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Digital Dominance: Goals

Digital Dominance: Guns

In the first of two pieces following up the Toy Chest & Play Set discussion, I look at the dominant depictive prop in videogames: the gun.

m4 Why are there so many videogames based around guns? It is not because play depends upon guns – board games have far fewer guns than, say, bank notes. No, the gun is dominant in videogames because we have chosen it, we have marked out the firearm as the toy we most want to play with.

There are many plausible scenarios for why this should be, but it would be safer to talk of the factors behind this situation. That the firearm has such a central role in action entertainment in other media – particularly TV and film – is certainly part of the story. Stories involving weaponry are exciting, and danger can be intoxicating. But it seems highly unlikely that we would be enjoying action movies with firefights if the gun were not already embedded in the culture. Real firearms put tremendous, terrible power into the hands of just about anyone. The gun thus has an aura of power to it, one that distracts from the direct dangers of having firearms in a culture, and instead affords a certain mystique. Thanks to news services, armed military operations are now an every-day part of our lives, affording these deadly tools a respectful edge: soldiers use guns to “defend freedom”. (Conversely, a weapon such as the garrotte, which is used only in skullduggery, lacks this kind of justifying mythology.)

The presence of a gun in a digital game has severe implications on the resulting play, as I have discussed briefly in A Toy Chest for Game Design. Ordinarily we would characterise the genre of a game with guns as either shooter or action, based on their similarity to other games that fit inside that term. A fresh way of thinking about genre would be to consider it in terms of the central prop – in which case gun game would be a genre term that would include all first person and third person shooters, most city-based games (gun/car games, perhaps) and much more beside. The gun has effects on games that are representational (i.e. appearance, Juul’s “fiction”) and functional (i.e. game mechanics, Juul’s “rules”). Exploring the consequences of having guns in a game reveals the nature of the gun as a prop, and suggests what is central to gun games.


Consequences of Guns

If we know that a game has a gun as one of its props, we can conclude a great deal about the game – perhaps not with absolute certainty, but with sufficient confidence that any game that bucked the trend would stand out for having chosen to be different. With a gun as a prop, we can expect the following other things to be part of the play:

  • Violence (implied by the gun)
  • Death (implied by the violence and the gun)
  • Repetition (implied by death)
  • Positional play, such as running for cover (implied by the gun)

Games do not need to have any of these things, but a game with guns is constrained by the inclusion of the gun. This has advantages – it focuses and clarifies what the player is supposed to do. Give the player a gun, they know they’re going to be shooting and killing things. Give the player a spoon, it’s harder to know what to expect. (A game with a spoon could still involve violence and death, but a game with a gun will involve violence and death).

What’s more, if the gun is the central prop of the game (i.e. the element around which all else revolves), there are further consequences, many of which are not as clean cut as those described above. Most of these consequences follow from the fact that the game will be offering a choice of firearms, and thus different guns will generally:

  • Have different capabilities
  • Imply different embedded play activities (e.g. sniping versus silenced stealth versus point-blank skirmishes etc.)
  • Imply different rates of movement when equipped.

This last one is interesting: at first glance, it may appear to be a representational consequence based on mimicking the real world. Except in the real world, it is what we are carrying that determines how fast we move, not what we are holding. In a 3D shooter where guns affect speed, however, holding a machine gun means running slowly, while holding a knife means running quickly – even if the avatar in question is still carrying the machine gun. This is a strange situation, but we accept it in FPS games because it feels right for their play. This is an example of functional considerations overruling representational considerations.

Conversely, reloading animations are an example of representational considerations dictating functional considerations. If representation of real weapons wasn’t a factor, game guns would fire constantly – as is the case in laser tag games, for instance, where no requirement for a reload exists. The choice to represent real guns – and there is always a draw for reality in representation, despite the imaginative bias of most gamer hobbyists – implies the reload. Once the reload animation is present, it generates play, as constraint tends to do, but its inclusion flows primarily from the representation.

What is revealed here is the interchange between representation (graphics and animation) and function (gameplay): one does not wholly dictate the other. Rather, the circumstances in effect have inherent representational elements, and consequent functional elements, from which decisions at the functional level feedback down to the representation. This “art-play" loop exerts tremendous influence on the development of games. Thinking about game design wholly in terms of function – in terms of gameplay alone – will be misleading. In fact, many successful videogames have prospered because they have worked on the representational consequences of the current functional trends and vice versa.


Circumstances for Guns

I have said that guns are primarily representational props, but that functional consequences flow from them (i.e. the graphics imply the gameplay). However, the possibilities for games with guns flow from the circumstances in which they appear – and the two most significant factors in this regard are projection and temporality (i.e. real time versus turn-based).

In fact, the gun invites the decision to prefer real time, and guns are not a particularly common prop in turn-based games. Once turn-based is the temporal paradigm, it makes more sense to be playing with toy soldiers and tanks than guns, or for that matter fantasy armies and dragons. Guns aren’t restricted to real time play, but they imply real time play in some weak sense that does not rise to the level of the consequences outlined above. Why should this be?

One answer emerges from considering projection. The oldest digital games use a second person, 2D projection (sprites etc.) because the technology was best suited to this viewpoint. This led to a fork based on temporality: in real time, the 2D projection led inevitably to the shooter format, with many target sprites to be shot down, and bullets to avoid. The modern descendents of this lineage, the vert shooters, ended up focussing on the bullet-dodging to the exclusion of all other play, but whether this was inevitable or not is a matter of debate. The other path in this fork, turn-based, lead to strategy games at a squad or army level. Whereas the shooters could not exist without guns, the strategy game didn’t actually gain any specific benefit from being wed to guns, and indeed gained more from abstracting out further – to wider scale military engagements – especially as computing power escalated.

However, with the rise of 3D in games, typified by Doom (id Software, 1993) – which not coincidentally had the gun as its central prop – the tension in temporality manifested as a clear bias towards real time. 3D doesn’t make a great deal of sense for a turn-based game, since the essence of non-real time play is in making considered decisions, and this rests on easy access to a lot of circumstantial information. Third person 2D is ideal for this. Conversely, 3D projections are ideal for delivering the player immediate information, and this immediacy works most effectively with real time play.

The use of a first person projection for these 3D shooters arose from technical limitations – it is considerably easier to render a convincing representation of a person running around shooting people when all you have to represent is the gun and their disembodied hands. Of course, with the technical “arms race” in the shooter market now, this has ceased to be an issue, and third person games compete with first person games freely. This has only been possible, however, because the first person perspective presented a functional problem to be solved, and once it was solved, third person games could piggy back on the solution.

The problem in question was movement in full 3D. Prior to 3D, only one joystick or set of arrow keys was usually needed. After 3D – even as far back as Battlezone (Atari, 1980) with its simple vector graphic tanks – two sticks were needed for complete control of movement. Battlezone was the first game to make this twin stick control mechanism work – but it wasn’t very popular in arcades, because people found these literal “tank controls” too difficult. Players in the community of gamer hobbyists had to be won-over to this more complex control mechanism over time, and with careful attention to iterative development of the interface design.

The PC drove this process – it’s mouse and keyboard configuration was ideally suited to this development. Early id Software games used WASD to move; once this skill was mastered, the addition of look on the mouse followed naturally. The fit to the real time 3D first person projection of games such as Quake (id Software, 1996) was nearly perfect, and players lapped up the “playground tag” experience that flowed from the placement of a gun prop into this representational configuration.

Getting the same mechanics onto consoles was tougher, but GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997) offered one of the first major solutions by using the N64’s C-buttons as a surrogate for WASD, while using them for looking rather than movement. With the arrival of dedicated twin stick controllers such as Sony’s DualAnalog (1995) – a rare case of Sony leading rather than following with hardware design – the console shooter scheme rapidly came in line with the PC, and the control standards of the gun game became established. Once twin stick control schemes were widely learned, third person projection of 3D gun games became viable, piggybacking on the technical and functional achievements of first person games.

Thus the first person shooter genre and its cousin the third person shooter are examples of a hugely successful gamer hobbyist niche market in which game design (in the sense of functional design) was never really in the driving seat. The evolution of the form was dictated primarily by representational factors, with the role of design being chiefly to solve the functional consequences that flowed from the representational choices. The only “choice” was whether to work with guns as a central prop or not: once the gun was installed, the representational consequences of the technology available (in terms of graphical power, and in terms of controller devices) dictated the development of the form. Gameplay did not trump representation in shooters – it was dependent upon it.

Interested in the relationship between imagination and games? The book Imaginary Games might be for you.

Next week: Digital Dominance – Goals


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Interesting points, but a couple of examples to consider how they affect your arguments.

Firstly, there are highly succesful turn-based third-person shooters where each gun counts: Sniper, UFO:Enemy Unknown and Jagged Alliance all come to mind. They can be far more tense than FPS games, as each bullet counts.

Secondly, the problem of 3D was more one of view/targetting than of movement. Although Battlezone has two sticks, this is an aesthetic choice; Each only had one axis, and the game could easily have made do with a single controller. Better examples might be flight simulators & space shooters, both of which managed true 3D navigation with a single stick, combined with a (low interactivity) throttle.

Shooters became highly playable when two sticks were available, but then you could disconnect the view/firing direction from the movement direction. However, this is more akin to 2D Robotron than 3D Battlezone.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Commander!

"...there are highly succesful turn-based third-person shooters where each gun counts: Sniper, UFO:Enemy Unknown and Jagged Alliance all come to mind. They can be far more tense than FPS games, as each bullet counts."

I'm afraid none of these games can be considered 'highly successful' if this refers to commerical success. None of those titles cleared a million units sold, I'm not even sure they cleared a quarter of a million.

This doesn't mean that the games don't work on their own aesthetic terms, of course - but it is telling that they enjoy a narrower audience, and this, I believe, supports the general thread I've developed in this piece.

"...the problem of 3D was more one of view/targetting than of movement."

Yes, I agree with what you say here. When I said 'movement in full 3D' I intended this to mean 'movement of the avatar and the camera' i.e. moving and looking in 3D. My believe is that the camera problems are inherent to 3D - indeed, this is why Super Mario 64 was so significant; it solved various problems in how to provide a working 3D camera without overly complex controls.

"Although Battlezone has two sticks, this is an aesthetic choice; Each only had one axis, and the game could easily have made do with a single controller."

Well, the choice was to provide accurate tank controls, which do (did?) use twin throttles, one for each tread. Remote control tank toys at theme parks used the same scheme, and to my knowledge still do - if you can find one, that is. :) I'm not sure what it means to say that they could have made do with a single controller - it would have been a completely different game if they had!

"Shooters became highly playable when two sticks were available, but then you could disconnect the view/firing direction from the movement direction. However, this is more akin to 2D Robotron than 3D Battlezone."

I see the connection you're making here, but Robotron: 2084 *didn't* offer control of the view, but rather independent control of firing - it's clear to me that you recognize this, but surely the separation of view and movement controls in twin sticks 3D shooters is very different, conceptually and practically, from a game with a fixed viewpoint where moving and firing are seperate.

That form, incidentally, was never really popular in the arcades, Smash TV not withstanding, and its current popularity with shooters on Xbox Live etc. is something I find slightly baffling. Perhaps having mastered twin sticks for 3D shooters, players are more open to these controls now than they were back in 1982 when Robotron was in the arcades?

Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!

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