Major gaming publishers kicked off E3 this week with their usual spate of bombastic press conferences, tantalizing fans with trailers and details about their hottest upcoming releases. Looming over the events, however, was the worst mass shooting in modern American history at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando just the night before. Almost every company made some gesture toward the tragedy, with heartfelt statements of solidarity from executives, moments of silence, or rainbow ribbons pinned on presenters’ lapels. Outside the Convention Center, the flags fly at half mast.
These gestures, while clearly well-intentioned, sat awkwardly with me when they were immediately followed by a gleeful celebration of industry-standard guns, explosions, and gratuitous violence. Titles like Gears of War 4, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and Quake Champions were met with rapturous applause as bullets flew and heads exploded. It’s unfair to expect a radical overhaul of presentations that had been planned for months, but the dissonance between the solemnity of their statements and the subsequent celebrations of brutal violence was stark.
According to the ESA, 10 of the top 20 selling video games of 2015 prominently featured gunplay, mostly in the first-person. Shooters comprised the largest single genre of games sold at 24.5 percent, followed by Action at 22.9 percent (many of these also centered around guns). No other genres come close. In a country with the largest number of mass shootings in the world, at least a quarter of video games sold are about shooting people. Not only is that an awkward expression of our values, but it also betrays a depressing lack of imagination. We do not have to stop making these games, but it might be time for a reality check.
Games don’t cause violence
I’m not interested in suggesting that violent video games lead to real world violent behavior. That point has been argued to death, with little evidence to suggest a causal relationship, much to the chagrin of outraged conservatives.
The dominance of shooters in mainstream gaming does not necessarily contribute directly to gun violence, but it does normalize it and aid in our complicity.
As graphics improved in the ’90s to allow for more visceral presentation, a corresponding backlash about its alleged effects on players ensued. The gory fatalities of Mortal Kombat famously provoked a powerful response from politicians, which ultimately led to the creation of the ESRB age rating system. As recently as 2012, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre attempted to foist responsibility for the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy onto “vicious, violent video games” made by “a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people.”
But we know better. In the landmark 2011 supreme court ruling that formally enshrined video games’ first amendment protections, the late justice Antonin Scalia noted that all studies attempting to prove the link “have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning).”
But they do normalize violence
There is an important distinction to be drawn, however, between causation and normalization. Video games (like all forms of popular media) both reflect and inform cultural values, and it’s hard to argue against contemporary mainstream gaming’s loves of violence in general, and guns in particular. Daily bombardment with violent images in our media diet has a subtle, long-term effect of reducing the shock we feel when we encounter it. Even if we intellectually understand its horror, numbing the visceral and emotional reaction to violence makes it easier to write off as “just how the world is.”
Many noted after Sandy Hook (committed with a very similar AR-15 assault rifle to the one used in Orlando) that if we couldn’t rally for meaningful political action after the deaths of children, we would never be able to do so. The dominance of shooters in mainstream gaming does not necessarily contribute directly to gun violence, but it does normalize it and aid in our complicity, letting brief flares of outrage be washed away by the relentless media cycle.
Blockbuster games are stuck in a rut
My issue is not with the existence of shooters — I’ve played and enjoyed plenty over the years from the original Doom up through the newly-released Doom — but with the volume of them. Ethical considerations aside, the preponderance of shooters in mainstream gaming is frankly boring, and it stifles creativity. An inordinate amount of resources (hundreds of millions of dollars) go into refining the latest annual iterations of modern military shooting games with ever-increasing visual fidelity.
The preponderance of shooters in mainstream gaming is frankly boring, and it stifles creativity.
Most shooters are fundamentally the same game in different skins, substituting Nazis for zombies or plasma rifles for Uzis while the broad strokes of what you’re doing remain the same. This is particularly apparent in AAA gaming, where franchises such as Call of Duty and Battlefield release new versions every year, often with very few core differences.
You could argue that publishers are simply meeting the demands of fans who eagerly snatch up each new title, but this absolves them of the role that marketing plays in creating those desires in the first place. People want the sorts of games that they know exist. No one would have told you that they were desperate to play soccer with cars until Rocket League showed them how fun it could be. Publishers need to spend money on something less worn out. We’ve already killed (and played as) every drug dealer and mob boss we could ever imagine.
Like movie studios and book publishers, profit-conscious game companies are necessarily conservative about what games they approve and release. Genres and franchises that have sold well look better to investors than rolling the dice on an untested concept. In AAA gaming, ballooning development costs (Destiny cost Activision $500 million to make) only exacerbate this problem. This creates an unfortunate, homogenizing feedback loop where mainstream games end up looking very similar. Profit begets profit, and the more money concentrates in a particular part of the industry, the more reason it has to consolidate and preserve that power.
Show me something new
Games can be and are many things besides violence simulators. They can be anything and everything. The wide accessibility of the tools to create and distribute games has led to a creative explosion in independent development, which is pushing the boundaries of play in exciting and unpredictable directions. The success of games like The Witness, Undertale, and Her Story have demonstrated a passionate interest in games that subvert or totally sidestep conventional expectations for how games work, but they remain on the relative fringe and were developed with a fraction of the resources available to a Call of Duty or Assassin’s creed. AAA shooters only cater to a specific and vocal subset of people who play games, and they need to catch up. Events like E3 focus disproportionately on this hardcore market, which distorts perceptions both outside and inside the industry for who gamers are and what they want.
Video games are still in their infancy as a medium, with vast and untapped potential that hasn’t even been imagined yet.
It’s 2016 and we’ve been playing the same shooters for 20 years. Let’s not get mired in endlessly remaking just a few kinds of games that have happened to have done well, and instead dare to dream of the games we don’t even know that we want yet. The tragic coincidence of Orlando happening right before E3 should encourage the creators, publishers, and consumers of games to critically examine what we make, what we play, and what that says about us. Let’s do better.