It’s December 2012, and Michael needed a break from the office he worked in, an office that was home to longtime Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward. The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that horrifically took the lives of 20 children and six adults had just happened, and he took a walk to a local grocery store. By chance, he also happened to be wearing a Call of Duty hoodie that identified him as a game developer, as many developers wear clothes related to the games they spend years making in isolation.
While walking through the store, Michael, who asked to use a pseudonym because he worried about a potential publish backlash, was approached multiple times by other people who were also processing the unfolding tragedy. These people told Michael he should be “ashamed” for working on Call of Duty. He, these people argued to his face, was partially responsible for the school shooting.
“I empathize with people who are hurting but [I] don’t agree that games are the main culprit,” said Michael, who no longer works at Infinity Ward but has continued to work on games centered around guns, in a recent interview. “I take their grief not as a personal attack. It’s more of a reflection on the struggle to make sense of why a government continues to fail them.”
Call of Duty games, and shooters more broadly, are an inseparable part of gun culture in the United States. I don't own a gun and have no interest in owning one, but even I know the difference between an M4 and M16 assault rifle, and the only reason is that video games slavishly recreate and fetishize them. There is a close cultural and commercial relationship between real guns and video game guns, but the people who make these video games rarely talk about mass shootings in relation to their work. However, after the recent massacre in Uvalde, Texas that left 19 school children and two teachers dead—the 246th mass shooting in the United States in 2022 alone, according to some metrics—three current and former Call of Duty developers agreed to talk to Waypoint about this very issue. (And many more outright turned us down.)
All of them found value in their work, but were left wondering if the United States’ uniquely ugly relationship with guns means their games are having unintended impacts.
A screen shot from the original 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.' Photo courtesy of Activision Blizzard
“It's hard not to be distracted on any news day but especially after events like these where there are clear parallels between U.S. gun culture and shooters' contribution to that culture,” said one current Call of Duty developer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid a potential backlash. “I do think the context of who is wielding the gun against who matters—a game like Wolfenstein kicks back against toxic gun culture by centering its conflict on resistance to Nazi villains. But more often I think shooters lionize and whitewash colonial violence which these attacks are often examples of. And it does bother me and negatively impacts my mental health to contribute to games that I feel are culturally complicit.”
This same developer claimed to have brought “these concerns to my superiors on multiple occasions but as long as our product makes money there is little incentive to change.”
Around the time of the Sandy Hook shooting, Michael remembered staff at Infinity Ward being told by its publisher, Activision Blizzard, to “avoid discussions about it on social media” to prevent becoming a focus of criticism in the midst of a tragedy.
“It felt to me that they wanted us to avoid putting ourselves under public scrutiny and we kept our heads down and kept working,” said Michael. “My recollection is that Activision did what they could to shield us from unnecessary vitriol. There was no question that everyone felt absolutely horrified by the mass shootings taking place.”
Activision Blizzard did not respond to a request for comment.
None of the developers Waypoint spoke with, all of whom are based in the United States, believed their work caused violence. But as looser gun laws spread across the country alongside a simultaneous rise in mass shootings, they also couldn’t help but look at their work and wonder if they’re still somehow a problem. It’s introspection caused by a sense of desperation.
“I think Parkland in 2018 was the first one that really struck a chord in terms of whether what I was working on was contributing to the gun obsession,” said one former Call of Duty developer, who worked on the series across several games and asked to remain anonymous to avoid their commentary impacting their future job prospects. “I remember initially having the same feeling I generally have when these stories happen: horror, sadness, etc. They're like mini 9/11s, these traumatic events that happen that you watch on the news and that shakes you, except obviously there are a lot more of them. My oldest was in first grade, and that was the first time I had the thought of ‘what if this happened at my son's school?’”
Most school-aged kids now regularly practice school shooting drills several times a year, while state legislators invent new ways of putting guns in the hands of more people. This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world, which makes the emotional stress put on game creators who work on such games wholly unique.
“That culture, and the people within it,” said the same developer, “are the biggest obstacle I see in passing reasonable gun laws that would respect the second amendment while also reducing the number of mass shootings. How many people who played games I've worked on have gone on to be a one issue voter, focused on preventing any and all gun legislation from passing? I don't know, but it troubles me. I don't feel guilty because I don't know that I've directly contributed to any of this through my work, but I'm concerned that I've been a tiny cog in a larger machine that may have been doing more than I realized.”
“It's hard not to be distracted on any news day but especially after events like these where there are clear parallels between U.S. gun culture and shooters' contribution to that culture. It does bother me and negatively impacts my mental health to contribute to games that I feel are culturally complicit.”
In 2012, games journalist Simon Parkin published a shocking look at the financial and cultural link between gun manufacturers and shooters like Call of Duty, in which the firearms creators explicitly stated the goal of licensing was in hopes of influencing future purchases.
“It is hard to qualify to what extent rifle sales have increased as a result of being in games," said Ralph Vaughnto to Parkin, who at the time helped negotiate deals between game companies and the firearms manufacturer Barrett, known for the semi-auto sniper rifle the M82. "But video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners."
Video game developers aren’t alone in experiencing this public angst, either, with Hollywood talent like Judd Apatow, Shonda Rhimes, Adam McKay, Damon Lindelof, and others recently signing a petition arguing entertainment has “the power to effect change,” and pointed towards “cultural attitudes toward smoking, drunk driving, seatbelts, and marriage equality” changing as a result. The petitioners aren’t asking filmmakers to “stop showing guns on screen,” but to “be mindful of on-screen gun violence and model gun safety best practices.”
“I am an American, a voter, and a gun owner,” said former DayZ creative director Brian Hicks in an interview with Waypoint. “I've often been outspoken in conversations with friends about my belief in the right to own firearms, and I still believe in said right to own firearms. However, I don't understand this gun obsessed culture in my home country, I don't understand identifying so much of yourself around an obsession with firearms any more than I understood stoner culture, despite my strong support of its legalization.”
Hicks is now the design director at Hinterland Games, the studio behind the ongoing survival game The Long Dark. While working on DayZ, Hicks lived in the Czech Republic, and was relatively unplugged from even the most harrowing news back home. Later, while at Wasteland developer inXile Entertainment, Hicks worked on a VR project that involved working intimately with realistic firearm simulations. He was also back in the United States.
A screen shot from the video game 'DayZ.' Image courtesy of Bohemia Interactive
“I'll admit that while the subject of shootings and firearm-related deaths did make me uncomfortable at times,” said Hicks, “I was still in that mindset that responsible gun owners could chart the path forward, and I truly believed that we could make at least partially bi-partisan progress on improving background checks, sharing mental health information between states, and so on.”
Then, something changed. Or maybe it’s because the Texas shooting feels so fresh.
“I can't clearly quantify it,” he said. “Maybe it was seeing a video of a man who lost his daughter in Uvalde and his fight to maintain composure. I'm not sure exactly what it is. But I know that I feel as certain as a navigator following the North Star that we have to address this as a society if we truly care for our children. And I look at the message my work (specifically DayZ) communicated to those who enjoyed it, and honestly with that product it was far more ‘trust no one, do whatever it takes to survive’ than I think should be being put out there.”
Again, the research suggests there’s no link between video game violence and real-world violence, despite organizations like the National Rifle Association calling violent video games a “callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence,” as they did after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. If anything, research points in the opposite direction.
“Companies can be confident in continuing to make these games understanding that they have no impact on violent crime,” said Chris Ferguson, co-author of the 2019 book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong. “Calls for ‘We need to talk about shooter games’ are merely a distraction that plays straight into conservative politicians' desire to shift the discussion away from gun control. We need to stop doing this.”
What weighs on them is whether the broader culture, which games are a part of, is having a negative influence.
“I think it's time to stop being okay w/ games that promote gun culture,” said designer Zach Gage in a widely-read series of tweets from late May. “I too enjoy rainbow six, call of duty etc., but why do i know the difference between a F2 and a M4? Videogames/media don't turn people violent, but they do promote gun culture, and gun culture is killing us.”
“I get stuck in my own head sometimes trying to parse whether we end up making games about using violence to solve problems because the game mechanics are inherently fun and satisfying,” said former League of Legends designer Iain Hendry, who found himself sympathetic to the nuanced points Gage was attempt to make, “or if the game design discipline merely grew up reflecting American and Western storytelling and mythos around badass heroes and their guns and their special powers and their moral superiority.”
Hendry, like everyone else, was quick to point out the holes in his own argument.
“Part of what makes me turn inwards and have these (often useless) thought spirals,” said Hendry, “is that we've seen these tragedies happen over and over and over again with absolutely no action taken on the core, obvious problems. Realizing there's no incentives in the system to try and save children's lives is hope-destroying. There aren't many incentives for games to change either—if numbers are going up, why stop doing what works? But I also think we have to start trying to have these conversations as an industry because we can't have them with anyone else—it's a really complicated moral issue rooted in an art and a business that no one outside of games really understands.”
Gage, a designer celebrated for games like SpellTower and Really Bad Chess, was quick to point the finger at a lack of government regulation as a towering and ongoing issue. But Gage was also willing to suggest games are complicit, a red line for many in the video game industry, especially after the 90s moral panic that tried to blame video games for incidents like the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School.
“I’m not sure how you can do a study to examine that claim,” said Patrick Markey, the other co-author of Moral Combat. “Even if we could test it—does it matter if what we are worried about most is violence? Because what we know from research is that video games tend to be related to decreases in homicides and aggregated assaults. If that is our main concern (decreasing crime) then the evidence strongly suggests they have no impact or actually make out society safer.”
Gage, who received an enormous amount of pushback citing how mass shootings are largely only an issue in the U.S., declined to elaborate after being contacted by Waypoint. But you didn’t have to go far to find other game developers responding similarly on Twitter.
“If you work on a video game that uses modern day firearms to shoot other humans you need a real hard look in the mirror tonight,” said Possibility Space gameplay director Russ Peterson, who was previously a gameplay director on World of Warcraft, on Twitter.
Peterson also declined to elaborate when contacted by Waypoint.
“Love seeing ‘game devs’ go after other game devs and target them solely because they work on a project with guns—as if we don’t have to pay rent & eat,” said WWE Games producer Kay Bell, who also turned down Waypoint’s request for an interview, on Twitter.
Much of the research related to games and violence has been centered around real-world impacts. There’s been research about what it’s like for journalists to head into war or experience other traumas while doing their job, but so far as I could tell, nothing related to people in creative fields working on violent entertainment when real-life violence breaks out.
A screen shot from the video game 'Fortnite.' Image courtesy of Epic Games
Guns are everywhere in video games, even if they’re depicted cartoonishly, like in Fortnite, a game that costs nothing to start playing. We live in an era in which video games are no longer socially stigmatized, and children are engaging with them very early on.
“I tell [students] upfront that I won’t teach them how to add realistic guns,” said a game design teacher at a high school in Southern California who spoke to Waypoint, asking for anonymity to avoid a distraction to the classroom. “Even shooting as a simple game mechanic I push back against. A mechanic could be any verb you can imagine—why do we insist on shooting? I tell them I can’t stop them from figuring it out at home, but I prefer that they not make those types of games here. And if they insist, then make it a cartoon or fantasy weapon. Usually no one really complains or pushes back. They just make different games.”
In the same classroom where this happens, this teacher has what’s called a “classroom lockdown kit,” depicted below. They described it as a “toilet in a bucket,” meant for an extended lockdown where you hang a tarp in the corner while someone goes to the bathroom.
A photo of a "classroom lockdown kit" used by a high school teacher.
“This conversation isn’t even about censorship or ‘do violent video games make people violent?!’” they added. “We’re not talking about that. To be clear: I think violence in games is fine. But I think it should have a certain level of abstraction from real world violence. How far do we go for realism? Different accurate guns models, sounds, etc. And how much of the consequences of gun violence should we show? Blood? People in pain?”
While processing the mass shooting in Uvalde, they had two conversations with students about their work. In one instance, a student forgot about trying to design around and away from guns, and tried to include them in the game they were building. They were looking at a YouTube tutorial that would help them add guns to the game, and asked for some help.
“I think Parkland in 2018 was the first one that really struck a chord in terms of whether what I was working on was contributing to the gun obsession.”
“I had told him directly I wouldn’t teach him that and explained why,” they said. “He fought back ‘why not? But that’s my project!’ He didn’t have a reason why he particularly wanted to add guns. So I challenged him to make something else. He’s now making an auto-biographical experience about his time studying for AP tests. Shooter games are a dime-a-dozen. Games about being a teen studying in high school? That sounds WAY more interesting to me! Then, I had another student, after Uvalde, say how his biggest concern was if the government would start to censor games or anime. I had to point out that should be the LEAST of his concerns.”
The psychological toll moments like Uvalde takes on creatives across every discipline that helps a video game, even a massively violent one, come together, gets balanced against years spent honing a craft.
“I like working on something that helps people stay connected to their loved ones remotely, especially during times like COVID,” said one current Call of Duty developer gearing up for the latest release, the 19th installment in the series since it started in 2003, Modern Warfare II. “Mostly though I appreciate my immediate team—everyone is so talented with high standards of quality, and getting to collaborate with them is inspiring.”
“I'm not currently working on a shooter,” said a different developer, who previously worked on Call of Duty games. “I don't want to, and as long as I'm in a position to choose, I won't. I don't want to contribute to the obsession with guns, if those games are in fact contributing, and I really hope I someday have some clarity on that. I'm also really burnt out on it. I'm tired of games that glamorize war. If I ever find myself desperate for work to pay the bills and feed the kids, I can't honestly say that I'd never work on a shooter again. I'll always prioritize taking care of my family. But as long as I can choose, I'll be trying to avoid it.”