Saturday, 21 September 2013

The problem with guns

For the past couple of decades, the gun has been a central element in AAA system design, almost on the level of jumping as an input option, or post-2006  cover systems, and  it's overuse and lazy misuse over the years has seemed create a rupture of negative views towards the gun and its advantageous place in mainstream game design. Over the past year, I've noticed a large shift of thinking within critical games communities when it comes to the gun. This shift isn't just the developing of a passive fatigue, but an active disdain towards the gun as a symbolic object. We're not simply bored with guns in games; rather the videogame gun now represents different things to us, new things that we don't like, things we no longer want. As the culture strives for legitimacy among its artistic peers, and desperately longs for more meaningful and valuable experiences, the gun becomes a symbol of everything that is holding us back. We're so dissatisfied with the gun, that the mere omission of one in a game will incite praise in itself, as we've seen with games like Gone Home, Proteus, Dear Esther, etc. etc. So we seem to be reaching a certain point, a real critical shift, influenced by the increasing divergence of mainstream and non-mainstream games cultures, one I would hope would lead to a sort of "post-gun" thinking.

A shift to post-gun thinking would represent more than just everyone not liking guns anymore.  It would imply an expansion of the critical imagination, where we can critically think about games not just beyond guns, but beyond the *systems* that the use of guns create. The problem with guns is they immediately mold a system into a collection of simplistic antagonisms. When you pick up a gun in a game, you create a split between the representational object holding the gun, and the objects that become targets. It turns the system into "me vs. them" mentality, calcifying it into a hyperfocus of the very dry and mechanized process of target practice. Visual work, sound work, narrative devices; everything becomes secondary to target practice.

Targetry is a black hole in that it sucks up an enormous amount of energy and concentration that would normally be used for more valuable areas of the interpretative experience, like, engaging with a game's aesthetics or contemplating its narrative elements. Yet instead getting the chance participate in these things, which would undoubtedly help create the experience we seem to all be looking for, we're forced to spend hours lining up crosshairs to heads, and only get to engage with the game's more meaningful elements in limited ways. Through the dullness of targetry, the experience becomes mechanized to the point of numbness. The process of shooting object after object becomes drone like.

Is it any wonder so many games are about cynical, hyperviolent white males when their very systems are dry and antagonistic? It seems that no matter how much we inject into our budgets, the sad hours of crunch we impose and the quality of writers we hire, 010s AAA narratives continue to fall victim to the oppressive systems of targetry. And it's a system that it seems we've become largely reliant on. Our critical imagination feels to be dying in the face of dry, empty antagonism.

It's important that when talking about AAA games, games with enormous budgets developed by large groups of 50+ people that can guarantee huge audiences on release, we approach them not only as works of art but also as products. The work of art is an object designed for expression by the artist, but the product is an object created to fulfill monetary value by performing a specific set of functions. The product is supposed to "work," to our strict expectations of how it should work, and when it doesn't 'work' it loses its monetary value and therefore all of its value. I bought my Android tablet a few weeks ago and it can barely load an app without freezing and crashing, so the thing is sort of worthless and I'm considering asking for a refund. AAA games are mostly products because they're restricted by culture with strict expectations on how games should look and what they should do and an anxious management class trying to follow certainties in a market of inflated budgets, confining it into a set list of functions it's expected to perform to justify the absurdly high cost of purchasing it, as well as the absurdly high cost of making it.

With that in mind, it wouldn't be too hard to see the appeal of empty targetry in large games. Large games, being products, are designed through a rigorous min/maxing, an optimization and mechanization of the play experience to guarantee its monetary value can be justified. Systems of Targetry meet the demand of large games: targetry is easy to understand; it doesn't require too much emotional energy; hitting targets is satisfying but only for a short time, which guarantees, at least theoretically, that you'll be doing it repeatedly for longer to keep the responses coming as consistently as possible. Like Candy!

But like candy, targetry is quickly forgotten, and experiences that are rooted in targetry carry little emotional depth. As a result, Big Budget games that are rooted in targetry end up perpetuating simplistic perspectives on complicated issues, perspectives that can even be harmful: the uncritical use of torture scenes, apolitical racism, shallow critiques of American culture and bottomless cynicism. These things occur because empty systems of targetry suck from narratives and aesthetics the space and time required to create emotional and conceptual depth.

What I find so interesting that the disdain for the gun is medium specific; we yawn and groan at the use of a gun in a new trailer during a conference, but the use of guns (and violence in general) in film and literature have created moments we consider 'classics'. The tragic shooting scene in taxi driver, the gut-wrenching drive-by in Boys n The Hood, the flamethrower sequence in Aliens (and it's moody counterpart in Alien), or final shootout in Scarface. There's something about the way guns are used in film that games seem to be incapable of pulling off.

This leads to my second point about the problem with guns, and videogame violence in general: they're void of drama. There's no drama to shooting a man in a videogame, nor is there any emotional weight to the majority of violence that games present. It's rarely interesting to look at, and it's rarely interesting or meaningful to do in narrative context. When we associate 'guns' with tedium of targetry, we mechanize the play process and remove its emotional weight.

So how can we make guns interesting? Should they be interesting?

I talk to friends in my social circles who strongly believe we should be moving away completely from violence in games. I do enjoy violence in media, and I think that games can provide the same drama and intrigue to violence as other forms. The thing about games is they provide one of the most realistic interpretations of guns. Guns *aren't* dramatic; guns are *not* emotionally complex, they *are* mechanized and they do create a drone process. It just doesn't make for interesting works of art, is all.


  1. I'm curious if you're planning to include Wolfire's 'Receiver' in your look at guns in games. 'Receiver' questions how realistic the depiction of guns in games actually is, so it seems necessary to at least address that point.

  2. Ethan's gun kill in Heavy Rain (I believe the mission was called The Shark) was uniquely powerful, and one that I recommend you check out if you've not already. It's ace for the following reasons:

    1) You are asked to kill an actual human being with motivations and a family, not some masked goon
    2) Ethan has never done anything like this before (and will never again)
    3) You can choose not to kill the person if you want (and deal with the outcome of this)
    4) The inputs are not targeting so much as the character convincing himself that this is a good idea; the weight of drawing, aiming and firing the gun are each given distinct, weighty controller inputs

    Take a look, if you can. No other single gunshot has stuck with me so much.

  3. > There's no drama to shooting a man in a videogame

    Well, there *usually* isn't. There's a certain scene in Metal Gear Solid 3...

  4. Glad to play SuperHot again, I had played a way older version.

    I think a lot of people still like guns. I know I do. But your first screenshot is a perfect example of a game where guns went too far. It's sort of unfair to the guns, really. A man walks into a giant floating city and has one freakout moment and - blam - the rest of the game is spent shooting by default. They should have made it 5% shooting, 95% slamming whiskey and wine found around the city.

    Guns are still very useful in conventional multiplayer games, where they act as your hands in a game of tag. In the purest of shooters, the gameplay is both about aiming+shooting and knowing the map+communicating.

    I would argue that guns have an opportunity to exist along side new multiplayer gameplay as well, with games like Spy Party where the shot is more of a selection that is the result of many decisions. Recently I am playing any game where players end up deciding between shooting and doing something else that is equally powerful.