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Devs discuss how mass shootings hit their mental health

The nonstop trend of American mass shootings has some developers re-examining their relationship with working on gun-focused games.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

June 22, 2022

4 Min Read
A screenshot from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II

The horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, TX where 18-year old Salvador Ramos fatally shot nineteen students and two teachers at an elementary school has rocked the entire country. While broader news coverage of the story has focused on how police failures on the scene possibly contributed to more deaths, game developers who work on games that center modern-day firearms have been wrestling with their emotions about the event.

While news of the shooting (and the continued lack of regulatory action to prevent future shootings) is traumatizing enough, several developers told Waypoint's Patrick Klepek that their work on first-person shooter games like Call of Duty has become more difficult as more of these shootings take place.

There's an interesting amount of nuance to be pulled from the stories these developers tell. As always, it's worth spelling out that years of evidence and research has shown no causal link between violent video games and violent real-life actions. That said, developers from different backgrounds are now contemplating how their games contribute to American gun culture.

The developers (many anonymous, though some went on the record) described a more diluted link between their work and the Uvalde mass shooting. Games like Call of Duty license the images of real-world guns like the M16 from gun manufacturers to create a specific brand of authenticity in their depictions of modern warfare. Said games realistically depict how said guns fire and operate, but don't show the damage they can cause to people and communities.

Making virtual versions of these real-life firearms fun to play with bleeds into elements of American gun culture that celebrate and advocate for the right to own these weapons. That advocacy has escalated sharply in the last two decades, as U.S. regulators continue to ease restrictions on gun ownership even as mass shootings increase.

(It's worth noting that mass shootings do make up only a fraction of reported instances of gun violence. Most American shootings are instances of interpersonal conflict or attempts at self-harm that involve handguns.)

And so while the developers Klepek spoke to are well aware that the games they make don't make people more violent, they do wonder if they've played a part in continued inaction on gun safety legislation.

"That culture, and the people within it," one anonymous developer told Klepek "are the biggest obstacle I see in passing reasonable gun laws that would respect the second amendment while also reducing the number of mass shootings."

Said developer described being worried about their role as "a tiny cog in a larger machine that may have been doing more than I realized."

Even gun-owning developers like Hinterland Games design director Brian Hicks have changed their thinking in the wake of the Uvalde killings. Hicks told Klepek that he's been rethinking about his work on DayZ,  and pointed out that the growth of the survival genre has started to seed new kinds of design logic in the world of interactive shooters. "I look at the message my work (specifically DayZ) communicated to those who enjoyed it, and honestly with that product it was far more 'trust no one, do whatever it takes to survive' than I think should be being put out there."

That isolationist attitude of sole survival informed by firearms has been a hallmark of gun culture for at least the last two decades. 

What makes this introspective struggle more complicated is that as author and researcher Patrick Markey told Klepek, even if you could study the link between shooting games and gun culture, it doesn't matter if the goal is to seek ways of reducing violence. 

The mental damage inflicted on game developers wrestling with these questions is far from the most important questions being asked in the wake of Uvalde shooting, but there's a standout trend in Klepek's reporting: The United States' continued inaction on preventing widespread gun violence inflicts its own trauma as people look for other solutions, and that trauma hits differently for developers working on commercially popular shooters.

"I empathize with people who are hurting but [I] don’t agree that games are the main culprit," one anonymous developer told Klepek, referring to people who criticized his work on Call of Duty after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. "I take their grief not as a personal attack. It’s more of a reflection on the struggle to make sense of why a government continues to fail them."

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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