The Parkland massacre — and, more accurately, the media-driven Astroturf anti-gun push that’s followed it — has prompted all manner of earnest self-reflection on the the part that firearms play in American culture and entertainment. And perhaps no form of mental masturbation is more gun-drenched than the video game industry.
It’s the gnawing embarrassment and existential angst at the fun he finds in playing games like Call of Duty: WWII and Destiny that has prompted Kotaku editor-at-large Kirk Hamilton to peck out a 6700-word navel-gazer on what it is about gun games that give him such guilty pleasure.
Not having grown up around guns, Hamilton seems amazed at the level of interest in and extensive knowledge about guns he’s developed as a result of the man-years he’s spent holding an Xbox controller. But he goes to great pains to express his displeasure with America’s love affair with them and the lack of strict gun laws regulating their ownership and use.
Being an American means spending every day under a shroud of gun-inflicted cultural trauma. Being an American who plays video games often means spending one’s downtime in a virtual space where people gleefully shoot one another without a second thought. There is a natural tension between those two experiences, a tension millions of us reconcile every day. Most of the time we don’t even think about it. Being a human being—American, gamer, or otherwise—means spending every day navigating the tensions between all sorts of conflicting systems and ideologies. Even the most tenuous balancing acts can become unconscious.
Oh, the existential contradictions! No gun culture 2.0 for this guilty gamer. He clearly holds out for a future in which we’ll eventually see the error of our ways. One in which, one day, we come to our collective senses and swear off our desire to own and shoot guns. And eat meat, too.
I think of how I nod along with my vegan or vegetarian friends when they explain the morality behind their dietary choice. I consider the affection I feel toward my girlfriend’s dog, a lovable little dope who would probably lose an IQ comparison with any random pig pulled off the line at a factory farm. I imagine a far-flung future where my nieces’ children ask me, “Uncle Kirk, did people seriously used to eat meat? Like, they’d kill and consume living, intelligent animals? And everyone was just okay with that?”
But, God help me, I still like hamburgers.
Well yeah. Because they’re delicious. In much the same way that guns — both real and virtual — are fun. Not to mention useful tools for recreation, personal defense, and putting some of that yummy, juicy animal flesh in the freezer and on your table.
But that doesn’t mean a modern, intersectionally aware male won’t feel justifiably conflicted about the contradiction of the rush he gets from playing FPS games and the socially aware better angels of his delicate nature.
As an example of the deep contradictions at play in Kirk’s life, there’s the profound unease he feels after watching a YouTube vid, trying to improve his sniping skills in one of his favorite video games. He can’t believe how he just spent the last eleven minutes of his life.
For a moment, I reflect on what I’m actually doing, and what he’s actually teaching. He’s telling me how to make sure I put my sight on my enemy’s head, so that the bullet I fire will hit him there. He’s giving me helpful tips to be better at virtually killing people.
But dammit, he just can’t help himself!
And here’s the thing: it feels really good to virtually kill other players—or robots, or aliens, or whatever—in Destiny! All of the guns in Destiny and its sequel feel great to use, to the point that “gun feel” is one of the most oft-cited reasons people like playing the games.
We’ll spare you much of the rest. Such as Hamilton’s talk with a a cop friend who helpfully recounts how different it is to fire a real handgun. And how disturbing the effect of gunfire is on the human body here in meatspace compared to the sanitized, 2D version Hamilton sees on his TV screen when he smokes a Nazi zombie. Who’d a thunk it?
Kirk makes sure to profess his deep disbelief that guns in video games have anything to do with what the Nikolas Cruzes and James Holmes of the world decide to do.
And he lets us know that some video game developers have come to their socially conscious senses, swearing off guns in their latest creations. He apparently takes some solace in the fact that only 38% of the games currently installed on his computer are “gun games.”
But given these games’ grip on him, Hamilton apparently has only one real hope for redemption: the gradual onset of “bullet fatigue.”
I still play a lot of gun games, but I sense my preferences changing as the years go by. I no longer go out of my way to play Call of Duty games, and, like Remo, increasingly find games with a gunfire-dominated soundscape exhausting. When I play Battlefield1, I treat it more like an intense, meditative type of war-reenactment than anything fun or empowering. I’m repulsed by the glorified black-ops shenanigans in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, despite how invigorating the game could be, were it somehow divorced from its narrative context. Slowly but surely, I can feel the number of shooting games I like shrinking as my preference for non-gun-games grows. I sometimes wonder if there will be a breaking point, something that makes swear off gun-games forever. It’ll probably be a while yet.
It’s a process, Kirk. It’s a process.
Over the past month, the seemingly intractable American gun control debate has been kicked loose with a ferocity I’ve never before seen. Spurred by the resonant, furious voices of teen survivors of the Parkland shooting, hundreds of thousands of people marched last weekend in Washington and around the world to protest our government’s unwillingness to implement meaningful gun control. I want to hope that this time is different, without feeling like I have to wrap that hope in a hundred layers of jaded insulation. I want to believe that this time, something might actually change.
Perhaps there’s still hope for us all. Until then, Far Cry 5 is calling your name….