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31 May 2018

I kill for fun all the time. So why does Active Shooter upset me?

Why is a Triple-AAA game involving drone strikes okay but an independent studio depicting a school shooting horrifying to me?

By Stephen Bush

It’s a universally acknowledged truth that a video game based on a movie must be in want of essentially everything that makes playing a computer game fun, worthwhile or in any way satisfying. One of the rare exceptions to the rule is Spider-Man 2, Activision’s astonishingly good 2004 adaptation of the film of the same name. It both brought the film to console in an engaging way and had several excellent sub-plots added on, but the best part was swinging through New York and breaking up the various criminal plots that sprung up spontaneously. My preferred method of dealing with these crooks was to grab one in Spidey’s web, climb to the top of the nearest tower block, and drop them off it.

One of the guilty pleasures of video games is engaging in gratuitous acts of cruelty to the non-player characters; sometimes, as in the Grand Theft Auto series, with the full co-operation of the game’s designers, and at other times, as with the Arkham Batman adventures, against their preferences. (Arkham City is another game in which you can drop luckless criminals hundreds of feet to a grisly end, and that Batman’s visor insists that the crooks are merely “unconscious” only adds to the joy.)

One of the many reasons why Grand Theft Auto IV wasn’t as fun as the preceding games is that the passers-by all seemed to be wearing bulletproof vests. When I unload a shotgun into some blameless granny doing her shopping, I want her to die, not simply to fall over then get back up and start hitting me with a walking stick.

So why am I, and so many other gamers, so disturbed at the forthcoming game Active Shooter, a first-person-shooter by Revived Games in which you can play as a gunman making your way through a high school?

The title has been pulled from Steam, the world’s biggest distributor of PC and Mac games following public outcry. That it inevitably comes out after another year marred by school shootings in the United States is part of why people are so upset, and indeed some of those protesting are survivors or relatives of recent school shootings.

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As far as I’m concerned, the case against Active Shooter is open and shut: it feels like a crass attempt to make money on the back of tragedy, and it is causing real pain to the people involved in those tragedies.

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There’s a “but” coming, and it’s a big one. Yes, there are school shootings in the news. But there is also any number of bloody armed conflicts going on across the world and that doesn’t seem to stop the endless procession of Call of Duty-alike games in which you can shoot your way through Nonspecifistan. Right now, gangland killings of the kind I perform for fun in Grand Theft Auto are taking place in the real world, with real casualties. Yet these two franchises are among the most successful video game properties in the world.

What’s the difference? Is it just that – if the screengrabs are any guide – Active Shooter is a shonky, poorly-made game while Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are top-of-the-range titles? Or is it reflective of the same priorities that mean that the deaths of American teens in school shootings receive far greater coverage here in the United Kingdom than the Syrian Civil War, or gangland killings here at home do? Is it that I have already dehumanised the people whose deaths are depicted in those games, but the victims of Active Shooter are “like me”?