In 2014, 21% of video game sales in the US were ‘Shooters’, and another 28% were ‘Action’ games, likely featuring guns in some capacity. So why are guns in video games so popular? Since 2008, Call of Duty consistently placed in the top ten-bestselling games of the year. In 2015, two Call of Duty games made the top ten, along with Fallout 4, Grand theft Auto V and Star Wars: Battlefront (Venturebeat.com). The fascination with guns is largely a western phenomenon. In Japan last year, only one shooter featured in their top ten-bestselling games and that was Splatoon (Kotaku), a cartoony game about squirting paint, and not a grizzled shaved head in sight.
As game mechanics go, the idea of a shooter is simple: you point and shoot; be it from a fixed position, with a light gun, in first person or third person over the shoulder. Once you’ve used a control stick or mouse to aim in one shooter you can do it in all of them- shooters embody the idea of ‘easy to learn, hard to master’.
Shooting is perhaps the easiest form of violence to pick up in video games. There are no combos to learn or parry timings to perfect. Not to say all shooters are the same. You might not have the easiest time jumping from Splatoon to Counter Strike, but aside from the million ways you can finesse the details of your shooter, the idea of pointing and clicking remains simple.
Perhaps the reason shooters are so popular is people love shooting each other. From toddlers to adults, people love the fantasy of shooting each other. Whether it’s kids fighting their way through dense jungles of their back garden, hosing down their friends with imaginary bullets from imaginary guns, to a group of co-workers mercilessly gunning each other down on the paintball field, the fantasy of violence is prevalent across many age groups.
The emulation of violence and war in pursuits of leisure is a characteristic of our society millennia old. The pursuits of hunting, tournament fighting or even battling with wooden swords taught skills valuable to those living within a medieval society where violence was endemic, whilst pastimes like airsoft, paintball, laser-tag or Nerf do not provide any skills for modern combat. In the same way that violence has influenced active pursuits, it has been a major influence on art, poetry and literature, and so arguably then the video game as an interactive medium allows both artistic expression to be combined with the feel of an active pursuit. War as a game has a way of appealing to those who find the real concept of it abhorrent. For instance, H.G.Wells, a famously outspoken pacifist, developed the rules for a war game to be played with toy soldiers.
But why guns specifically? What I have said applies to any violent video game. Arguably guns are so popular because they are the most up to date method for causing misery that we have. Had the Wars of the Roses actually been a late medieval eSports tournament, the most prolific videogame weapon of the age would have been the sword; the most cutting edge of weapons technology back then. Guns in video games allow people to achieve that cinematic power fantasy with instant satisfaction. Click the mouse, a beautifully rendered gun recoils on screen, bright red pixels bloom from the face of your foe and points fly up on the screen. Rinse, repeat. Call of Duty perhaps best embodies this power fantasy, placing you as the hero , facing down this year’s foreigners of choice as they dare to get in the way of ‘freedom’.
‘Shooters’ are incredibly varied, from the pedantic “realism’’ and detail of ARMA to the incredibly competitive Counter Strike with its high skill bar for entry, but it’s the mainstream triple-A ‘Shooters’ designed to give the player a giddy power trip that are the most successful in sales. Like fast food these games satiate a craving, each kill, each unlock, each explosion providing momentary fulfilment, before giving way to hunger for more hollow satisfaction.