was the direct intention of Bohemia Interactive, this does make it more likely that players will disengage from the tradition of treating gun-play as more of an achievement-based bragging competition, and rather more akin to its real world analogues of war. A shot needs to be carefully considered and isn’t a means to merely complete a challenge, rather a choice that takes careful thought.
And the act of killing in Arma III feels seemingly detached and unengaging. Most combat occurs over a long distance, prone in the grass in a stationary position. It’s completely uncharacteristic of the sort of gunplay video games have set forth that it does seem a bit jarring to unfamiliar players. In this manner, Arma III by realistically portraying the mechanics and physic of shooting, ironically and most likely intentionally creates a cohesive form of play that isn’t solely focused on skillful shooting. Rather it promotes the play of tactically thinking through how to approach certain scenarios, not as a game, but rather as an actual mission of war that sees the player not simply seeing the “unlimited” lives of the player and his squadmates as simply expendable.
On the other hand, this also doesn’t mean this type of complex gameplay inclusion is right for every setting. A franchise like Call of Duty, for example known for its fast-paced action and Hollywood backdrops, wouldn’t benefit from a system of play that promoted players to not engage in what would amount to reckless behavior in real life. It’s a game that ultimately works on getting players to actually run into gunfire and engage in maneuvers wholly unfitting the seemingly dangerous positions they are thrust into. It’s an experience more about getting one’s heart racing then dealing with the armchair strategizing of the Arma series.
Generalization though does lead to false assumptions or perceptions about the effectiveness or function of a simulated object’s real world counterparts. Firearms are simply not as easy to operate as games would have one believe.
Ultimately, the generalized mechanics of games holds the definite potential for creating a perception that is wholly unsafe in regards to the real world. Games never have players dealing with disengaging safeties or participating in any of the common safety practices such as checking to see whether a gun is loaded when handling, or keeping their finger off the trigger when not intending to fire.
It’s completely common, for example, to see characters walking around with a rifle in hand with their finger on the trigger into populated areas where a bit of exposition or narrative development can take place outside the scope of killing enemies. And such common practices like keeping a gun pointed in a safe direction at all times is never a concern in these interactive situations. Often, characters, instead of keeping their firearms in a safe direction, will use them as pointing devices, aiming them at each other without care. While games often prevent a player from actually shooting or killing friendly NPCs, it will just as often do nothing to prevent them from pointing their gun or even firing to kill them such as with Half Life or Dishonored.
Outside the scope of gameplay.
The ultimate effect of utilizing a generalized interface to address a rather complex set of actions is that this set of actions then become generalized itself in order to compensate. Generalization isn’t necessarily a bad thing since nearly every system in games is defined by it, whether that be shooting or simply walking around a space with a character’s legs. As QWOP has already shown, it’s no longer fun or even playable when the game turns over control to the player to the extent that it requires the player’s input in regards to the motions of every individual muscle in a runner’s legs in order to run down a track. What is normally intuitive in reality, becomes an abstract puzzle where simply taking a single step forward without falling flat on one’s face becomes a challenge.
That said, generalization, especially when it comes to something like firearms or guns, is a bit troubling since it simplifies their nature to an extent that could ultimately lead to unsafe perceptions. Outside the scope of mechanics or gameplay, characters are often never participants in safe gun practices. They often sweep the muzzle carelessly around pointing it at characters they would not want to hurt, and more importantly, hold guns with their finger clearly on the trigger.
To someone unfamiliar with handling firearms, this might seem like a non-issue or making something out of nothing, but it is literally the first thing everyone learns when being handed a firearm.While this might all seem a bit overly critical of the mechanics, since at the end of the day, generalization to a certain degree is unavoidable, other mechanics don’t seemingly suffer in the same troublesome manner. Driving a car has typically been very comparable to its real world counterpart, even allowing players to control dashboard elements like a radio, head lights, or honking a horn. Consuming alcohol in GTA IV causes the player to have extreme difficulty in operating a vehicle and could attract the attention of police officers on duty. Games like Mafia II or Eurotruck Simulator 2 even have speed limits that players needed to obey unless they want to attract the attention of cops or receive fines.
Ultimately, while a player could and probably would engage in irresponsible driving within these listed games, the mechanics still have an underlying understanding of it being separate from its real world counterpart and even simulating, to an extent, the ramifications of not having proper conduct on the road.
Where guns are concerned, this is an attitude that simply hasn’t been present at all, and it’s a bit perplexing given the rampant fervor of recent years following Sandy Hook and other shootings that have had gun control advocates challenging the SCOTUS rulings of District of Colombia v. Heller that affirmed notions of the 2nd amendment applying to individuals’ rights to keep and bear arms.
Regardless of where one falls in the gun control debate or even for those uncaring about this issue, it seems expected that the general sentiment should be that guns should be portrayed in a way that reflects proper handling instead of mannerisms of ignorant dangerous behavior. Or at the very least, work to demystify these objects so that they no longer become appealing as objects of mass destruction.
There is no denying that we are a culturally gun-obsessed nation, and across all segments of the population whether that be in ridiculously generalized terms, the supposed gun-hating liberal or the gun-loving conservative. While only one half of the population does indeed engage in the thriving market of buying/selling and shooting of real guns, we all in either case promote and take part in their frequent usages in media whether that be the next Hollywood blockbuster or the next AAA video game release.
And the popularity of YouTube personalities such as FPSRussia or FreddieW who owe much of their success to the exploitative usage and display of guns clearly shows how much we at least love seeing them in action regardless of individual thoughts on their legalities. Not to mention, the growing interest among young gamers into owning and shooting real guns, at least here in the States.
FPSRussia is particularly interesting since it was initially started by a YouTuber covering games like Call of Duty, to display the differences in firearms from video games to real life. FreddieW as well often produced videos centered upon gun play, much of which was directly or at least partially inspired by their portrayals in video games like Max Payne or Call of Duty.
But the popularity of these YouTube celebrities isn’t solely indicative of the United States given their global reach. And nations like Japan that have an extremely low percentage of guns and a standing military are just as gun-obsessed as us, at least if their media is any indicator. Mangas like Upotte! even go so far as to anthropomorthize guns into characters, and many others glorify their usage to the same extent that Hollywood has done, such as Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, or Ghost in the Shell. While real gun ownership is near impossible in Japan, the sport and hobby of airsoft is extremely popular, which just boils down into replicating the real thing. And “gun tourism” in places like Hawaii is a thriving market that allows Japanese tourists to visit ranges and shoot guns, something they are not able to do in their home country.And there are gun enthusiasts elsewhere around the world, such as seen with Polenar Tactical or Instructor Zero. Even in the supposed gun-free sanctuary of the United Kingdom, where centerfire semi-automatic rifles are banned, the gun community there has found ways around it. The recent reveal of the VZ58 MARS from Caledonian Classic Arms modifies the semiautomatic VZ58 into a rifle where the bolt locks back after every shot, and pulling the trigger both fires and closes the bolt thus rendering it technically not semi-automatic. This is in the same spirit as the many legal gun-owners in California who still own semi-automatic centerfire rifles such as the AR-15 or AK47 with the usage of bullet buttons or going the “featureless” route that avoid the banned “evil” features that would normally define them as illegal assault weapons.
And given the global reach of media and video games, it’s no surprise that other nations are now sharing in our obsession with guns. With the advent of game interfaces quite possibly taken its next big leap, it might be wise to consider how developers approach the ways in which mechanics reflect onto perception more carefully.
This isn’t to say at all that guns in games are a bad thing in the slightest, rather it would simply be nice if my player character can keep his or her finger off the trigger once in a while. Because whether one like it or not, gamers will ultimately get interested in guns through their depictions in games, and some of them will definitely pursue owning and shooting them. The least we could do is not create false perceptions to skew these individuals from being in dangerous situations. But then again if supposed gun control leaders/experts like CA Senator Dianne Feinstein aren’t even aware of how to safely handle a firearm, I guess it might be too much to ask from game developers who aren’t formally in a position to push for accurate portrayals.