One of the fundamental features of many games’, even many genres’, design is guns and gun warfare.
In gaming, a form of media limited only by our own skill and imagination, for some, almost inexplicable reason, we have settled on guns as our favourite medium for advancing a game forward. They do this through being our favourite gaming weapon, to the point where very few people (outside of worried parents) notice the association between guns and gaming at all.
Of course “almost” is the key word here in the phrase “almost inexplicable reason”, and if you will let me, I’d like to try and get down the bottom of this gun obsession, if not once and for all, then at least in part.
My first exposure to shooters must have been when I was in about year eight or nine of school, so about twelve or thirteen years old. Invited over to my friend Oliver While’s house, we spent several hours messing about on his PS2 and in his room on his computer. Then Ollie made the decision to introduce me to something that he had been going on about for months and months – an online shooter entitled War Rock.
Now remember this as back in the days when broadband was the exclusive right of the upper-middle class and it still took ten minutes to buffer a three minute YouTube video, so, as you can imagine, War Rock wasn’t the prettiest nor the fastest of games. However, it ran speedily enough to play and get a feel for the weapons and playstyle. Through it I was introduced to the genre of gaming we know and love (or in some cases hate) as FPS.
Since then I have played so many games with guns that I have begun to lose count. There was Global Agenda, a shooter MMORPG, Call of Duty 4, the classic FPS, Uncharted, the ultimate in 3rd person shooter (at the time anyway) and many, many more.
The question I want to come back to though, is why. Why was it necessary for so many of these games to contain so many guns?
The most basic and often assumed answer (here in good old Blighty, at least) is ‘The Americans.’ The argument goes that ‘The Americans’, with their love of the 2nd Amendment to their constitution, see guns as symbols of hope and freedom. Not only are guns a familiar object to them (because of course every American has a whole stash of guns) but they are something incredibly patriotic.
While there may be some truth in this (in that America invented FPS and produces far more of them than any other country in the world) the stereotype of gun-toting Americans cannot ultimately explain why guns feature so heavily in video games. After all, for a feature to essentially work it has to be something more than a symbol to those who create it; it has to, in a very real sense, work. Otherwise I’m sure American games would also heavily feature American flags as weapons, something just as patriotic and everyday as a gun, yet they don’t.
Another argument that could (and is) be presented is that of lazy game design. After all, guns take a lot less animation work than something like a lightsabre and take a lot lower toll on the processing power of the machine running their game than, say, a whip, as bullets don’t need to be actually generated. Just point and click and your enemy goes down.
And you know what? Up until this week I would have agreed with that statement 100% of the way.
However, as of this last week I have spent my time under the cruel task master Ed, writing a preview for Max Payne 3. From this game alone it is clear that the lazy design theory falls down. You see, in creating Max Payne 3, Rockstar gaming have not only made THOUSANDS of animations to allow even Max’s gait to be altered by each and every gun he wields, but they have gone to the trouble of rendering in each and every bullet, just so that their new bullet time feature can work properly. Whatever you accuse Rockstar of, it certainly cannot be laziness.
So what are we left with then? What is it that so attracts studios towards guns to the point where they even feature heavily in RPG games like Fable 2?
I see the answer as lying in three fundamental axioms of gaming: immersion, challenge and fantasy.
You see, of the many core elements of gaming these three are highly key and they are all embodied in guns.
Firstly then, how are they key?
Well, at the heart of gaming you need a challenge. If a game is not challenging then it is essentially not a game, it is merely a task. It is why I would question whether or not Passage is a game or not. While interesting, it is ultimately just pressing one of two buttons and so provides no real challenge for a player. For a game to be a game there must be a challenge to overcome because we, as human beings, love a good challenge.
However, challenge alone is not enough to make a great game. If a game is to be really enjoyed, broadly speaking, it must also encompass fantasy. Fantasy allows you to experience escapism in your gaming. The very reason people sit down to play games is not to contemplate the world around them but to have fun and often the best way to have fun is to not dwell on your everyday situation. Instead we prefer to pretend we are experiencing something way out beyond our everyday reach. This exactly is why children enjoy playing make believe so much; odd as it sounds, it is more fun to be someone you’re not as it empowers you to overcome challenges in ways that you never could in real life.
We don’t want to be too far removed from life though, hence immersion. If a game is too wacky and out there, beyond the realms of our imagination, then we simply don’t understand it. There must be some, just a few, key elements of realism for proper immersion. Whether you have a piece of plastic resembling a guitar, a jolly fat plumber who might live down the road from you, or a gun, an anchor in reality is a part of a game you as a gamer can latch onto. In the same way that the more a lie is made up of truth the easier it is to believe, if a game has key realistic elements then it becomes more believable and so immersive. This makes the fantasy aspect of a game all that more believable and you are free to indulge and enjoy a challenge all that much more.
From these pieces of the gaming pie, shooters thrive.
Guns in games provide a challenge. It takes skill to be good at an FPS. It is incredibly rare that someone will pick up a first person shooter and instantly be good at it. Back when I was playing War Rock for the first time with Ollie I sucked at it, and in a big way. That was okay as it provided a challenge for me to over come. On top of that it allowed me to indulge in a fantasy. When was I ever going to get to run into war with a gun in order to protect my country and beliefs? Hopefully no time soon, but all the same playing that scenario out as a fantasy was fun, not in the least because it was (and is) a situation that I could end up in, albeit it a rather unlikely one. This, of course, lead onto a sense of immersion. The realism of shooters like War Rock is just enough to pull me in and convince me, in some deep, dark corner of my head, that they might just be real.
Consequently, the reason why I ultimately believe guns are used so often in games is that they contribute greatly towards what essentially makes a good game good.
Despite this I would still not advocate more gunning games!
In my head it boils down to one reason.
The purpose behind using guns in games is that they fill three very specific devices that help games tick over. However, in choosing to express these devices in such a formulaic way, time and time again games developers are limiting themselves to a set of constraints that need not be there.
As I wrote at the start, game design is meant to be limited only by the game designer’s imagination and skills – if all that imagination and skill is being applied to merely new ways of using guns then they have, quite frankly, missed the point.
Shooters are fun, that I will not deny. Unfortunately, if that is as far as the games industry is willing to go, then whole new challenges, realms of fantasy and depths of immersion that are just waiting to be created may never see the light of day.
And that is just sad.