Murder simulator. Virtual boot camp. Firearms training.
These are just some of the ways people have described video games ever since America began what often feels like its spiral into tragedy and denial with Columbine, followed by Paducah, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland and other scenes of mass violence.
Politicians, lobbyists and “experts” will try and tell Americans who — or what — is to blame after nearly every domestic attack. It’s routine at this point. While much of the country clamors for a discussion on common-sense gun laws, the gun lobby and the elected officials it supports blame first-person shooters, which they claim are providing the same sort of firearms training the military provides service members.
Retired Army psychologist Dave Grossman claims that video games endow children with, and I quote, “supernatural and superhuman marksmanship ability” to “score headshot after headshot, which is something trained soldiers can’t do.” Disbarred attorney Jack Thompson liked to claim that video games help you “kill with your heart rate never raising above 60 bpm.” Glenn Beck once referred to Call of Duty as training a new generation of killers and claimed (in regard to the game itself) that “these days, sixty dollars buys you the same thing“ as military training.
It sounds surreal — especially to me, for reasons we’ll get back to in a minute — but people buy this garbage. Or at least, they listen to it. But very few people are offering effective counterpoints, because there are so few individuals who have extensive experience in both firearms and video games who also want to tackle the topic in a serious way.
I know both firearms and video games
I’m a former U.S. Marine. I love gaming. As someone with generalized anxiety, this hobby and the friends I’ve made because of it literally saved my life. And it’s time someone with real-world experience with both firearms and video games pushed back against these narratives.
I fought in numerous combat theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was part of the second major Fallujah offensive in 2004 with the 2nd Marine Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, and I fought in Ramadi and Fallujah in 2005 with the 3rd Marine Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. I walked on patrol through Mahmoudiyah and drove roads laced with IEDs in the Triangle of Death. In Afghanistan, I saw action in Kabul, Kandahar, Helmand, Kapisa, Kunar and Nangarhar provinces.
I’ve also been through real boot camp. As in, I was there, physically present. Not some ridiculous “virtual boot camp” that some pundits call video games meant for entertainment.
I went through U.S. Marine Corps Boot Camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, and Marine Combat Training at Camp Geiger, North Carolina. This is the literal boot camp where they teach you how to kill with real firearms in combat situations, and how to cope with the act of killing.
This is where so many of these arguments fall apart. The idea that video games can turn you into a super soldier with incredible aim and target acquisition skills is utter garbage, and I’m speaking as someone who has actually fired a weapon at a target with the intent to kill.
Do video games actually make you a better marksman?
Let’s start by comparing a controller with an actual firearm used commonly by our armed forces.
An Xbox One controller is 6 inches by 4 inches by 1.7 inches and weighs 9.9 ounces, less than the equivalent of two apples. It fits nicely in your hands. You don’t press it into your shoulder or aim down the thumbstick to sight in. You don’t break your aim to reload, and you don’t have to deal with recoil or wind or debris. You don’t have to clear a jammed round or worry about flipping the safety on or off. You don’t have to deal with the noise, the smell of propellants, shit falling down around you and mass chaos. It’s a fucking plastic controller. The only body parts you need to manipulate it are thumbs and fingers.
An M16A4 with a loaded mag and sling weighs 8 pounds, 13 ounces, with a length of 39.5 inches. That’s without the numerous accessories that most people in combat (like myself) find useful, such as ACOGs, foregrips, tactical lights, lasers, hand guards or collapsible stocks. You press an M16 into your shoulder to absorb impact. You aim down iron sights. You perform a steady squeeze of the trigger. You deal with jams. You observe muzzle awareness. You deal with wind, dust, debris and more obscuring your view. You must control your breathing.
You don’t hit a button to reload; you lower the up to 11-pound weapon, eject the magazine, try to stow it without losing it, get a new mag, insert it and rack a round — and then you have to raise the weapon to shoulder level and sight in all over again. The number of physical tasks you must learn and absorb in order to effectively use a firearm in combat is huge, and that’s before you add the mental aspect of firing at a human target.
There is an ocean of difference between sighting in using a thumbstick in a game with aim assist, versus using a weapon with a sling, iron sights or a scope, moving parts, actual weight and heft, and targets moving erratically in every direction.
Case in point: I’d never fired a weapon before joining the Marine Corps. Ever. I’d played plenty of Doom, Quake, Halo and all the rest. I UNQ’ed (“unqualified”), and almost got kicked out of boot camp when I first went to the range in week six. After all, if you can’t fire, you can’t be a Marine.
I eventually got better through firearms training, not video games. You’ll deserve the mocking you’re likely to get from a Marine if you tell them that using a controller or mouse and keyboard to play a game is in any way similar to practical training.
Then there’s the argument made by the founder of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab that recently appeared on CNN’s website. “Guns in games shouldn’t have the mechanics of real ones,” wrote Jeremy Bailenson in an opinion piece. “You shouldn’t hold a realistically weighted, gun-shaped object and pull a trigger in virtual reality. Instead, to operate a virtual gun, you should flick your wrist or bend your elbow.”
This sounds scary to a parent, sure, but the controllers described in that passage don’t actually exist in any meaningful way. Find me a widely available, commercially successful peripheral for PC, PS4 or Xbox One that feels like an M16, especially one loaded with extra kit. I’ll wait right here. Try to find one at a store. Even virtual reality controllers, which are arguably closer to guns than standard gamepads, still just look like this.
Here’s another excerpt from that same article: “Let’s change the physics of bullets. To hit a target straight ahead, one needs to arc it to account for its return swing. If virtual reality bullets traveled with a slight curve, then virtual shooters would always be pointing away from a target in order to eventually hit it. This learned side-aiming would likely carry over to the real world, and people would have trouble hitting a target straight ahead.”
The idea that we need to make firearms in games behave in an inaccurate manner — in order to “train” players in an incorrect way that would carry over to real-world conditions — only works if you believe that games are already teaching people how to shoot. They are not.
Remember how I mentioned variables? Wind, dust, shit flying around you? Screams? Noise? Explosions? Things getting kicked into the air? Targets taking cover? Yeah, I’ve seen that, done that. And I’m here to tell you: Nudging a thumbstick to the left is nothing compared to adjusting fire with an actual weapon to hit a moving target when considering environmental factors.
The whole argument that games teach you how to shoot, or kill, better is absolute nonsense. If you think for one second that being able to fire at a video game target without having to compensate for environmental variables will enable you to consistently hit center mass in the real world, variables or not, putting that theory into action will quickly teach you otherwise.
I’m not saying that high-level players of first-person shooters are unskilled at what they do — the best competitors practice for hundreds of hours to become masters at the games they play — I’m saying that those skills in no way carry over to actual shooting in a combat scenario.
To be clear, this also works in the other direction; plenty of Marines are either clueless about games or are terrible at them. Learning to be proficient with actual firearms won’t also make you a great Counter-Strike player.
We don’t train with VR, we train with firearms
There’s also the claim that the military is using VR to train soldiers, and that said training can somehow be replicated by players at home.
The Marine Corps taught me to shoot on the range, with an M16, accounting for wind, distance, breathing and composure. We sure as hell didn’t train with Doom, as Dave Grossman once hilariously claimed in a debate on national television with Gary Whitta, then the editor-in-chief of PC Gamer magazine. And actual combat taught me that no training, be it practical application or “virtual,” can prepare you to fire a weapon like Hawkeye, especially under duress. There’s a reason that VR training hasn’t replaced training with real weapons, even though the cost of VR equipment has plummeted in the past few years: Our military is focused on results, and virtual training with firearms just doesn’t teach you real-world shooting skills in a way that would be appropriate for combat.
Don’t worry about ridiculous, imaginary “virtual boot camps” in which a possible mass shooter could hone his craft. That’s a talking points memo from someone who wants to avoid discussing gun legislation. If you want to keep possible mass shooters from “honing their craft,” you should make it much more difficult for individuals to acquire firearms.
I myself own a handgun, but I don’t need an AR-15. Neither do you. None of us do. We’re civilians. We must stop blaming a medium that studies have shown time and time and time and time again has no causal relationship with real-world violence.
Hell, more often than not, violent games have nothing to do with mass shootings. Seung-Hui Cho didn’t play games. Adam Lanza played Dance Dance Revolution. In fact, 80 percent of mass shooters show no interest in violent video games. We must start blaming the connective tissue that ties all these incidents together: the easy access to, and ready availability of, assault-style weapons. It’s OK to have this conversation, people.
Take it from a U.S. Marine, parents of America: Video games won’t make your kid a better marksman. Video games are not turning our children or troubled men into rogue Special Forces operators. Nor are they turning kids into better race car drivers, better computer hackers, better farmers or better plumbers. If you’re a former serviceman or servicewoman, you know the truth, same as I do. And it’s time to speak up.
We live in a country where we can win an AR-15 in a raffle and religious congregations hold worship ceremonies honoring their firearms while wearing crowns made of 5.56 mm rounds. We have a much, much bigger problem than shooty-bang video games, and we need to address it. Too many future parents, inventors, teachers and leaders of our country have already died far too young, and the problem has nothing to do with video games.
John Phipps is an avid gamer, JRPG/Dark Souls junkie, and former U.S. Marine with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan over numerous deployments. You can find him on Twitter @mistermegative and as a podcast host @officialSDGC.