What games teach us about guns vs real guns

There’s a line in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where a wizard describes a gun as “a kind of metal wand that Muggles use to kill each other.” It’s a joke in the book, another reference to the fact that wizards find Muggles and Muggle technology as mystifying as we find magic, but I found it to be an apt summation of the very serious problems we have with rhetoric around firearms in America.

Regardless of where we stand on issues surrounding firearms, we don’t much talk about guns for what they are:

Anti-gun rhetoric frequently describes firearms as terrible weapons of war, destroyers of communities and slayers of children–powerful artifacts too destructive to be controlled by the average citizen. Those who wish to own guns are painted as paranoid or selfish, and of possibly deranged mental state.

Pro-gun rhetoric, conversely, exalts the firearm as a symbol of self-reliance and rugged individuality. To own a gun is to have the power to defend your family and property from the vicious World Outside, to maintain some semblance of power against the threats and encroachments of criminals and corrupt authority. Those who wish to regulate private ownership of guns are painted as totalitarian and cowardly, with possibly tyrannical intentions.

Rhetoric around guns often sounds a lot more like discussion of the One Ring than it does reasoned debate about concrete, physical objects. Guns are neither nuclear warheads nor stalwart guardians of the helpless — they are, broadly, machines designed to launch projectiles of varying sizes at varying speeds. But due to the complex cultural relationship between American ideals of self-sufficiency, various corporate lobbies, theater and school shootings, and concerns about authoritarian control over the individual, gun rhetoric is a hotbed of angry, hyperbolic and complicated discourse.

Into this highly contested climate comes the shooter-game, including everything from Call of Duty to BioShock to Gears of War, wherein the player’s primary method of interaction with the game and its problems is through shooting things in the face. The meteoric rise of the modern military shooter, in particular, has cemented the cultural place of games-about-guns as the single most popular genre of videogame in the world. Literally millions of people have poured billions of hours into shooting virtual firearms at virtual people (and aliens and zombies). For most of these people, their time spent in Call of Duty and Gears of War will probably be their primary interaction with the concept of the firearm, and so it may be worthwhile to examine what these games teach us about the nature of guns.

Shooting a firearm in real life is a full-body experience. You have to stand just so, hold your hands out steady and focused, but relaxed enough not to shake. You align the sights with your eyes. You breathe, mentally prepare yourself for the sound and the flash and gently squeeze — not pull — the trigger. Even the smallest gun kicks up more than you would think. In most games, this whole set of actions and preparations is reduced to a single button press, occasionally two (one for aiming, and one for pulling the trigger).

Reloading is similarly abstracted. To reload a Glock 17, (a fairly common semi-automatic pistol which shows up in a lot of videogames) you press one button to release the magazine, then pull out the empty magazine, put 15 to 19 bullets back in it, one at a time, and then slide the magazine back into place, finally pulling back on the slide to load a bullet into the chamber. Granted, military and police generally carry a few pre-loaded magazines in addition to the one housed in the firearm, so such a person might not need to individually load bullets into a magazine for a while. But this still requires quickly grabbing a magazine from your belt and sliding it accurately into the gun while hopefully stowing your empty magazine somewhere so as not to leave it on the ground to be stepped on and ruined.

Reloading is even more complex with other weapons such as bolt-action rifles or belt-fed machine guns. Yet in most cases, reloading a firearm in a videogame requires only one press of a button.  Further, all of this is generally done very quickly. Videogame characters who have never handled a gun before will frequently operate and reload weapons with a speed and proficiency usually restricted to Special Forces operatives and competitive shooters. Alan Wake claims to have never fired a pistol before, yet he instinctively knows how to reload his revolver with unerring speed, and never so much as drops a bullet on the ground.

Finally, the underlying grammar of a given shooter (Press X to reload, press RT to fire) is generally identical across all of the firearms available in the game. While there are certainly differences between firing a handgun and an assault rifle in Black Ops, they are comparatively minor compared to the differences between doing so in the real world.

Now I understand that games are, by necessity, all about abstraction. Games take a collection of actions or ideas from the real world and combine them into a single operation or game element all the time. No one (who is not training to be a medic) really wants to play a game wherein the act of healing a wounded comrade takes 78 different steps and requires a working knowledge of field medicine. As QWOP shows, even the simple act of running requires a great deal of abstraction to be playable. Further, just as most able-bodied humans over the age of about five don’t have to think of running as moving a series of individual muscles, so too does a hardened soldier probably think of reloading as a single operation rather than a series of discrete actions.

But by abstracting the act of firing and reloading all guns to two button-presses, these games lose the element of physicality so present in the real-life experience of firing a gun. The controller may vibrate, and there may be some allowance made for recoil, yet by conflating the operation of a gun to two quick motions which are in turn identical across all firearms, these games portray firearm usage as both easy and unembodied. The player stops thinking of him or herself as a flesh-and-blood being operating a series of different weapons, each of which requires training in order to operate properly, and more as a mobile weapons platform gleefully playing with a variety of magic wands.

So if this is what shooter-games teach us to think about guns in the context of the game, what might this mean for how we view guns in the real world?

Any shooting instructor who is remotely responsible teaches his or her student to be careful with the gun. The usual phrase is “respect the weapon.” This is not (usually) out of some sort of idolatrous, anthropomorphic gun-worship, but because treating a firearm casually leads to treating the consequences of that firearm casually. My father-in-law, when teaching me to shoot, always advised me never to point a gun at anything I did not wish to destroy; I was taught to always act as though the gun was loaded, because one should never be dismissive of its potential for destruction. This is not because he feared I was so clumsy I might shoot someone by accident, it is because the mental state involved in handling a firearm should be one of constant awareness of what the weapon is capable of doing.

Most modern military shooter-games heavily market the authenticity of their weapons and equipment. Medal of Honor: Warfighter has an entire section on its marketing website dedicated only to descriptions and photographs of the various real-life weapons modeled in the game. The implication is clear: the marketers behind these games want you to think that this is how real warfare works, and that these are the tools used by real warriors.

The idea that these are real weapons that mimic real life is contradicted by the unembodiedness of firearms in the game. Gun usage in the modern military shooter does not foster the necessary respect for firearms. By using the same grammar as more obviously preposterous games such as Borderlands, these games teach that firearms are neat toys, magic wands to be used to “solve problems” and neutralize targets. Behind their cosmetic differences, smart-talking laser guns in Borderlands 2 and AK-47s in Call of Duty: Black Ops behave exactly the same.

This lack of respect seems to foster dissonance in both discussions of military action and civilian gun ownership. Even ignoring all the other ways the modern military shooter has little in common with real war, by ignoring the physicality of the soldier holding the gun and fostering a lack of respect for that particular gun, these games gloss over the fact that real war is fought by human beings against other human beings. Even in the most morally unambiguous of circumstances, shooting an enemy soldier causes him to fall to the ground with a piece of lead embedded in his body, tearing apart his internal organs. It’s a deeply physical and embodied experience, and decisions around if, when and where we should send American soldiers to shoot people need to be made with this in mind.

Finally, by conflating all the various types of firearms into the single, monolithic concept of the Gun (RT to fire, X to reload), these games further complicate political discourse around civilian gun ownership. Whatever your opinion on the topic (and it is not my intention here to endorse a particular mode of gun control or lack thereof), it’s manifestly true that the word Gun refers to a variety of different tools used for a variety of different purposes. There are substantial differences between civilian ownership of a .22 bolt-action hunting rifle (primarily useful for shooting squirrels), a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun (primarily useful for shooting people at relatively short range), a 5.56 mm assault rifle (primarily useful for combat operations), and a functional replica 17th-century flintlock (not useful for shooting much of anything with any degree of accuracy).

While there are various reasonable and defensible arguments to be made for which, if any, of the above weapons should or should not be be allowed in private possession, all of these arguments must acknowledge the myriad differences between these weapons, their capabilities, and the risks they pose to their owner’s neighbors.  It is one thing to own a hunting rifle, another to own a handgun designed for self-defense, and still another to own a military-grade assault weapon.

By making guns in videogames a sterile and similar experience across all types of guns and situations, we are fostering an uncritical audience unprepared for nuanced discussions of sociopolitical issues surrounding firearms and military action. This is not simply due to tired worries about “desensitization,” but because the traditional grammar of the shooter fosters no respect for the subtleties and embodied nuances of shooting and respecting firearms.


  1. Porpentine

    “The player stops thinking of him or herself as a flesh-and-blood being operating a series of different weapons, each of which requires training in order to operate properly, and more as a mobile weapons platform gleefully playing with a variety of magic wands.
    By using the same grammar as more obviously preposterous games such as Borderlands, these games teach that firearms are neat toys, magic wands to be used to “solve problems” and neutralize targets.”
    the best game about guns will be one where guns are fucking terrifying and you probably don’t even have one

    • InnerPartisan

      @Porpentine “the best game about guns will be one where guns are fucking terrifying and you probably don’t even have one”As strange as it might sound – isn’t that pretty much the case in Manhunt?

  2. yoggesothothe

    I think this article misses a key point, which is that machines are only ever made with a specific purpose in mind–we don’t create machines that do nothing.
    The specific purpose of guns is to kill.
    I think the problem here is not so much that guns are abstracted as it is that death and the value of human life are abstracted in games. Adding more interface layers to interacting with a gun in a game will simply increase the amount mechanical input required in gameplay (which usually just means more tedium)–it will not necessarily make the player “respect the gun”.
    And after all, the implicit purpose of “respect the gun” is actually “respect life”. Increasing mechanical fastidiousness (or, more cynically, fetishism) will not serve that purpose in gameplay.

    • Muddy

      @yoggesothothe I agree, the wider problem is lack of respect for human life. Here in Australia we don’t have the same gun culture as the US
      but we still see, frankly, sickening acts of violent crime. If the local media is to be believed knife crimes are on the rise, but even discounting that I’ve witnessed violent assaults first hand where packs of thugs attempt to kick in ribs and actively aim their punches and kicks at the skull of their victim, often only one person, and they don’t stop until they’ve each stuck the boot in even if the person is out cold. It’s absolutely senseless. Now I’m not saying videogames are to blame but there’s definitely a sense of desensitisation to violence in general in today’s society.
      I’ve been in a few fights in my life before (never the instigator) but have only really feared for my life once, I was mugged by a guy with a pocket knife
      If it were a videogame the situation would be laughable, what real threat could a 5cm (roughly 1.5″) blade pose? A simple QTE and I’d despatch my foe and be on my way but faced with it in real life, its indescribable really, to be faced with real, permanent death, 22 years of living ended by 5cms of metal?? Crazy.

    • amitskaw

      No, you’re wrong.  And in a really important way.  A gun is a tool for causing a weighted object to move at high speed, with acceptable precision and accuracy toward a target down range.  Most firearms in the world have been designed for military purposes and thus are expected to be used on human targets, most of the rest are hunting weapons most of which in turn can be readily adapted to the task of at shooting at human beings.  But many are not, and the distinction matters.  At the most extreme, you see things like benchrest shooting, in which the “gun” is most purely a machine, and often not even directly fired  (it is also, ironically, the shooting discipline mechanically most resembles the video game abstraction of the gun, even as those firearms would be wholly unsuitable for willfully harming a person who was not actively collaborating in that process).  Its a small subset of firearms, but it is real, and that it exists matter.
      The whys and wherefores of firearms ownership are complex, and I have different opinions depending on many of those whys and wherefores, but the object itself doesn’t come with pre-selected moral content, nor with the limitation of use or that you ascribe to it.  If you have any agenda other than crystalline moral certainty, it is important not to forget that.  If for no other reason than because comfortable simplifying certainties make for terrible policy.

      • yoggesothothe

        @amitskaw  @yoggesothothe That’s interesting that you are reading moral judgment into my comment. Putting that aside, what is the _reason_ for “causing a weighted object to move at high speed… toward a target” in the manner of a gun? Machines are not bound to singular purposes, to be sure, but the gun was invented for the specific reason of causing devastating harm, and its capacity to do so is something commonly shared by all guns. This is fairly straightforward.
        It seems to me that it is even more dangerous to discount the self-apparent intent of a machine in order to talk about how it can be used in ways outside of that intent. It does not change the fact that guns can deliver lethal force, and are specifically designed to accelerate projectiles to that level.
        But really, that was not the focus of my comment, which was in fact to consider what the changes to player experiences would be if we were to implement more interface layers to interacting with a gun in a game.
        My understanding of this article is that the author is stating that forcing the player to take more mechanical steps in the operation of a virtual gun somehow equates to that player caring more for the consequences of its uses. But QWOP does not make us care more about walking, or fear falling because of its mechanical deliberation. The same goes here: more mechanical intricacy simply increases the amount of ludic manipulation required before the goal of a ludic device can be achieved–it makes it more gamey, not more consequential.
        If a player’s intent with a gun in a game is to shoot to kill, requiring more steps in the accomplishment of that goal does not equal inducing the player to change his intent in his use of a gun. On the contrary, it often merely causes the player to give up the game entirely in frustration. It distances the player from the game, not the gun.

        • WombatofDoom42

          @yoggesothothe @amitskaw I’m not so much trying to say that adding more button-presses will fix this problem, I’m just trying to diagnose that it is a problem. I’m actually not immediately certain what a solution would look like. I will say that games like Metro 2033 and Far Cry 2, which often do require more ludicrous manipulation of firearms, did cause me to feel more as though I was operating an actual weapon rather than a magic wand, so more button-presses might help, but I expect your right that it wouldn’t completely change the player’s view of guns.
          I expect the simple truth is that it’s likely impossible to have a shooter-game which teaches proper respect for firearms using any of the traditional shooter-game grammar.

  3. BillCoberly

    @geddysciple @nitemaremodenet Yeah, that’s about right. 🙂

  4. BillCoberly

    @BRKeogh You did, but I appreciate the thoroughness. 😉

  5. BillCoberly

    @BRKeogh Heh. I can never keep all the time zones straight on Twitter– never sure who is awake when.

  6. BillCoberly

    @delta_vee Let me know what you think!

  7. BillCoberly

    @delta_vee Dammit, Raymond, you have to arrange your schedule so as to accommodate my whims, else why do you even exist?

  8. BillCoberly

    @delta_vee I’ve never heard of Receiver before! 🙁 looks interesting, what I can see.

  9. BillCoberly

    @delta_vee !!!

  10. BillCoberly

    @delta_vee Indeed. May have to give it a more thorough look!

  11. Pingback: The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

  12. Altstetten

    Snake is very conscious of gun safety in the Metal Gear Solid series:
    “Practically everyone in this game practices trigger discipline, even if they’re just using their gun to threaten each other. Snake in particular practices incredibly good gun safety much of the time: he carefully engages the safety whenever putting one rifle down, and he’s very cautious around new guns; the intro has him very gently testing a fallen rifle with his knife for booby traps (an occasional tactic used by guerrilla fighters) before picking it up; later he field-strips the M4 before actually accepting it.”
    From http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/VideoGame/MetalGearSolid4GunsOfThePatriots?from=Main.MetalGearSolid4
    This is all however, shown to the player, not done by the player.

  13. phlegethonic

    This is why I find Receiver by Wolfire Games to be so interesting, because the way you handle the firearm is as realistic as possible

    • WombatofDoom42

      @phlegethonic Yeah, several folks have pointed Receiver out to me in light of this article– I hadn’t heard of it before, but am definitely going to check it out.

  14. xantos

    I am still wondering why the fps dev’s haven’t given us an option yet for realistic trigger on the xbox/ps3… Wouldn’t it be possible to emulate the actual trigger pull on an xbox controller like the throttle in a racing game ? with no rumble until you reach the very end of your pull ? Personally I would love being able to have my finger in safety position, and actually only going live, when it matters 🙂

  15. Seyi42k

    I came across this write up from Gamasutra.com and I must say it is very apt.

  16. Eff

    I also came across your article from Gamasutra.com. The real reason I wanted to post was simply to point out how strikingly DIFFERENT combat scenarios are in the real world compared to video game make-believe. In fact, “real combat” is not at all entertaining. Typically an “enemy” is basically “that way” and you really don’t know specifically where or who they are other than the fact noise comes from that region and perhaps a muzzle flash.

    While I would never make the argument that video games PREPARE people for massacres or murder, playing first person shooters must in some fuzzy manner translate to real world ability. I shoot targets in real world (USPSA), but prior to owning a real gun, I only played games. Yet my accuracy and speed in running these courses is better — in a truly quantifiable way — than some of the gun enthusiasts at the club.

    Thanks for the interesting read

  17. Kyle Sachs

    i have seen something like this before saying video games desensitize us, but guess what, i stumble upon a graph showing the us has many less video game sales then other countries but our gun violence is the highest compared to some areas. so if war games are desensitizing the people that play em, well damn south Korea, plays star-craft a war type strategy game, but they have alot less gun incidents.

  18. Dgdr


  19. Trocha419

    I would have to say growing up I was a competitive first person shooter game player and was good. However because my parents taught me to respect others ( something culture in the us has lost ) when I trained for my conceal carry it was easy for me to translate my respect for others regardless if I like them or not and put that kind of respect towards my gun collection. And having an amazing ccw teacher who had the same views made it better. My kid who is 4 knew at the age of one to respect my collection of tools and will continued to be taught to respect others and treat all weapons be it gun knife or bow and arrow with respect. When you don’t have respect for human life of course bad decision will be made. Three is more to this gun issue then just control.

  20. Pyrokinesis

    I highly recommend the game Receiver, which is all about gun handling mechanics. It’s got 3 different guns too, the 1911, a full-auto Glock, and a revolver. It’s basically the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to modeling guns in a game.