In what is becoming a bit of a ritual, last night at midnight, city centres nationwide were inundated with huge queues of passionate gamers, baying and screaming, waiting impatiently for the doors of stores to open wide, to claim their very own copy of the thing they had been waiting so long for... Black Ops 2, the latest in the multi-million dollar game series.
For so many people, Black Ops 2 is more than just a game, it's a hobby and way of life. It's a social experience that empowers millions of people to fight it out on the virtual battlefield, for competition, for honour, for victory. To those who are new to the hallowed halls of this online multiplayer, I've got two words for you: good luck. You'll need it.
But what is the fascination of it all, what is it that appeals to so many people? Is it the lure of winning, of proving yourself to others that you are the best there is? Or is it more than that; is there something deeply psychological about becoming a virtual soldier? Of doing something in a created 'imaginary' space that so few are brave enough to do for real; to be a marine, a soldier fighting for your country and putting your body in the crosshairs of the enemy? Or maybe, just maybe, it's all about the gun.
Ever since the classic 1978 Space Invaders, the idea of firing projectiles at oncoming enemies has been a key part of what makes gaming addictive. Space Invaders was different to other games, games that mixed in puzzle and tactics, like Pac-Man. Pac-Man, probably the second more notable game from the era flipped the attacking nature of Space Invaders into a rather passive experience. Rather than shooting oncoming enemies, the player was instead required to run, run as fast as they could away from the chasing ginger bread man...or ghosts. But this very simple premise set in Space Invaders gave birth to the shooter, as we know it today.
It was a long time before games utilised the weapon by putting them in the player's hands for real, creating a 'first person' experience. But as graphics and consoles improved, the first 3D games allowed a level of true interaction that had never been seen before. Now the enemies didn't just come flooding towards the players 'Avatar', they came straight towards the camera, straight towards you. Wolfenstein 3D, released in 1995 is often stated to be the daddy of all first person shooters, a game which took the idea of firing guns at oncoming enemies to a visceral, bloody and realistic experience. The gamer's perspective was now transformed into the characters, William Blazkowicz, a thick-skinned, gun wielding American soldier of Polish descent. You had one mission, to escape a Nazi castle, and kill everything that moved. The first person camera made you feel as though you were holding the gun, it was you aiming down the sights at the oncoming Nazi hordes, the fact the gun could be seen floating just below the centre of the screen made it even more immersive.
The First Person shooter developed over the years to become one of the main genres of games, probably the highest selling in fact, and notable games of this type include Doom, which replaced the Nazi's from Wolfenstein with demons from hell. Goldeneye, which was released on the Nintendo 64 turned the first person shooter into a truly competitive experience, most gamers of my generation will have some memory of hunching over a small television with 4 friends playing death match levels like Aztec and Cradle. Next there was Half-Life in 1998, a first person shooter of a different kind. Intelligent, character driven with an awesome plot line, Half-Life gave gamers even more reason to love the gun, playing as Dr Gordon Freeman you were tasked with stopping inter-dimensional hordes after an experiment goes horribly wrong. Next was the Call Of Duty series, which is where we are at today.
The ability in a 3D realistic world to openly pick up a prostitute, have sex with her and then shoot her and steal her money was clearly a step too far in the wrong direction and the game was slated in the press.
As much as first person shooters have caused controversy by placing the gamer's perspective inside that of the characters, It's actually the Third Person games, with guns at their heart that have probably been more controversial over the past decade. Third person games such as Grand Theft Auto, and atrocious games like 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand have been pinpointed as the main culprit in the games industry in desensitising youths to guns.
Rather than focusing on immersion through camera placement, the Grand Theft Auto series have given the player the freedom to do whatever they like, however they like. The biggest sandbox game of its kind (sandbox literally means you can go anywhere and do anything in a large-scale closed environment), when the first Grand Theft Auto was released on the Playstation in 1997 it caused a public outcry.
Clearly parents were shocked at watching their young children playing as a gangster, wielding pistols, automatic firearms and being able to crush innocent bystanders with their cars. However it wasn't until Grand Theft Auto III came out on the Playstation 2 when the game really started to turn heads. The ability in a 3D realistic world to openly pick up a prostitute, have sex with her and then shoot her and steal her money was clearly a step too far in the wrong direction and the game was slated in the press. It was also the culprit in a multi-million dollar lawsuit in the U.S.A. after teenagers William and Josh Buckner started taking pot shots at passing cars. Two people died, and their families sued Rockstar and Take-Two when the defendants mentioned Grand Theft Auto as the inspiration behind their shootings.
Since, Grand Theft Auto IV has also been released on the Xbox 360 and PS3 to more controversy. Now that games are getting so realistic, it is bound to mean more and more people find fault with allowing young people the freedom to pick up a virtual gun and watch, in more detail than ever before, as their victims lie with blood pouring out of them. Despite this, the game industry actually did something revolutionary back in the 1980s that not only allowed players to 'imagine' what it was like to hold a gun, but made them cross through the fourth wall and gave them one for real: a physical hand-held object to point and shoot at the television screen.
The Light Gun was a seminal tool in the gamer’s arsenal throughout the late 80s and 90s, a new type of game controller that enabled users to hold a physical pistol in their hands, aim it at their television screens and feel the click of the trigger under their fingers. Luckily for us, most games at the time were so graphically basic they would hardly encourage anyone to swap the game controller for a real gun. Popular games included 1984's Duck Hunt and later in the 90s games like Time Crisis and Die Hard for the Playstation gave us moving 3D targets to aim at. But Light Guns have since lost their appeal, as the technology was unable to work on the noughties LCD and rear projection TVs, but with the Wii and the recent Playstation Move and Kinect controller systems giving us even more accuracy and involvement, games that use hand-held guns to fire at oncoming enemies may well be making a comeback.
So what is it about the gun that makes it so appealing in gaming? Clearly people like to play games such as these as the market is flooded with them. I've only been able to mention a relatively small amount of games that frame the gun so central to their game play as there are literally thousands of them on sale. Maybe it's just a primal instinct then. People are programmed through the media, through history itself to know that pointing a gun is a form of battle, of conflict and of victory.
Maybe, it's just a lot simpler than that. It is possible after all that guns are simply cool and fun. Players choose to play games that excite them, that entertain and give them the thrills that people aren't able to get from their normal day-to-day lives. Guns and games work, a combination now aged like a good wine. Why wouldn’t games companies keep producing exactly what their consumers want?
Either way Black Ops 2 will no doubt be one of the biggest selling games of all time, but no matter how special it is, it will still be just another small milestone in the history of games and guns.
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