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Interacting With Virtual Guns

Video games have given me quite a few ideas about guns over the years. As it turns out, most of them are probably wrong.

I don't own any guns, I don't go hunting, and I've never been to a gun show. Playing with a BB gun is the closest I've ever come to firing a real gun.

When it comes to virtual guns, it's a whole different story. I've taken down entire squadrons with a sniper rifle. I can differentiate a rifle from a submachine gun with a quick glance. I'm adept at handling everything from advanced artillery installations to vintage World War II pistols.

Or at least I like to fool myself into thinking this. In reality, I'm quite disconnected from the basic realities of guns. My knowledge is mostly confined to surface level observations that ignore the mechanical and social dynamics of the firearms simulated in most games. Thanks to a couple of gun-focused games and an excellent piece of gun-focused journalism, I realize now that I haven't given this blindspot enough attention. Granted, simply recognizing a blind spot is only the first step in correcting it, but you have to start somewhere.

The guns in Far Cry 3 are not so much firearms as they are extensions of your vision and your virtual body. They point in whatever direction you look and are always ready to fire. They are reloaded with the push of a button. They can literally be purchased from vending machines and are ready to use instantly. Guns in Far Cry 3 are meant to be taken for granted. The moment that Jason (the game's protagonist) picks up a gun, you (the player) know how to use it. You point, you shoot, you reload, and you do it all again without thinking about it too much because you've probably played dozens of these types of games before. Jason theoretically changes as the story goes on, but the reality is that he starts out being as proficient a killer as the player's skills allow, which in most cases is pretty damn efficient.

Granted, this is the way most games handle guns, which makes Receiver such a jarring experience. Originally developed during a game jam by Wolfire Games, Receiver puts the mechanics back into shooting. It takes place in a first person view, but it takes away all the conveniences that have been built up around virtual guns over the decades. The gun must be manually brought up to eye level and aimed, reloading is a multistep process that involves removing, refilling, loading, and then arming the gun. You have to check that the safety is turned off, that the hammer has been locked, and that you have a bullet in the chamber. At times it feels like going through a pre-flight checklist in a flight sim, as a mistake at one step can cause a cascade of failures.

Receiver illustrates that, despite the artistic verisimilitude of guns in games like Far Cry, most games gloss over the systemic nature of shooting. Guns aren't designed like hammers; they're machines that must be operated correctly in order to function as intended. A realistic facade often hides a process no more sophisticated than a pen and a rubber band. As most games erase the mechanics of shooting, they disconnect us from the reality of firearms. For a novice like myself, most of my knowledge about guns comes from media like video games and is therefore built on concepts completely removed from reality. Games might teach you what guns look like or what they're named, but any attempts at simulating what it's actually like to operate them usually takes a back seat to branding.

As Simon Parkin points out over at Eurogamer, this fixation on imagery is no coincidence. Gun manufacturers like Barrett Rifles speak candidly to Parkin about their interest in licensing their products to video game companies: "Video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners" ("Shooters: How Video Games Fund Arms Manufacturers," Eurogamer, 31 January 2013). All those realistic looking guns that we see in games feed into a larger economy encompassing the sale and marketing of weapons.

Just as the idea that a gun must be manually reloaded is a simple one, so too is the idea that gun makers aren't simply lending their product to video games out of the goodness of their hearts. They're getting paid, and they're getting positive exposure in the process. Parkin's interviews with manufacturers and young gun fans suggest that this carefully orchestrated marketing technique is a powerful one. If the guns look and sound real, they're more attractive to potential customers. If they're only used by the heroes in Call of Duty, all the better.

Cue an internal montage in which I flash back to the past two decades that I've spent playing with virtual guns. Not only have I been disconnected from the realities of fire arms, I've been ignorant of the larger economic forces behind the virtual guns that I'm using. How much of the money that I've spent on games ended up with arms manufacturers that went on to reinvest it marketing attempts? How much have the years of point-and-shoot gameplay influenced my perception on guns and their ease of use? The answer to both questions is probably "a lot."

All of this isn't to say that I'll never buy another game with simplified shooting mechanics or licensed guns. I think there are artistic reasons to be interested in both of those things. In this case, I think mindfulness goes a long way. I'll try to keep a healthy respect for the genuine article by reminding myself that the things that look like guns in Far Cry 3 actually have more in common with with magic lightning bolts or futuristic death rays than with real-world weapons. Similarly, remembering that product placement rarely occurs in a vacuum will hopefully make me more aware of how I spend my money and what games I recommend, especially when young folks are involved.

Photorealistic graphics, accessible gameplay systems, and the fuzzy line between verisimilitude and product placement form a strange paradox in terms of how we interact with simulated firearms. They may feel natural, easy to use, and at home in a game's world, but virtual guns have never been more carefully hidden under layers of abstraction.

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