The Zen of Video Games – A Man With A Gun

Some of my favorite video games are almost entirely peaceful. In fact, my favorite Tex Murphy games (that I keep going on and on about – should get embarrassing any day now) don’t have you shoot anyone – although the first two games, Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum, allowed Tex to wield a gun, and I don’t think the second game had you shoot a person. Though you do have to shoot a snake. But it was a bad, evil snake, so that makes it okay.

For as long as I can remember, shooting has been a part of video games. Some of the first games I adored on the TI-99/4A Home Computer were space shooters. Even Mario shoots fireballs. I’m putting aside the phallic nature of the gun, because that’ll just devolve into a wildly unnecessary discussion about penises, and I can only deal with two of those a day. Discussions! Not penises!

But still, the gun continues to dominate video gaming. First-person shooters take the lion’s share of the console and computer gaming sales, as I recall. Still, it’s got to be fairly rare to find a ‘hardcore’ gamer who doesn’t play first-person shooter games.

Is it power fantasy? Is it our culture? Are gamers naturally disposed towards guns, thanks to years of space and side-scrolling shooters? I don’t know. The best I can do is tell you how I see it.

First off, a caveat: I can’t really say about all gamers, but what I can do is attempt to interpret my own experience. In my case, I think timing was a BIG part of it. See, the first two big first-person shooters, Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, were both released around the same time yours truly was a young teen, 13 years old or so, and that’s an impressionable time, to be sure. All the cool kids were playing it. So naturally, I got into it as well. And I was hooked.

But I have to disagree with the idea that this was because of gun worship. The game had two other very powerful motivators working for it – immersion and horror. Doom was one of the first real first-person experiences to make me believe, for even just a few seconds, that I was actually experiencing these horrific events. And the developers were wise enough to make some of the enemies ‘invisible’, and set up deliberate ambushes when one would find a key or hit a switch, which would often scare the bejesus out of me when I’d get unexpectedly attacked. Those two things – immersion and horror – were what kept me coming back. Not the guns.

The next big gaming milestone came in the form of Goldeneye 007 for the N64. Here was a big-name shooter with more realistic and modern weapons, other humans as the enemies, and a multiplayer mode allowing you and three of your friends to shoot each other. My friends and I played the crap out of that game – does that mean we had the desire to shoot each other? Oh, god, no. I’d TAKE a bullet for my friends, not send bullets flying at them. The lure here was friendly competition and fun.

There was another, more personal reason for me to play; My brother and I played Goldeneye relentlessly, to the point where it became clear that we’d become practically unbeatable and were only a match for each other. Regardless of this endless competition, my brother and I didn’t (and still don’t) have a lot in common, so it was one of the few things we enjoyed together, and I still think on it fondly.

But I do have to admit that it was around this time that I started developing a weird love for pistols. Despite there being more powerful and versatile weapons in the game, I became exceptionally lethal with handguns. In fact, that is a trend that continues to this day, with only one exception that I can think of, the Call of Duty series. But even then, sometimes I would take the Colt Python revolver in Black Ops and just go apeshit.

Then came Perfect Dark, and a new element came into play – teamwork. Perfect Dark allowed the use of bots, meaning we didn’t have to fight each other. I found myself accidentally and unironically asking for cover fire and saying things like “On your six!” This was a new level of immersion, and to date, my favorite way to play – facing waves of bad guys with one of my best friends watching my back. To this day, some of my favorite gaming memories are of Timesplitters, and more recently, the Left 4 Dead games. I found myself experiencing REAL fear when they’d be under attack elsewhere, and I’d go charging to the rescue, praying I wouldn’t be too late.

Was there an urge to kill things in these games? Maybe a minor one. Was it more powerful than the urge to protect my friends? Absolutely not, not even close.

In real life, things are much different. The closest things to real guns I own are airsoft guns, though it’s probably notable that I still have a preference to pistols. I don’t think I could own a real gun. They scare the crap out of me. My roommate declared his intention to buy a pistol – I immediately asked him to reconsider. I was terrified. Me. The same guy who would play a game called “Gun Snipe Shooty Wahey”.

While I don’t believe video games are ‘pushing’ guns, I do believe they’re not doing enough to push the healthy respect and fear of guns I have. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t trust guns – I don’t trust myself with them. I’ve screwed up so many things in my lifetime, pulling a Dick Cheney is a very real, very terrifying responsibility. I do NOT want to be the guy who put a bullet where my best friend’s nasal cavity used to be.

And there are so few games that intentionally make guns a worse option than anything else. Sure, there are some games that accidentally do this. I hear Yakuza: Dead Souls has terrible gunplay, but that’s not from an intent to say “guns are bad” so much as they were never really gun games to begin with, and guns were just sort of shoehorned in. The best we have are games where guns never really enter the picture.

Not that I’m saying we NEED such a thing, mind you. I’m not saying games with guns are intrinsically bad, that’s not true. But after playing Spec Ops: The Line, I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering if the games industry is just glorifying guns, and I don’t have an answer for now.

You might like guns, and that’s cool. I like guns, too. I just don’t ever want one in my hands.