Shooters: How Video Games Fund Arms Manufacturers

From marketing guns to young people to selling lucrative licenses, Simon Parkin examines the virtual weapons trade.

The American confectionery company Victoria Sweets claims to have invented the candy cigarette. A thin stick of chocolate, wrapped in edible paper and designed to impersonate a roll-up, it debuted in 1915 and soon became the accessory of choice for children keen to play grown-up. Hollywood star, GI Joe, team captain: the sweet gave kids the chance try out one of the vogue props of adulthood.

Within 20 years it was so popular that cigarette companies began to take notice. Leading brands such as Marlboro, Winston and Salem authorised their packaging designs for use on millions of candy cigarette boxes. One confectioner of the period touted the sweet's "tremendous advertising factor to coming-up cigaret smokers."[1]

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The marketing of imitation adult products to children in the hope they will blossom into customers of the genuine article is widespread. The video game presents further opportunities for manufacturers to target young people. Toyota and Nissan work with racing game developers to show off their vehicles as pristinely desirable. Nike and Adidas position their logo on virtual boots. Gibson licenses plastic versions of its guitars in the hope players will progress from the coloured buttons of the peripheral to the nickel-wound strings of a Les Paul.

And Barrett, creator of the M82, a shoulder-fired, .50-caliber semi-automatic sniper rifle, hopes that the appearance of its weapon in a video game will, in time, turn young players into gun owners.

"It is hard to qualify to what extent rifle sales have increased as a result of being in games," says Ralph Vaughn, the man who negotiates deals with game developers for Barrett. "But video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners."

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For many Americans it is a time of unprecedented introspection on the issue of personal gun ownership. A spate of deadly incidents in 2012 culminated with the December shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20 children and six adults were killed. The incident propelled firearms to the centre of the public conversation, polarising many American citizens. Vice president Joe Biden, commissioned to lead a task force exploring the issue, said there was no "silver bullet" to solve America's gun problem. Instead, he presented a range of recommendations designed to prevent further tragedy without compromising citizens' Second Amendment right to bear arms.

The video game industry has been drawn into the conversation by parties on both sides. In December 2012 Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, delivered a speech in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy. He accused games companies of being the seeders of school shooting nightmares, calling out "a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people". Then, in January 2013, representatives from Electronic Arts and Activision - the publishers behind the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor series - were called into a conference with Biden to discuss the relationship between games and real-life violence.

Whether causal links between the two exist is a question for the researchers. Their work will continue with renewed vigour in the coming months, potentially supported by funding from Congress at President Obama's behest. But there's another question, one hidden in plain sight, concerning the link between games and guns: how do real life weapons make their way into video games?

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A well-placed round fired from a Barrett M82 will bring a truck to a shuddering, roadkill standstill. A deer too - after all, this sniper rifle was originally designed for hunting. In fact, its bullets are propelled with enough force to kill a deer standing behind a concrete wall 2000 metres away. The gun retails for $10,000. Barrett proudly advertises that celebrities hang the weapon above their fireplaces, a sort of inverse trophy. But before its release in 1982 nobody had heard of the gun, or of its inventor, professional photographer Ronnie Barrett. "Nothing like this weapon existed at the time," says Barrett. "So I drew my ideas on paper in three dimensions to show how the rifle would function." He is an unlikely firearms inventor; photographers are usually found documenting battlefields, not supplying them. But Barrett had spent his life squinting down the barrel of a lens, so when the design for a shoulder-mounted semi-automatic rifle came to mind, the switch from camera to gun felt natural.

"We've worked with companies to send our sniper rifles into video games. Which ones? Our licence agreement prohibits us from mentioning a company by name. [However] you are welcome to check out the Call of Duty series."

Ralph Vaughn, Barrett Rifles

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Ronnie Barrett, creator of the M82 and founder of Barrett Rifles.

Barrett approached a number of local machine shops seeking help to turn his design into a prototype, but all declined. One shopkeeper was actively discouraging, telling Barrett that if his idea was any good, the gun "would have been designed by someone smarter already". Eventually a toolmaker friend relented and the pair built the first rifle in a garage. "It was to be a toy for my recreational shooting pleasure, not a commercial product," Barrett says today.

But this toy fired the powerful 12.799mm NATO (.50 BMG) ammunition used in M2 Browning machine guns. The M82 holds the record for the longest confirmed sniper kill, at 2815 metres. This deadly exuberance drew the attention of locals in Barrett's hometown of Smyrna, Tennessee. He set up shop in the garage, hand-building 30 rifles - one for each slot in his father's gun cabinet. The M82 sold out immediately.

The business grew and a few years later, the CIA registered its interest. The plan was to send a small number of rifles to the Afghan Mujahideen for use in its war against the Soviet Union. This commercial success boosted the weapon's profile and in 1991, Barrett was approached by the US military. Embroiled in the Desert Storm campaign, the army wanted to buy a shipment of guns for troops to use in the field.

The rifle was officially adopted by the military nine years later where it became known by its non-commercial model delineation, M107. "I was so pleased," says Barrett. "A company creates a product or service in the civilian market and maybe it will someday have an application for government or military use. But that's the sort of thing that could never happen." Indeed, the US government has brought the firearm designs of seven individuals into service. Barrett is the only one to create, manufacture, market and mass-produce his gun.

This wasn't the rifle's only commercial triumph; in 2006, after winning fame and notoriety on the battlefield, Barrett's firearm was to join a new type of force. "Yes, we've worked with companies to send our sniper rifles into video games," says Vaughn. "Which ones? Our licence agreement prohibits us from mentioning a company by name." However, he says, "You are welcome to check out the Call of Duty series."

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One wonders if video games could get along without guns. The rifle is a crucial tool for exerting power in competitive games, from Battleships on the board to Cops and Robbers in the playground and Call of Duty on the screen. Then there is the medium's ongoing fascination with the adolescent, the desire to upgrade the toy soldiers and Airfix fighter planes of boyhood, to render the miniature wars of the carpet in almost-life on screen.

But if shooting was simply an immature obsession in games we would have grown out of all that stuff by now. The gun's persistence and centrality in the video game is down to more practical considerations. It is one of few inventions that, when rendered in a game, can affect objects both near and far with the squeeze of a trigger (or press of a button), extending the player's reach into the television screen. With a bullet we can take out an enemy standing directly in front of us or just as easily shoot a wall-mounted switch a hundred metres into the distance. Few other tools offer the player such scope, flexibility and utility.

The virtual gun has long been an indispensable item in the game designer's toolkit, then. But as weapons popped into 3D, developers began to set their games against the backdrop of real-world conflicts, and to hanker for brand-name firearms. A real-life weapon could lend a sheen of authenticity to a game. The gun's role in the video game was expanding.

This shift was experienced first-hand by Martin Hollis, the creator of GoldenEye. Released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64, it was one of the first console games to feature 3D firearms. "Most of the guns in the game were modelled on real weapons," he says today. "The Walther PPK, Kalashnikov AK47, FN P90 and so on."

"I assumed novelists and filmmakers have no compulsion to license. We removed the real gun names, replacing them with fictional ones - sometimes based on team member's initials and sometimes on a sense of authenticity."

Martin Hollis, director and producer of GoldenEye

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The Klobb, named after GoldenEye's producer Ken Lobb, is based on the on the real-world Skorpion VZ/61.

But at a late stage in development Ken Lobb, the game's producer, called Hollis to say they could not use the genuine brand names. "I was not pleased because it would decrease the realism, or at least verisimilitude," he recalls. "I assumed novelists and filmmakers have no compulsion to license. We removed the real gun names, replacing them with fictional ones - sometimes based on team members' initials and sometimes on a sense of authenticity. So we have the DD44 Dostovei named after [GoldenEye designer] David Doak, the Klobb after Ken Lobb and the PP7 because... It just sounds good."

The use of fabricated gun names was acceptable in the fictional universe of James Bond, where a licence to kill did not rely upon licensing. But for those games based around real armed forces, the inclusion of brand names was necessary to remain faithful to the source material.

Today licensed weapons are commonplace in video games, but the deals between game makers and gun-manufacturer are shrouded. Not one of the publishers contacted for this article was willing to discuss the practice. (EA: "I'm afraid we can't progress this." Activision: "Not something we can assist with at present... My hands are tied." Codemasters: "We're focused on our racing titles these days." Crytek: "We can't help you with that request." Sega: "[This] doesn't sit comfortably." Sony: "I can't help with this I'm afraid.")

However, the gun makers are more forthcoming. "[It's] absolutely the same as with cars in games," says Barrett's Vaughn. "We must be paid a royalty fee - either a one-time payment or a percentage of sales, all negotiable. Typically, a licensee pays between 5 per cent to 10 per cent retail price for the agreement. But we could negotiate on that."

According to Vaughn, the cost of the license fee depends on the reputation and achievements of the developer in question. "It could be a few thousand dollars or many thousands, based on past projects and projected sales," he explains. The way in which the weapon is presented in the game is important too. "We must give prior approval to the image or logo in order to protect the brand's integrity."

Some game makers have found ways to include real-life guns in their games while avoiding licensing costs. One ex-Codemasters employee, who asked to remain anonymous, described his experience of working on Operation Flashpoint, a franchise featuring the US Marines. "We didn't license weapons in the Flashpoint series," he says. "We covered ourselves from a legal angle [by not using any] names or manufacturers. The general rule is that you can use the model delineation but you can't use its proper name manufacturer name without prior permission.

"For example, we used 'M4A1 Carbine' which is the weapon's military code. Carbine means it's a shorter version for use in Close Quarters Battle. I forget if we refer to the weapons by name in the script but we were being so careful that we checked, double-checked and in many cases triple-checked with legal that we could use the weapon model numbers."

"We want to know explicitly how the rifle is to be used, ensuring that we are shown in a positive light... Such as the 'good guys' using the rifle."

Ralph Vaughn, Barrett Rifles

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The South Armagh Brigade of the IRA used Barrett rifles against the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary police in the 1990s.

Another benefit of eschewing brand names is that developers can ignore the additional stipulations laid down by gun manufacturers. "We want to know explicitly how the rifle is to be used, ensuring that we are shown in a positive light... Such as the 'good guys' using the rifle," says Vaughn. His company insists that its gun isn't "used by individuals, organisations, countries or companies that would be shown as enemies of the United States or its citizens." Ideally, Vaughn says, Barrett's gun will only be used "by US law enforcement or US military".

Another key concern is that the weapon functions in a realistic manner. Barrett insists the game developer purchases one of the company's guns to aid the 3D modellers in their work. "[The gun must] perform to the standards that our rifles do in the real world," Vaughn says. "Barrett firearms is known for its quality and the brand must always be placed on that foundation."

While the benefits of using licensed weaponry are clear for the game maker, the benefits to the gun maker - aside from the licence fee - are less obvious. However, just as cigarette companies used confectionery to market their products to children, so gun makers can use video games to increase awareness of their products amongst those too young to buy them. As Vaughn puts it: "Video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners."

But does it work?

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"I have six pellet and BB guns," says Aidin Smith, a 13 year-old resident of Springfield, Illinois. "These include two BB guns, modelled on the M14 rifle and M1911 pistol, and two pellet guns, modelled on the AK-47 and M16. I also own an M14 BB rifle M1911 BB pistol. And I got an AK-47 rifle, M16 rifle.

"My favorite is the M1911. I shot a real M1911 when I lived in the country. I shot with my Grandpa. I love the action on it, it is like a real M1911, it recoils and springs back like a real gun. All of them are ones that are in Call of Duty. I like guns more because of Call of Duty. The M1911 is a pistol in almost in every Call of Duty."

Last year Smith took one of his BB guns to school. A teacher discovered it in his rucksack, along with a bag of ammunition and a folding knife.

"It was a Monday and I was coming [to school] from my grandpa's," Smith says. "We had gone to the target range. I accidentally left a gun in my book bag. I forgot about it and took it to school. I don't know how they found it."

But not everyone buys the story. Some believe he took the weapon in to show off to another classmate, who alerted a teacher. Aidin was suspended from school for 30 days and transferred elsewhere after the summer.

"He had been exposed to Call of Duty through church friends of his," says his grandfather, Mark Smith. "We gave into that because he was always playing at a friend's house. It was peer pressure. I've talked to Aidin about what's real and what's not. Plus, I took him to a gun range and showed him what the real thing can do. I told him never to point a gun at a real person and that no one gets an extra life if you shoot them."

But Aidin's enthusiasm for firearms has not been dulled by the experience. "The M16 has been in several Call of Duties," he says. "I got more interested in these guns from playing Call of Duty, it's fun to play them in a game... It's a lot easier to shoot in a game than in real life. My favourite gun is the MSR. It's a modified sniper rifle made by Remington firearms and it shoots a 338 Lapua round. It's a really nice, accurate, sniper rifle. It rarely misses a shot.

"I think once I get old enough, I'd like to own the real things."

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The relationship between video games, BB guns and small arms manufacturers is clear in Aidin's story. Here is a child who encountered guns in a video game, found a family member willing to buy him BB replicas of his favourite weapons, and now intends to buy the real versions when he is old enough.

Further evidence is provided by French company Cybergun, one of the most successful BB gun manufacturers in the world. It acts as an intermediary between gun and game makers, negotiating the licensing of weapons in games on behalf of brands including Uzi, Kalashnikov, Colt, FAMAS, FN Herstal, Sig Sauer, Mauser and Taurus.

"We definitely see sales of particular guns increase when they are featured in popular video games, such as Call of Duty."

Anthony Toutain, Cybergun

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Here's an example of the sort of master licence agreement held by Cybergun.

Anthony Toutain brokers these deals for Cybergun. He also hunts down game developers who use weapons without permission. The Call of Duty titles feature FN rifles, for example, and yet, Toutain alleges, Activision does not own the necessary paperwork. "They use the FN brand without licence," he says. "We plan to contact them for licensing. At the moment it's like a no-man's land out there."

The costs of the licences Cybergun sell vary. "It may be a one-off fee, a royalty or revenue share, or simply promotion and endorsement," says Toutain. "It totally depends on the product and how it fits our own product strategy. It will not be the same price for an independent studio that launches a free-to-play game and a blockbuster like Call of Duty or Battlefield that earn millions of dollars. But always our first objective for any gun is to increase [its] fame around the world."

"We definitely see sales of particular [BB] guns increase when they are featured in popular video games, such as Call of Duty," he says. "For example, sales of the FAMAS [used by the French army] exploded in the US when Call of Duty decided to use it as one of the best weapons in their game.

"Before then children in America [didn't] want to buy the FAMAS airsoft gun, simply because they don't know this brand. But when they play every day with a new brand in a video game, finally they want to buy it in reality. The sales increase can be enormously significant."

There are, of course, perennial favourites. "It's like in a bar where you always need to have Coca-Cola or Pepsi available," says Toutain. "In video game shooters the Colt M4 and Kalashnikov AK-47 are the must-haves." According to Toutain, the video game and the gun are inseparable.

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The NRA's official statement on the Sandy Hook tragedy was delivered by Wayne LaPierre on 21 December, 2012. "Here's another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal," he said. "There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people through vicious, violent video games with names like Bullet Storm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse."

Referring to the consumption of games and movies, he continued: "A child growing up in America today witnesses 16,000 murders, and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18. And, throughout it all, too many in the national media, their corporate owners, and their stockholders act as silent enablers - if not complicit co-conspirators."

This full-throated criticism of the games industry by the NRA rings hollow in the context of weapon licensing in video games. Many of the manufacturers that license their weapons to developers also provide financial backing to the NRA. The organisation explicitly lists Glock, Browning, McMillan and Remington as corporate sponsors.

At the time LaPierre delivered his statement, Ronnie Barrett - ex-photographer and sniper rifle inventor - was completing his third and final year serving on the Board of Directors of the NRA.

"What is your take on the use of Barrett guns in video games?" I asked him, a few weeks before the Sandy Hook shooting.

"It looks to me like this is part of a much larger pattern to increase guns sales in any way possible."

Ginny Burdick, US Senator

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The NRA has lent its name to numerous games - 2006's NRA Gun Club is just one example.

"I'm perfectly fine with the idea," he said. "All American citizens should have an appreciation for the US Constitution with its Second Amendment that ensures the right for all citizens to own and bear arms. In my opinion, the fact America has thousands, maybe millions of firearms owners helps to protect us from those who would want to destroy freedom and our way of life."

The inconsistency between the NRA's ferociously anti-game statement and Barrett's pro-game comments is clear. However, there are many in America who would echo his sentiments and who would find the idea of marketing assault weapons to young video game players acceptable. At the same time, while America's gun ownership laws remain lax, to others this particular brand of marketing seems pernicious and frightening.

Senator Ginny Burdick is a Democratic politician serving her third term in the Oregon Senate. In early December a gunman killed two people and wounded a third at a Clackamas mall in her state. She's a moderate who plans to introduce legislation limiting the sale of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. We spoke a few hours after the NRA press conference.

"I know there's a lot of concern about violence and I have the same concerns that anybody would have about the sustained use of guns and violence in video games," she said. "But with regard to the use of licensed weapons in games? It looks to me like this is part of a much larger pattern to increase guns sales in any way possible.

"Gun companies use the NRA as their main vehicle for doing that. I hadn't been aware that they were also using video games as a way to sell guns, but this doesn't surprise me in any way. These manufacturers have blood on their hands. And the NRA has blood on its hands for being their tool.

"I hope that press conference was the last gasp of a dying organisation," she continued. "I've been looking at some of the comments around the press conference from gun owners who are outraged by the NRA. The NRA speaks for the most extreme because if they can raise enough fear, they will sell more guns. You wouldn't believe it; the gun stores are absolutely inundated with people out there this week buying guns."

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It's understandable that video game publishers are unwilling to discuss the question of gun licensing against this volatile backdrop. In 2012, EA created a website promoting the manufacturers of the guns, knives and combat gear depicted in the game Medal of Honor Warfighter. The move attracted widespread criticism. After decades of unsubstantiated claims that media affects behaviour, the industry is sensitive to implied links between real-world violence and game violence.

But today we know that a portion of every dollar spent on triple-A military-themed video games flows into the pockets of small arms manufacturers, either directly through licence payments, or indirectly through advertising. These beneficiaries include Barrett in the US and FN in Belgium. They may include other controversial arms dealers, such as Israel Weapon Industries, creator of the TAR-21, which appears in Call of Duty. Such deals politicise video games in tangible yet hidden ways. Consumers have, for the past few years, unwittingly funded arms companies that often have their own military agendas.

The system raises complicated questions. No subject is taboo for a mature artistic medium and brand name weapons indisputably add verisimilitude. Their absence would be creatively damaging.

"I think there is a bigger problem, which is just that shooting enemies is the core element of a large portion of games."

anonymous developer

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In 2005, the United States Army hailed the Barrett M107 as one of the 'Top Ten Greatest Inventions'.

Likewise, game age ratings exist to protect children from exposure to certain types of game. More stringent enforcement of these protections is necessary. But without a basic understanding of the system there can be no debate, and consumers remain unable to make informed buying choices. To date it's a subject that has remained hidden at the behest of game publishers, who have gagged arms makers with non-disclosure agreements to protect the relationships from scrutiny.

Many of those working on games featuring real-life weapons continue to wrestle with the issue. Only one member of a team working on a blockbuster American war game series agreed to comment, and even then only under condition of anonymity. "I don't have an issue with licensed weapons specifically," he said. "I think there is a bigger problem, which is just that shooting enemies is the core element of a large portion of games. Whether or not the guns are made up or real changes very little about that fact.

"To harp on about gun manufacturers making money off these licences is inconsequential when it comes to the influence that games have on people's purchasing behaviors. There are plenty of games with realistic but not licensed guns that still glamourise the usage of that gun. I'm sure the revenue generated from a culture that glamourises violence in general in all forms of media, including games, out-earns the actual monetary gains from the licensing of the products directly."

Likewise, for this designer, the fact that gun companies use video games to market their products to young people isn't the primary issue. "This is what marketing does and this is a function of our current culture," he says. "This is a problem with how we make products appeal to people, including products that can lead to death.

"Gun companies marketing to young players is a symptom, not the problem. It's more systemically ingrained in our culture. I think to only worry about guns' effects on people is to ignore the real problems, because these are just far more difficult to solve. They involve more than just getting rid of the gun culture in America."

For Martin Hollis, who turned his back on developing violent video games following his departure from Rare in 1998, it's more straightforward. "My moral position is that you are partially complicit with violence as soon as you have a violent narrative," he says.

"The stories we tell and the games we play have an effect, otherwise people would not bother with the whole undertaking. Licensing gun names is a darker point on a spectrum that begins with the act of playing Cops and Robbers. But putting money in the palm of arms dealers can only help them make tools to kill."

Special thanks to Ryan Smith for his assistance in interviewing Aidin Smith. The NRA did not respond to any requests for comment in this article.

  1. [1] As recorded by the Minnesota Tobacco Document Depository

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