Thursday, February 21, 2013

Interacting With Virtual Guns

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters I write about a topic I know almost nothing about: guns.

Over the last week or so, I've experienced a mini Dunning-Krueger phenomenon when it comes to virtual firearms. At the risk of getting overly "meta," it's not that I was simply ignorant, it's that I didn't know what I didn't know.

Things started to come into focus as I played Far Cry 3 and Receiver concurrently. Both games are about shooting things with guns, but they are extremely different in their approaches. Far Cry puts a premium on visual fidelity and sound quality, but all of its exotic weapons function in the same basic way: there's a button to look down the sights, a button to shoot, and a button to reload. All these actions can be performed independently from each other at any time and require very little practice to execute properly. Receiver goes in the opposite direction by simulating the multistep process that is wielding a gun. Your gun doesn't just bob at the center of your field of view; it must be leveled and aimed. Reloading and arming your weapon is a manual process of switching out magazines and chambering rounds, a process that's easy to screw up if you skip steps or do them out of order. It's a painful learning curve, but a great demonstration of how the mechanical process of shooting has been simplified to an extreme level of abstraction, even in games that aspire to a high level of realism.

The second part of the column focuses on the larger social forces around video game guns. Simon Parkin's excellent Eurogamer piece on how gun manufacturers license their products to game companies made perfect sense after I read it: why wouldn't gun makers capitalize on the chance to make some money while also getting a great advertising opportunity? The embarrassing thing is that I simply hadn't given the topic that much thought until this point. Everything from soda to cars gets licensed for games, so why wouldn't guns? Everyone draws their own moral lives in different places, but I don't think I'm alone in feeling uncomfortable that I've been funding assault rifle companies with my gaming dollars.

So what is the point of all this? I'm not the biggest fan of exploratory pieces that offer little in the way of resolution. But if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I'm not sure what the next step should be. I'll definitely be more aware of how abstracted the shooting is in most games, even if they look realistic. Maybe some trips to the shooting range to get a better understanding of how guns realistically work are in order? As for the relationship between arms manufacturers and publishers, I'm not quite ready to write off all military shooters, but I'll be more careful about the ones I recommend and fund.

As a side note, Simon's article is exactly the kind of writing about games we need: the kind that makes established players in the industry uncomfortable. Publishers want people to post recycled press releases, rumors about new games, and even controversial or tasteless ad campaigns. It's all part of the marketing plan as it gets people talking. It's the stuff they don't want to talk about, the stuff that gets hidden (like their deals with gun makers), and the stuff in need of some sunlight and serious consideration.

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