Anger at the NRA’s new video game is misplaced, and immature
I’ll apologize for the bluntness ahead of time, but the NRA’s release of a target-shooting iOS game this week has caused many in the gaming community to lose their shit. This is the group that just blamed the world’s ills on video games! And now they’re trying to cash in with a free-to-play game featuring guns? Those hypocrites! It’s being described in the press as a first-person shooter, but that only tells a part of the story, and I believe writers are trying to spin a narrative that doesn’t really exist. In the game you stand in one place and either tilt your iOS device or use a virtual thumbstick to aim, and you tap the screen to fire. There are a few guns unlocked at first, but you must pay $1 to unlock other real-world weapons. The game records your high scores, and there are messages about gun safety that play between rounds. Getting upset about the game is a little silly. This is why.
People misunderstand what a game’s rating means
Much has been made of the fact that the game is rated for ages four and up. Kids shouldn’t be playing with guns, they argue! This game is aimed at children! No, it’s not. The ratings system isn’t designed to give recommendations about who should play a game, it’s designed to show what content is in the game. There is no blood in NRA: Practice Range. You shoot at various targets, and the closest you get to shooting a person is vaguely humanoid targets. It’s a dry, almost boring presentation. There is no content in the game that would be inappropriate for a wide audience, excluding the representation of a firearm. There is no evidence the game has been aimed at children, or marketed towards children. Game ratings deal with the content in a game, period. They’re not recommendations for who should play a game. Just because a game is rated E for Everyone doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for young children, just as NRA: Gun Range isn’t being marketed or aimed at children. The rating is merely saying that there is no questionable content. It’s not an endorsement of younger people playing the game. The argument seems to be that by showing a gun, even if it’s being fired, the game should receive a higher rating. There is no blood, violence, language, drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sexual content in the game. Even if the game had been designed to teach children how to use guns, as long as it didn’t include content that can be filed into those descriptors that rating would not change. In fact, even though this game wasn't given a rating by the ESRB, there is no official descriptor for weapons when they're divorced from violence. A gun, by itself, doesn't mean a game will be given a restrictive rating. It’s important to keep these things in mind when talking about ratings of any kind. Ratings don’t exist to say a child should play this or that game, they simply give us some indication of the content of the game. Look at movies like The Dark Knight. Due to the lack of language, blood, or sexual content, that movie earned a PG-13. It’s also an intense, dark, and violent film, and there is no way in Hell I’d let most 13 year-olds watch it. That PG-13 rating isn’t an endorsement or a recommendation, it merely lets me know what I won’t see in the film. It's still my responsibility to educate myself about the film before letting my children watch. So the outrage over the game’s rating is a little misplaced, and people either misunderstand what a rating means, or they ignore that understanding on purpose in order to make a point against the NRA. On a rational level, the game was given the rating it deserved based on the content inside. That’s not to say that four year-olds should play the game, it merely means that there is no content, violent or otherwise, that is seen to be damaging to children. Just guns, what many consider to be tools, firing at inanimate targets.
Why is the game so boring?
The game offers only few options, and you’re firing at targets, either still or moving, in all of them. The load times are long. Sometimes it can’t tell when you’re trying to pull the trigger. By any critical metric, it’s a wretched game. Video game designer and researcher Ian Bogost tackled this subject in his book How To Do Things With Video Games, but he was discussing an older NRA title called NRA Gun Club that was released for the PlayStation 2. It suffered from the same problems, as it was designed poorly and was incredibly boring. That could be the point. “By making firearms boring, NRA Gun Club might actually perform the rhetoric many have previously laughed off as politicking and fabrication: the responsible handling of firearms,” Bogost wrote. “One might even go so far as to say that NRA Gun Club owes most of its rhetorical power to the commercial FPS. The very obsession with the fantasy of gunplay common to commercial videogames creates an empty space in which the fantasy of responsible gun handling takes more coherent form than it might do in any other medium: at the end of the day, being a marksman might just not be very interesting.” That’s the trick: NRA: Practice Range is a non-violent game. It doesn’t dwell on the violence of most games with firearms, and it certainly doesn’t require you to kill people to move ahead. It has nothing to do with the games the NRA so fervently opposes. “Gun sport, it turns out, is a monotonous affair filled mostly with managing equipment and waiting. For those who find it pleasurable, the pleasure lies largely in the mastery of mechanism,” Bogost explained. “When the weapon’s destructive power produces excitement, it’s an excitement contextualized in reverence, even anxiety, accentuated by the relative rarity of actually firing a shot. And perhaps this is exactly the type of gun fantasy we really need.”
This is a silly controversy
It may have been poor timing to release the game now, but that’s merely opinion. The game seeks to teach responsible gun ownership and use and, as millions of people in the United States who keep guns for sport and recreation without ever firing a shot in anger prove, you can certainly be a responsible gun enthusiast. They vastly outnumber the “gun nuts” we so easily reference during gun control debates. We paint gun enthusiasts with the same broad brush we reject when it’s aimed in our direction. I dislike NRA: Practice Range because it’s a poor game, not because of who made it, or its aims. In many ways it’s a more responsible game than the gun fantasies that ask you to kill everything that moves, with weapons that rarely need to be reloaded, and that bask in the rending of flesh. Guns are tools, and you must be methodical and trained in their use in order for them to be used safely. Most games simply teach us to reload between firefights, to switch to our shotgun in closed quarters, and that dying is a temporary setback. And then we attack games that try to give us a more down-to-earth look at the use and theory of fire arms. There is nothing wrong with target shooting games that teach us gun care, how to aim, and to squeeze, not pull, the trigger. There are valid reasons to dislike the NRA, but this is not one of them. If a realistic portrayal of a firearm makes you uncomfortable, you can use the best defense anyone has against games they dislike: You choose not to play.