Six out of the top 10 bestselling video games in February heavily featured guns and shooting. The same was true in January and all of 2016. Like it or hate it, video games and guns have gone hand-in-hand for decades and there's no reason to assume that this will change in the near future.
Inevitably, that means much of the discussion around video games is about video game guns. Not only in a greater cultural sense of how video games' obsession with guns fits into America's gun culture, but more mechanically, in video game reviews, how these digital guns work, or not.
Unfortunately, much of that discussion is just not very good, and not for lack of trying. I've reviewed many shooters over the years, and I confess that describing why the guns in Doom (2016) are fun and why the guns in Doom 3 are not is a challenge. It's a relatively new form of criticism, and video game critics are still building the vocabulary to make it useful.
One of the most productive people in that effort is PC Gamer Editor-in-Chief Evan Lahti. He's edited some of my shooter reviews in the past, and for my money, he's one of the most knowledgeable people on shooters in the world. You should check out some of the great work he's done at PC Gamer over the last nine years, especially his articles about the guns in Doom, Overwatch, and Battlefield 1.
In honor of Motherboard's new documentary A Smarter Gun, I reached out to Lahti to ask how we talk about the video game guns we use almost every day.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Motherboard: How do you deal with this tension in the video game industry where we obsess over guns and the very real issues we have with guns in this country?
Evan Lahti: There's no doubt that games celebrate guns. Just broadly, the number of games that are about shooting other people, other things, aliens, robots, whatever, it's been a core part of the whole medium for a long time.
As a player, as a writer, we are perhaps indirectly promoting that, indirectly celebrating violence, even if you yourself don't believe in it. I guess where I end up is, gun combat in games is an opportunity for me to express teamwork, [and] to flex my motor skills in a medium I really enjoy. It's an opportunity for me to have strategy and tactics in a first person context that relies on how well can I see enemies, how well can I anticipate their action, how well can I use my intuition to make my decisions in that environment. That probably sounds really detached to somebody who doesn't play games, but I don't think of myself as someone who has a big lover affair with guns. I'm certainly very pro gun control, and the level of gun violence we have in this country is completely unacceptable and something needs to be done about it. It is sort of hard to take it hand-in-hand with my passion for shooters, but at the same time where I end up is that there's a really clear distinction for me between enjoying that style game and taking it into the real world in any capacity.
Why are so many games about shooting?
A lot of it just comes back to Doom. I think Doom really inspired a generation of players and game designers.
I think at that moment at 1993, the popularity of Doom embedded the shooters in the DNA of video games, especially PC games. It helped form a genre that birthed Quake and competitive shooters. That's an impact crater. Doom is an asteroid hitting the earth, and that kind of impact doesn't go away.
What is the most annoying thing to you about the way people describe guns in video games?
People have this feeling when they like a game's guns, they talk about how it "feels" really good. And, fair enough. 'Weapon feel' is a thing, but ultimately you're not feeling the gun at all.
The way I think about game guns is that they are a collection of math and aesthetics. How do those things talk to each other, and how do they talk to the rest of the game's systems and ideas?
For that math, you have a long number of variables depending on the game. How much damage does a gun do per bullet? Does it makes a difference whether I shoot you in the arm or the head? Does the damage decrease depending on how far away I am from the target? Battlefield represents hip fire accuracy [guns will be less accurate if if players fire without aiming down sights], for example, so the gun will shoot in a narrower or wider bullet spread depending on whether it has good hip fire accuracy. There's rate of fire, magazine size, reload speed, recoil, recovery time, bullet penetration. Some weapons overheat. Some weapons influence your movement speed.
When people talk about gun feel, what are they referring to?
In most cases you want the gun to be empowering, and there's a couple of ways of going about that. When people talk about weapon feel they're talking about the relationship between the rules of that gun and its personality, and the rules of the game. In a game like Quake III, it makes sense that there's a rail gun and a rocket launcher because it's all about purity and skill. There's no variance, randomized recoil, and stuff like that. It's purely about: can I trace a line between my coordinate in 3D space and your coordinate in 3D space more quickly than you can, as our positions are rapidly changing.
If you took all the coolest game guns and put them into one game you would probably have a really shitty game because the guns don't have a relationship to one another. They don't counterbalance one another.
I think for most people it's a question of, is the weapon behaving the way I expect it to, am I successful with the weapon, and does it as a player enhance my playstyle and allow me to feel empowered.
I know you're a big Counter-Strike player. Do you think Counter-Strike has some of the best weapons in video games?
I think Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's weapons aesthetically kind of suck. What makes them really interesting is that they all have really specific identities. You look at the M4A1, which is the counter-terrorist rifle, and you compare that to the AK47 on the terrorist side which is its equivalent. But these guns are not mirrors of each other, they have an interesting Yin Yang thing happening.
The AK on the terrorist side will kill an enemy in one shot to the head. The M4 will not but it shoots a little bit faster and it's a little bit easier to control. The game itself is asymmetrical. These weapons cost differently, they cause different damage, they have different rates of fire. They have their own identity, and it allows players to make interesting decisions.
Compared to modern blockbuster shooters, they look really bad. The animations aren't very interesting. The reloads are really simple. But Valve has had 10 years to clarify their meaning and reinforce the role they have in the game itself.
Every weapon, if you're standing still and click to fire, the bullets will go in a pattern that is identical. If I look at a wall, I'll see the bullets fall one by one sequentially in the same order in the same position. If I fire with the AK47, the first bullet will go straight through the crosshairs then a little bit higher, then higher, then to the left. As a player, you're given a puzzle to solve with your motor skills in real-time. A great player knows where that seventh shot is going to go. He knows the recovery time. You drag your crosshairs down and in the opposite direction of the bullet to try to counter that.
If it had a randomized algorithm, if you shot and the bullet sometimes went to the left and sometimes to the right, it would be a completely different game, and not as successful as it is. It's very predictable as a mechanic, but very hard to master and control because everything happens so fast.
I think is it's a really ingenious way to design weapons that on the surface is counterintuitive but works incredibly well and creates amazing moments as a spectator and as a player. It sits in the right place between player skill and luck in a really exciting, satisfying way.
Do you think games can evolve to the point where shooters will no longer be relevant, and would you be into that?
If so, it's something that would have to happen slowly over a number of years. If you think about games that feature guns in a prominent way, you think about some of the most commercial video games on the planet that are selling you power fantasies and the opportunity to be a hero. It's not that distinct from film in some ways, where action movies remain a prominent and exciting and successful genre. I hate to say it, I don't want to sound too cynical, but until there's even more financial success available for these kind of games that don't involve shooting, ultimately, that's going to dictate a sizeable portion of the industry.
It feels like an inseparable part of gaming culture right now. I have a hard time imagining that 10-15 years from now, people will be tired of shooting, because they certainly haven't gotten tired yet.