Tragedy and E3: It's Not Just the Guns, It's the Stories We Tell

Tone, context and framing matter when it comes to violent games.

On Sunday morning, a man walked into an LGBT nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people. Apart from the dead, he wounded 53 others who may never walk, see, or speak the same way again. To even think about it breaks your heart.

And later that morning, the gaming press had to go to E3 and watch trailers for games about shooting people. Many game journalists struggled with the dichotomy. It seemed wrong to hype games glorifying violence, but they had a job to do, and escapism might be something their readers needed. In a small but meaningful gesture, presenters at the Bethesda event wore rainbow pins, as did speakers at Ubisoft, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo’s press events,  while several presenters stopped to express shock and solidarity.

The game industry wasn’t alone in struggling with how to present violent material. At another celebratory event that night -- the Tony Awards -- the cast of Hamilton removed the musket props during the performance of “Yorktown.” TNT delayed the season premier of The Last Ship because the episode contained a shooting in a nightclub. These sort of media back-offs are normal after terrible events. TV networks are well rehearsed in how to respond after a mass shooting.

The specter of a very real massacre cast a pall on the event, leading many to question the medium’s relationship to violence. Jonathan Blow summed up this feeling in a tweet reading: “The lesson of E3: Game studios are working very hard to build fantasies about how cool it is to be a mass murderer.” Others argued that there’s a big difference between the stories peddled in the game industry and real-life violence -- arguing that even suggesting a parallel opens the door to blaming games for the massacre.

After nearly six years of writing about games, politics, history, and the military, I have complex thoughts about how games depict firearms. And, strangely, I don’t think guns are the problem -- it’s the stories we tell about them.

First of all, shooting games aren’t going anywhere. The act of shooting a target is too straightforward to program (at their simplest, shooters are basically a hit/miss binary) for studios to leave it behind. To speak plainly, computers are good at depicting firearm physics. There’s a reason that, thirty years into the medium, games still can’t capture sword fights or martial arts, but we’re knee-deep in FPSs. A Muay Thai boxer might throw a punch in a dozen different ways, whereas a rifle is a point-and-click interface. Second, firearm symbolism and myths run deep in culture. Guns are such a part of the public imagination, people keep telling gun stories even when you ban the objects themselves. John Woo films made Hong Kong-style gunfights world famous, despite the fact that the city has tough firearm laws and a freakishly low rate of gun crime (Hong Kong, a city of 7.3 million, logged only 22 murders last year). Despite Japan producing some the bloodiest media around, violent crime and gun ownership remain low there (though that may be due to how Japanese media depicts violence). In the US, crime rates have fallen as violent video games gained more prominence. Clearly, violent media doesn’t appear to correlate with violent crime -- though it has been used, unethically, to boost gun sales.

Yet as the industry continues to make shooters, it’s important to approach the subject with a critical eye. The very ubiquity of shooters both ensures that not all of these games will weave responsible narratives, and that some will use the symbolism of firearms in uncomfortable ways. That, by definition, means judging games on their successes and failures -- and shooters are a surprisingly broad group.

Tone and context matter a great deal, for example. The story game developers build around a gun can be as important as the presence of a gun itself. Depending on the game, guns can be a weapon of war, a symbol of power and individualism, or -- in the case of games like Portal and Sunset Overdrive -- a zany way to interact with the world. Sure, a player shoots enemies in both Overwatch and The Darkness, but they’re still tonal opposites in how they treat guns and violence. The Darkness emphasizes visceral combat and the possessed character’s repressed cruelty, while Overwatch feels more like a sport that just happens to use cartoonish weapons. These are both artistic choices -- and you can argue that both glamorize guns in their own way -- but it highlights the fact that a game’s narrative, art direction, and world-building play a role in how we perceive the action of shooting enemies. The Darkness combines firearms and demonic powers to make you feel like a righteous, insatiable god of retribution. Overwatch is Pixar paintball.

In fact, I’d argue that guns actually aren’t the problem with games -- it’s the stories we choose to tell about them.

Think back on the games you’ve played over the past few years. How often did revenge motivate the characters? Did the player character hate his or her enemies? Was the violence in the game a direct, vicious externalization of that hatred? I can think of a few off the bat -- The Division, where the game casts enemies as scum, about half the Assassin’s Creed series, any Call of Duty with an identifiable villain, Watch Dogs, Grand Theft Auto V, Dishonored -- I could go on, but you get the idea. More often than not, violent games cast the player as an avenging angel, using weapons and spectacular powers to exact retribution on the enemy. Developers use this personal animosity to give players a stake in the story and justify the hours they’ll spend killing enemies in ingenious ways. Consider Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a game so steeped in anger that I felt uncomfortable playing it. Shadow of Mordor tapped into a vicious part of my psyche that takes a backseat in civilized life -- the part of my brain that, scientists say, craves violence in the same way it craves sex. It was unnerving. Frankly, it’s a safe bet that if Mordor had been a game about guns rather than swords, it would’ve been upsetting to the point of unplayable.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with revenge narratives, or stories where the protagonist pursues a grudge against another character. Vengeance constituted home turf for Shakespeare and Homer. Personally, I’m a fan of revenge movies. But if films like Death Wish and The Man From Nowhere ever got as ubiquitous in cinemas as revenge narratives are in games, I’d wonder what the hell was going on. It’s not the guns I find disturbing, so much as how often games cast guns as an empowering tool to resolve violent grudges. A soldier carrying a rifle into battle is one thing, I’m going to kill you and all of your kind for wronging me is quite another. Like it or not, the game industry frequently turns out stories where people solve their problems via a gory rampage.

Now I’m obviously not suggesting games inspired the horrific attack in Orlando, or any other shooting for that matter. All art is a reflection of the society that produces it, and games are very much drawing on existing narratives about violence that already exist in films, novels, and television shows. Likewise, there’s also a counter-argument -- championed by no less senior Buddhist leader the Karmapa Lama -- that games are a safe space to discharge aggression and negative emotions. But stories are also how we teach behavior, and it’s a little disturbing how many games involve seeking out violence and shooting people out of anger. When someone does that in real life, the results are tragic -- and discussing that gap between our stories and reality is a healthy conversation to have. A sober conversation about violence doesn’t smear the medium, it elevates it. Having that talk shows games have arrived as a cultural and artistic force.

The game industry itself has become more conscious of this fraught relationship. Spec Ops: The Line turned the villain-must-be-destroyed narrative on its head, suggesting the player was ultimately the monster for plowing ahead regardless of the cost. Over the last couple of years, games have re-focused on survival and exploration narratives that rely less on gunplay -- and where guns don’t solve every problem. After players felt awkward about Drake’s body count in the Uncharted series, the fourth game built engagements around him defending himself, and wrote a story about how human life is worth more than treasure. Many games, from Rise of the Tomb Raider to Black Ops 2, allow the player to reject revenge at the climax of the adventure. Not all of these were successful in questioning violence -- it’s difficult to provide ten hours of satisfying killing, then argue that murder is unethical -- but hey, they tried.

Dishonored managed this trick, but only because it allowed the player to investigate multiple outcomes of a lethal and non-lethal approach. Using the full range of Corvo’s powers to slash throats and dismember guards makes for a satisfying game, but it also sinks the city further into plague and anarchy. Mass violence irreparably shatters the city’s social contract. Ignoring those lethal gadgets may make the game less viscerally satisfying (and more mentally challenging), but it also ensures a better ending. For this reason, I interpret the Outsider as an Old Testament Satan figure, who gives Corvo a range of deadly options, suspecting that he can’t resist the power and pleasure of violence. This becomes even more apparent when you upgrade Corvo’s nastier powers like Devouring Swarm, which amps up the violence to highlight how cruel and unethical they are. A low-chaos run in Dishonored involves both the external struggle of staying out of sight, and the internal struggle of resisting the temptation of violence. It’s a smart, nuanced way to tell the story.

Which is why I tried not to judge too harshly as I watched Emily throat-slash and anus-shoot her way through Dishonored 2’s E3 demo. The Dishonored I know ponders the consequences of killing, but unfortunately, that kind of meditation won’t sell at a press conference. Presenters would rather show off kill animations, and the new power where Emily morphs into a vapor and pulls her target apart like a roast chicken. Dramatic violence grabs eyeballs, so I can hardly blame Bethesda for showcasing it. Remembering that -- and the kind, sincere acknowledgement of the events in Orlando -- helped me feel better watching what can sometimes look like E3’s Arterial Spray Parade.

It’s hard to judge a game by its trailers, after all, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past. Spec Ops: The Line came off like a bland military shooter, but turned out to be a damning critique of the genre. Dishonored sold itself under the tone-deaf slogan “Revenge Solves Everything” -- it even ran sponsored ads on documentaries about curing gang violence (yuck) -- yet gave us a story about turning away from killing. A Tomb Raider representative infamously suggested that enemies would “try to rape” Lara, yet that turned out to be false. Frankly, it’s increasingly clear that the people who make games have little control over how they’re sold to us, and because of that I try not to assume that a bloody, out-of-context trailer necessarily means a bloody-minded game. In the end, they may tell us a story that justifies using guns as a prop. At least, that’s my hope -- though I’d love to see us move away from shooters into a new genre of combat games.

After all, starfighter simulators might be the next big thing, and you can’t casually purchase an X-Wing at Wal-Mart.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp