This article is part of a special series on the intersection of guns and games. For more, click here.
“I was at work and got a text from my wife that started with ‘I want you to know the kids and I are safe but…’ and she explained a shooting that they'd just been involved in,” my friend (and Campo Santo programmer) Ben Burbank told me by email, about the scariest message he ever received. “A man had pulled out a gun in the grocery store parking lot and had fired more than a dozen rounds in all directions before speeding off. She saw him look directly at her, our kids in the car, and she ducked and our lives haven't really been exactly the same since.
“Movies, shows, and games featuring guns definitely make my kids uncomfortable,” he said. “We don't like having the kids in crowds. And I haven't felt okay playing any game that requires shooting guns since.”
With Burbank, there’s obviously a lot of gravity to his preference to stay away from in-game firearms. I don’t have a story like that, but, in games I generally prefer to do anything other than shooting a gun. It’s not that shooting in games is never fun, just that—in the kinds of games I like to play, anyway—it’s so much more fun to do other things, to dispose of enemies in more creative ways. I might try a little stealth, or run past enemies and test how far they’ll chase me. Better, still, is when games let me use their systems against them: From mind controlling Big Daddies in BioShock to turning the bug-like Vek against each other in Into the Breach, I have the most fun making enemies attack each other. It’s just so much more satisfying that way.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare "no kill" gameplay courtesy YouTube creator Nullface
And I have to admit, there’s a certain fascination with players who take a violent shooter—anything from Call of Duty to PUBG—and figure out how to play it without even once squeezing the trigger. Not just play, but succeed: beating the game, or even catching an elusive chicken dinner. It’s clever, and often very fun to watch skilled pacifist play at work.
I first became aware of Burbank’s playstyle when he was streaming pacifist runs of Call of Duty games, which he began even before his family had been threatened in such an immediate and terrifying way. Where other players are thinking about tactical firing positions, Burbank often ducks around enemy threats and treats most setpieces as puzzles as opposed to bloodbaths, a way to get his fragile camera through to the end without firing a shot.
“The Call of Duty games are honestly pretty fun and challenging to play without shooting, though they generally require a few cutscene-only gun moments. And even then it's not exactly pacifist, there's still lots of punching.”
“Usually in those you can run past most of the enemies since the world is just waiting for you to hit some location.”
It’s something you see often in speedruns or other types of play that go over or around what the designers actually intended for players to do, and it’s especially fun for folks like Burbank, who take advantage of all the seams and barely-glued together bits of game in order to make their own fun with it.
Above: Burbank takes on Call of Duty WW2 without any pesky shooting.
This style of play doesn’t only work in COD, or other modern, super-scripted shooters. Burbank has been playing games this way ever since Geometry Wars (which does offer a pacifist achievement) popped the idea in his head. The whole “shooters without shooting” streak started with Half-Life 2, where he got by using only the gravity gun and crowbar.
There are exceptions, of course: violent games that don’t let you recuse yourself from their violence. That doesn’t stop him from trying, sometimes with amusing results. “I never made it past the tutorial for GTA V which requires you to shoot somebody to progress,” said Burbank. “Would be nice if he would at least run away after a while once it's clear I'm not going to shoot him. After the guy stood there for a few minutes cowering and I realized there was no option except murder I just shut it off. It was just gross. He wasn't a threat or anything…”
He had better luck making his way through Destiny gun-free, but it wasn’t easy. “I remember grinding up to Level 20, making decent progress, exclusively using melee and abilities. There's an early boss fight that takes forever without a gun, but everything got easier as you gained more moves.” Hilariously, some challenges are actually easier with no guns. Burbank recalls getting the “sharpshooter” achievement in Uncharted 4, for his technically perfect shooting (I mean, he never took a shot, so he never missed.)
Then there’s Ubisoft’s premiere chaos-simulator-as-theme park series. “The Far Cry games are utterly fantastic to play without shooting. My kids watch me play them!” he exclaimed. “They're just games where you wander through beautiful places, look at animals, and sometimes accidentally cause unbelievable amounts of destruction on the jerks who hang out in camps.”
“I'm not exactly against violence of any kind,” he said. “I know that it can be a useful tool for storytelling and game mechanics.” But he revels in the challenge of playing things by his own rules, and knows other folks do too. And he thinks there’s a real opportunity for developers to acknowledge that, and even turn down the cheese factor on otherwise incongruous hyper-violent moments in games.
“Hey devs: put in achievements for not firing guns in your game,” Burbank suggested. “Folks who complete it will use your other mechanics more fully, and having the achievement in there will prevent those flat cutscene-only kill-the-guy-in-slow-motion moments.
As a game developer, Burbank has been able to hold to his ethos pretty solidly.
“I haven't ever worked on a game with realistic weaponry,” he said. “But I have worked on a few sci-fi games with shooting mechanics (most recently Double Fine's Headlander). On the team I was known as somebody who would push for solutions to most problems without shooting, and it led to some interesting design discussions. We ended up having many supplemental mechanics that made it so you could complete the game without shooting if that's your preference.”
Burbank told me that that it would take quite a bit to even consider working on a game with “realistic” gun combat. “To get me on board the project would have to be something where a gun's appearance came with real weight and consequences. People in the world would have to react to it, make it a focal point of whatever scene or scenes you see it.
“Something where you only ever fire one bullet, and the decision to do so drastically alters the world.”
Just like, you know, life.
Burbank grew up in the American south, and says he has friends and family who are responsible gun owners. But he also told me that he believes that the US has a gun violence problem. “I never feel unsafe when visiting other countries, but being out at night in almost any American city has me jumping at shadows. Even during the day here!”
As if to highlight the point, his family was directly threatened, again, by the specter of a gunman.
“Less than a year after my family was almost directly involved in a shooting they were put on lockdown in a park because there was an active shooter roaming.
“It's bad. Really bad! We regularly donate to everytown.org and other groups like it that are trying to lobby for substantial gun reform in our country.”
Burbank is very conscientious about what his children watch and play. Understandably, there’s some extra weight to it, given the family’s experiences. But he takes the long view here, on what their interests might be when they grow up.
“They'll be their own people, for sure,” he said, when asked about how he’d feel if his kids were interested in especially violent games, when they get a bit older. “Kids seem to want what they want and the more you fight them on seemingly anything the more they'll distance themselves from you. I feel like the best I can do is teach them to think hard about what they're doing means in a game. About how a given scene might make their mom feel.
“My son (now 9, 6 at the time of the shooting) is already extremely uneasy around even Nerf and squirt guns at friends' houses so I doubt he'll ever really be interested. I tend to let my kids make choices about the stuff they play and watch, as long as it's relatively age appropriate and I don't think I'd stop with that.
“But I would probably say discouraging or critical words about the content, as dads generally do about everything.”