Ever since a graduate student claiming to be The Joker allegedly shot dozens of moviegoers at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, the debate about gun control has been co-opted by those attempting to connect or disconnect the dots between the fiction of costumed comic book characters gunning for each other in Christopher Nolan’s violent opus and the very real slaughter that left 12 people dead. Video games have been mentioned mostly by proxy in the conversation (the movie theater gunman was reportedly addicted to Guitar Hero, not Call Of Duty), but this might also be an opportune moment for the industry to reexamine its long love affair with the modern military shooter and attempts to blur the line between violent video game fantasy and reality.
Take, for instance, the rather overt case of Electronic Arts’ Medal Of Honor: Warfighter. Companies often toss around buzzwords like “immersion” or “authenticity” to promote their video games, but EA’s claim that they’ll “put you directly in the boots of the soldier” for the upcoming sequel to Medal Of Honor doesn’t just smack of hacky marketing speak. First, there’s the promise of ripped-from-the-headlines settings and characters in Warfighter—you’ll be battling the Islamic separatist group Abu Sayyaf and the Somalia-based cell of al-Qaeda in “real-life hotspots” around the world. But EA takes the realism factor further by allowing players to test out a photorealistic replica of, for example, the TAC-300 sniper rifle. Like the way the gun drops terrorists or racks up headshots in multiplayer? Feel free to visit Warfighter’s official website and click on a sponsored link that will take you to McMillan, the manufacturer of the gun. There you may purchase a real-life TAC-300 to your own specification (night-vision kit is optional!) and have it shipped to your local federally licensed gun dealer for pickup.
There are a host of other guns, knives, scopes, and weapon accessory companies listed as “partners” on the website for Warfighter. (There are 11 listed at time of writing, and EA says they’re revealing a new partner each week.) In October, you’ll be able to purchase a limited edition Medal Of Honor: Warfighter tomahawk for $75 from SOG Knives that features “an extended cutting head.” It’s certainly a bit more intense than, say, the pewter dragon from the Skyrim Collector’s Edition.
In EA’s defense, the company has created Project Honor, a program that promises to donate money from Medal Of Honor-themed merchandise sold in their partners’ respective stores to charities like the Navy SEAL Foundation and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Honoring the military is a worthy cause, but EA is still doing so by promoting weapons that lead to 10,000 homicides on average a year in the United States.
To be honest, military shooters crossed into ethically murky waters even before Medal Of Honor’s blatant gun advertising. That’s weird for me to write because I’ve always toed the libertarian line on this issue. To me, guns and video games are irrevocably intermeshed like the electronic guitar and rock music. I’ve personally killed hundreds of thousands of people in games (and have the Xbox achievements to prove it) with rifles, pistols, missile launchers, machetes, chainsaws, and gravity guns. I’ve rarely batted an eyelash in response to all of the virtual brutality. But I was also lucky enough to grow up in an era when dissociating the onscreen violence from anything in real life was easy. I was weaned on 8-bit shooters like Ikari Warriors and Contra—both of which portray military operations about as accurately as Super Mario Bros. demonstrates life as a plumber in Brooklyn. In those early games, bullets pop slowly out of pistols like slow-moving golf balls, and enemies don’t “die” as much as they flash briefly before vanishing.
The technological sophistication of military shooters has increased over the years to the point where the guns look awfully close to weapons used in real battlefields and—“uncanny valley” issues aside—enemy soldiers resemble real human beings. When we shoot them, they don’t flicker out of existence. They scream and bleed and die. Of course, the realism that military shooters portray tends to be an aesthetic one. The shooting galleries of Medal Of Honor and Call Of Duty aren’t much like real soldiering—as pointed out by the Onion parody “Ultra-Realistic Modern Warfare Game Features Awaiting Orders, Repairing Trucks.”
But try telling that to my 13-year-old nephew, who got kicked out of school after getting caught with a semi-automatic BB gun in his backpack. It’s not a coincidence that the gun resembles his favorite weapon from Modern Warfare 3. Call Of Duty has fostered an obsession with all things guns and military for him. He can rattle off obscure details about the clip size and firing range of assault rifles, and he says he wants to serve as a Navy SEAL after graduating high school. Sure, his parents shouldn’t have let him start playing M-rated military shooters at age 10, but listening to all of the prepubescent squeals during a usual multiplayer match, I know he’s not the exception to the rule.
I can’t say for certain whether or not my nephew would have brought a gun to school without the role of military video games, nor can I say if gun sales will increase because of Medal Of Honor: Warfighter. But if we want the vicarious thrills of violent video games to remain morally justifiable, we need to protect the fourth wall between the first-person shooter and real life. EA’s willingness to make a connection between a video game gun and an actual firearm is the strongest evidence yet that we’ve already let the wall crumble too much.