Ryan Smith’s apartment has two giant wide-screen televisions and three video gaming systems: an X-box and Playstation in his bedroom, and a Wii in the living room. He says he grew up playing Mario and Ms Pacman and now reviews the latest game releases for a number of publications and websites. Yes, video games, a $25 billion industry, are now so popular that they have professional game reviewers.
Smith admits he still plays for fun, even getting together with his buddies on the weekend to play the “first person shooter” game “Call of Duty,” which is currently the most played game in the country. One of the game’s selling points is its realism – from the real-world settings in which the action takes place, to the weapons used by the gunmen, to the blood that splatters when a target is hit. Players can play the role of a US soldier or a mercenary for hire and choose from a range of authentic weaponry.
“The focus used to be World War II,” Smith said, explaining how the games have evolved. “Over time they’ve gone to more modern, realistic type of game with weapons that are true to life.”
Lately, however, he and many others have come to question possible links between games and real world violence. After the shootings that left 26 students and teachers dead at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school, the executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne Lapierre, was quick to point a finger at "a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people,” the gaming industry.
The game makers’ response is that there is no conclusive evidence linking game play to real world violence. But neither they nor Lapierre can deny the strong ties between the gaming and gun industries.
Smith first became concerned when he found a link to the gun manufacturer McMillan on the website for the game Medal of Honor. It was on a “partners” page that also included links to the company Magpul, which makes scopes and the magazines that hold ammunition. Essentially, a site where you can buy the actual gun was just a click away from the game site. There was even a cross-promotional video featuring Magpul accessories, used in a photo shoot to promote the game.
The game maker EA (Electronic Arts) took down the links after Ryan wrote about them but the connections between the gun and game industries don’t stop there. This article by eurogamer.net, to which Ryan contributed, details the shadowy relationship even further. In short, some game makers are paying gun makers to replicate their weapons in games, and the gun manufacturers are benefitting from the exposure.
To be sure, advertising experts tell me that video games are being targeted by all sorts of companies, from Nissan to Nike, who are eager to reach a young male demographic.
To better understand how a veteran gamer like Smith has come to worry about the very games that help him earn a living he took me to meet his 13-year-old nephew, Aidin, in Springfield, Ill.
Aidin is a big Call of Duty fan. He has a collection of “pellet guns” – the kind that shoot bb’s instead of bullets – that are based on the weapons in the game, a hot item among kids these days. Aidin showed me his Colt M1911 replica. It felt surprisingly heavy in my hand. It would be pretty easy to mistake it for a real weapon.
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“It’s all action,” Aidin said to explain what he likes about the games. “I like lots of action.”
Aidin was recently suspended from school for bringing one of his pellet guns. He says he took the gun home from his grandfather’s house and forgot it was in his backpack. Aidin’s grandparents – Smith’s parents – have helped raise him since he was a year old and his parents divorced. He still shuttles back and forth between them and his now-remarried mother’s house.
Mark Smith, Aidin’s grandfather, got him both the guns and the games, which kids under 18 aren’t supposed to buy without parental approval. He says he used to play cops and robbers and war games as a kid, and didn’t see much difference with the video games. And he probably isn’t alone in that line of thinking.
“He had a friend that got the modern warfare game before he did and we thought the parents were strict,” Smith explained. “We said well, if you’re going to play it at your friend’s house, you might as well have a copy.”
It’s not like Aidin – or any kid – can just go online and buy a weapon. There are restrictions for on-line gun sales to prevent that. But real guns are available in many American homes, including Aidin’s. His grandfather, an army veteran, keeps a couple rifles in the same rack as one of Aidin’s pellet guns. They hang on the wall in the very same room where he plays video games (the ammunition is kept locked in a safe).
Aidin told me he knows the difference between a game and the real thing, and that the games help him to “pass the time.”
For his uncle, however, it is all a bit too close for comfort. He knows Aidin is entering the tumultuous teen-aged years, that he’s had trouble in school, and comes from a broken home.
“To see my nephew become obsessed with Call of Duty,” Smith said. “and to talk about these real guns and know the magazine size and know all the specifications of these guns. To see that, it really disturbed me.”
Adam Lanza, the Newtown gunman, was reportedly an avid player of first-person shooters. President Obama has called on Congress to fund more research into possible links between violence and game-playing. In the meantime, the ties between the gun and game industries continue to lurk in the shadows… and the bedrooms of kids like Aidin.