Blame defies basic mathematics.
Just because one person is 100% to blame for something, that doesn’t mean others don’t have their own portion of culpability.
For example, in last week’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the shooter was to blame. He planned the shooting, he bought the guns to facilitate it, he pulled the trigger.
Yet if the blame was his and only his, there wouldn’t be anything left to do, as he’s now dead, and we can be certain he’ll never do this again.
But everybody’s arguing about next steps, because we all understand this shooting was not an isolated incident. Mass shootings have become so commonplace that most of them are barely a blip in the news cycle. Mass Shooting Tracker has identified 21 mass shootings — four or more people shot — in the US in the nine days since Uvalde, collectively killing 21 more people and injuring 93.
Drilling down into the individual shootings, we see a variety of motivations: bigotry, desperation, nihilism, revenge, and so on. But the common thread, of course, is guns.
These shootings are part of a larger trend across society, something happening the world over, but finding expression in the US with overwhelming regularity. If we assume the US has not cornered the market on bigotry, desperation, nihilism, and revenge, the differentiating factor would seem to be the abundance of firearms in the US, and the ease with which people can obtain them.
So who’s to blame for that?
Politicians, for one. Like the politicians who made researching gun violence off limits to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who let the federal assault weapons ban lapse, who routinely do the gun lobby’s work for it, who see the bloody results of a country with too many guns and believe the answer is always more guns.
Then there are the people who make and market the guns, whose livelihood is premised on their ability to get more deadly weapons into more people’s hands, who sell people a fantasy of empowerment and lethal control over their fellow humans, whose marketing invites you to imagine how totally sweet it would be to snipe someone in an SUV downtown, utterly devoid of any kind of pretext about self-defense, hunting, a well-regulated militia, or any of the other reasons people supposedly have to own these weapons.
And of course there’s the NRA, a lobbying group for gun owners that first ensures its membership is armed as heavily as possible, and then riles them up with propaganda about liberals and the media, toeing the line of incitement to violence laws by urging its members “to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.”
Each of these people and groups has had a hand in fostering the obsessive gun culture that is preventing movement on this issue in the US and enabling additional mass shootings on a daily basis. (2014 was the last year Mass Shooting Tracker recorded fewer mass shootings in the US than days in the year.)
And it’s not too hard to pull back one more step and point to the people voting for those politicians, or putting money into the pockets of the NRA and the gun manufacturers. It’s hard for a politician to do much without holding office, for a lobbying group to run ads and sway legislators without money, or for a business to stay afloat without customers.
But where does the blame stop? In the past week we’ve seen plenty of people in gaming say it stops well before it gets to our doorstep, often pointing to the numerous parties clearly more complicit in this long-running tragedy.
If guns and gun culture are The Problem, then anyone feeding into that culture, reinforcing it, or building their business off it must also have some culpability…
But if guns are The Problem and the popularity of guns and gun culture is keeping us from doing anything about it, then anyone feeding into that culture, reinforcing it, or building their business off it must also have some culpability, no matter how far removed and reduced from that of the person pulling the trigger.
And you really don’t need to look very hard to see evidence of how the games industry feeds into — and benefits from — gun culture.
Developers of military shooters in particular have touted “authenticity” and “realism” as they bring real-world instruments of death to video game life in exacting detail while trivializing the damage they do with bullet sponge bad guys, achievements for headshot streaks, and regenerating health for the heroes.
And to go a step beyond the games themselves, we have M-rated brands like Call of Duty selling literal toys for kids ages 8 and up with marketing copy hyping up the “realistic” and “authentic” weapons the action figures wield.
In the past, publishers paid for the privilege of having the real-world brands in their games, building marketing campaigns around such authenticity.
At the height of that era, Medal of Honor Warfighter executive producer Greg Goodrich even wrote a series of blog posts on the game’s official site celebrating the products of the gun and knife manufactures featured in the game.
“I first saw the completed CS5 [described as a ‘concealable’ sniper system] late last year, and was blown away,” Goodrich said in the post for arms manufacturer McMillan Firearms, which had four guns in the game. He added that the company’s weapons were “impressive” and “awe-inspiring,” saying “It doesn’t get any more authentic than this. Check out the McMillan website and shoot to win!”
(The Medal of Honor site also linked to sponsors selling Medal of Honor-branded Tomahawks and tactical sniper rifle kits, but that was a little too directly promoting weapon sales and generated public criticism, so EA pulled the plug on the tie-ins and took the blog posts down.)
Then the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in December of 2012, and everything changed.
No, not the gun laws, silly. I meant the overtly cozy and cross-promotional relationship between gun manufacturers and publishers changed.
Some months after the shootings and another round of governmental scrutiny about violent games, EA said it would stop licensing gun manufacturers but use the guns in their games anyway. Other major publishers quietly followed suit in the years to come, sometimes hiding clearly recognizable designs behind fictitious names.
Not paying for licenses took away some direct monetary support the industry was giving gun manufacturers, but that amount pales in comparison to the value of the visibility franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield can give these products.
And you can bank on that because we have yet to see a gun manufacturer sue over the unlicensed use of its weapons in video games. (Although we have seen a game developer consider legal action against a gun manufacturer for making a real gun out of their fictitious firearm, another example of how the two industries feed each other.)
On the other hand, back in 2011, Bell Helicopter had no problem suing EA over the unlicensed use of its aircraft in Battlefield 3, probably because the marketing aspect isn’t as valuable when your average gamer will never be in a position to go out and impulse buy a military helicopter. (It’s also telling that EA felt it had to license guns in the name of authenticity, but decided a helicopter company wasn’t such an important brand to have formally on board.)
Gun manufacturers know it’s good business to have an industry selling power fantasies in which your product is the source of power
It strikes me as being a lot like livestreaming, a key part of the games media ecosystem built almost entirely on technical violations of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Between the letter of the law and the average streamer’s inability/unwillingness to fund a legal defense, game developers and publishers could keep their games off streaming platforms almost entirely, but they’ve been smart enough to recognize the incredible marketing potential that comes with having an army of content creators talking about and streaming their games.
As a result, they have (mostly) looked the other way when it comes to streamers.
Gun manufacturers appear to be doing the same thing, because they know it’s good business to have an industry selling power fantasies in which your product is the source of power.
And that’s the key point here. The games industry isn’t putting guns in anybody’s hands or pulling any triggers. It’s just doing its absolute best to make real-world guns and pulling their triggers really fucking fun.
If anything bad ever comes from that, who are we to blame?