Shoot ‘Em Up: A History of Video Games and Violence

Joel Harvey

As far back as we can remember, video games have handed us a gun and told us to shoot.

Aliens, demons, Nazis, etc. Gaming and guns have been cozy bedfellows since the dawn of the first era of arcade cabinets and home consoles. These two fast friends have remained tight to this day, with shooters dominating sales to become one of the biggest-selling genres in gaming history.

The growth of such a genre can be attributed to a strange desire to mercilessly shoot things. That odd part of our brain which yearns to pull out a virtual weapon, and blast our enemy full in the face with it. Seriously, Freud would have a field day with this if he were alive today. How would Sigmund interpret our fascination with guns in gaming though? He’d ask us to go back and start at the very beginning…

First Shots

To understand how guns infiltrated gaming, you must first understand how guns infiltrated the human psyche. And that is by no means easy (unless Freud really was here). So we’re going to skip all that and sum it up like this: us human folk like violence. We evolved from apes, where good old fashioned violence solved many problems. Early Neanderthals retained such brutal problem-solving skills, and we as a species haven’t looked back since. Wars and destruction have been our raison d’être, propelled by weaponry such as firearms. Thankfully for most of us, none of this was real though.

For better or worse, guns have been assimilated into popular culture today. Thanks to action films like The Terminator and Die Hard, ours is a generation that was brought up on a steady diet of cinematic bloodbaths. And ever since seminal Nintendo light-gun games like Wild Gunman (“You mean you have to use your hands?“) and Duck Hunt, guns have been an integral part of video game history too.

Yes, who’d have thought it but it was family-friendly Nintendo that helped to kick-start our gaming lust for shooting things. With these early shooters, we indulged in the purest form of old-school gun gaming. Complete with a lovely light-gun peripheral, our childhood was spent in arcades (and later in our homes on the NES) shooting virtual cowboys and ducks. But it was shooting virtual Nazis that birthed the shooting genre most of us know and love today.

Rise of the FPS

First-person shooters may not have started with Wolfenstein 3D (the first FPS was technically Maze War), but it was this classic that made the genre what it is. Without it, there simply wouldn’t have been any of our modern-day FPS games. What developers id Software did with Wolfenstein was to create a template that 3D shooters would use for years to come. It was an immersive landscape that put you, the player, front and center of shooting everything in your sight. And not just in front of you either, but in all directions around you too. It changed everything.

The success of Wolfenstein opened the door for shooters. And behind that door, was a hundred cacodemons. Doom in 1993 took the success of Wolfenstein, and added monstrous demons into the mix. It also upped the speed too, fully realizing the potential of FPS to be intensely frenetic and downright terrifying. There is surely no greater panic in gaming history, than the panic you felt in the later levels of Doom. This was as much a FPS game, as it was a survival horror game.

After the hellworld of Doom, we entered FPS worlds like Quake and Goldeneye. These were the titles which opened up the virtual playground of pretend gun-fights to the world. The FPS had now gone fully multiplayer, and the fun of shooting your pals could really begin. And when the internet became more accessible to users at the start of the millennium, the genre went global. Since then, games like Counter Strike and Call of Duty have globalised video game shootouts and brought players together in violent harmony. Because a stranger is only a friend that you haven’t taken out with a sniper yet.

Gunning with Controversy

As well as FPS games, guns are in just about every other genre of gaming too (even Mario had Bullet Bill). The use of guns in what was ostensibly considered (by parents and the media) as a product aimed at children, was often met with anger though. This vitriol intensified with the release of top-down shooters like Grand Theft Auto and Postal. These games specifically used controversial elements such as mass-shootings as rewardable gameplay. And because of this, many pointed the finger of blame at video games after high-profile shootings such as Columbine in 1999. GTA managed to move on from such controversy though, but its series of immersive sandbox games would present new questions about the future of shooters.

The GTA games did something that has never been successfully done before in shooting games – it created a virtual, living world to shoot someone in. As the series progressed, these worlds became more and more realistic. And with the much-heralded second coming of Virtual Reality gaming, could we eventually find ourselves in a VR GTA world? Sure, it sounds a fascinating idea and one that most people would give their right, left, and anyone else’s arms, to experience. But such a development could be a difficult step for gun use in video games.

VR Shootouts

Despite the hysterics of the media and politicians in the past over video games and violence, the furor has dissipated in recent years. Primarily, because the majority of people are now able to accurately form distinctions between video games and real-life violence. The former does not create the latter, it merely reflects the sick, sad world that we live in. But VR worlds are different, and the advancements in technology mean that in decades to come, they could well be the second worlds that we live and work in. A realistic virtual world where you can freely shoot people with guns, poses some very real ethical questions.

Maybe for the next generation of gamers and developers in the world of VR gaming, this is the kind of difficult debate that will need answering. For now though, shooters remain a foundation of the video game industry and with such mass appeal, they’re unlikely to change much in the foreseeable future. When they’re done well, these games are stupidly fun entertainment for millions of us. And they offer a safe release, for whatever weird part and power-hungry part of our human psyche that enjoys playing with weapons of mass destruction.



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