Which gun? I wonder, as if I’m trying to judge which golf club to use. The game is Payday 2, the job is breaking into the branch office of the FBI to steal a server. My accomplices and I are not going to sneak it so we’re expecting to have to shoot an unfeasible number of FBI agents. Something without a silencer, something with plenty of ammunition, something not too heavy so I don’t get shot crossing the road back to the van… I flick between the screens for primary and secondary weapon selection, contemplating the choice, and suddenly it hits me – I have a hell of a lot of guns.
Having a lot of guns in a game isn’t a problem in itself of course, but the idea that guns are the object of desire, the thing to be collected, customised and hoarded, that’s a bit strange. In a game about crime, where you’d think guns ought to be dumped after the job, Payday 2 has you treating your weapons like a collection of Pokémon. You can even give them names.
It’s not just Payday 2 either. From the likes of the Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Rainbow Six series to online games like Destiny and Planetside 2 there are lots of games where weaponry is the focal point of the game. You play or pay to unlock new weapons, or you unlock new upgrades for weapons, or unlock a skill that makes a weapon even more deadly. You are encouraged, even obligated, to amass an arsenal of guns and to tinker with them at great length, adding new sights, new grips and even new colour schemes.
Now of course, we’re talking mostly about games in the first-person shooter (FPS) genre and so it stands to reason that the guns are the main tool that the player has to influence the world. But here I think lies the problem with games that fixate upon weapons: they tend to use the guns as a crutch to support weaker elements of the game design. Guns are in danger of becoming the Malibu Stacy’s New Hat of first-person shooters.
One game series which seems to recognise this trend is Borderlands. The Borderlands games use a system of procedural generation to create new guns on the fly, meaning that there are potentially millions of possible firearms that could crop up. Borderlands games seem more self-aware than the rest when it comes to guns, for example there are some raiders in Borderlands 2 that have built a giant temple to the arms dealer. The game trivialises guns, makes them throwaway items to be discarded or sold every few levels and replaced with new ones. Unfortunately though, while Borderlands does recognise and lampoon the way that gun culture has been embraced by games, it doesn’t actually do much about it.
This all might sound like an unintuitive line of complaint given that first-person shooters are games about shooting things from a first-person perspective. Out of all the genres this ought to be one where a fascination with weaponry might seem almost appropriate. However, a great first-person shooter, something like Doom or Half-Life 2 in single player or Counter Strike: Global Offensive in multiplayer, doesn’t need to fixate on the weaponry in order to entertain. Of course these games feature guns, but they don’t view them with that same glassy-eyed Mall Ninja adoration that you see in Payday 2 or Call of Duty. A great FPS game knows that sometimes a gun has to be feeble, sometimes it has to be a signifier of the powerlessness and the danger that the player is in. Whether that is trying to bring down a Cyberdemon with a shotgun in Doom or taking a pistol up against rifles in Counter Strike because you lost the last round and are saving your money, these games are not afraid to put you in situations where a gun feels weak. The idea that power comes from weapons can thus be subverted by clever design.
That power is the key. A term that is becoming increasingly common in talking about video games is “power fantasy”, and it sounds like something of a loaded term, a bad thing. But it really isn’t. There is nothing wrong with a power fantasy in a video game. Whatever form it takes it is still a fantasy, and it is better that such desires find an outlet in a world of pixels than people. As such there is nothing wrong with the firepower-driven power fantasy of games like Payday 2 in and of itself. However, there is a difference between a power fantasy as something that exists purely as escapism, and a power fantasy that bleeds over into real life. And it is here that the problems arise.
In recent years there have been a couple of worrying trends in US gun culture. The first is the marketing of weapons as a real-life power fantasy. It uses a certain kind of manhood as an aspiration, which can only be achieved if said man owns the right model of AR-15 rifle. Once you are The Big Man, you cannot be messed with and will rule all before you as God and the good folks at Bushmaster intended. The second trend is the way that arms manufacturers themselves have been horning in on video games in order to hawk their wares to impressionable folks who want the real life version of their favourite virtual boomstick. If you spend years infusing people with the idea that a weapon can solve their problems and then sell them a weapon, even the world’s least accurate Magic 8-Ball is going to be able to predict what comes next. It’s not because games tell people to do something and they go out and do it, nobody is that malleable, but once a culture is created it will have an effect on those within it.
Cases such as the Anita Sarkeesian talk at Utah State University which had to be cancelled after an outraged anti-feminist threatened to go on a shooting spree highlight the sort of bizarre behaviour that people who have been sold on a real-life power fantasy can indulge in. For those of us who spent years protesting the claim from some parts of the media that video games make people violent this year has been an unsettling reality check. We should always be wary when outside agents attempt to co-opt video games to service an agenda, and when that agenda is steeped in the bloody mess of US gun culture we ought to be doubly wary.