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However, what also disturbs me is how it's being marketed by and through games and game-like applications. TrackingPoint had Precision Hunter Lite, its free "PGF simulator app," available at their booth. Expo attendees played it on iPads, or even iPhones mounted to the back of dummy rifles. The app itself is well-made but not particularly exciting or game-like. Players choose to hunt animals ranging from deer to bears in the mocked-up scope of a PGF. All the touch and motion controls work well, but the game is fairly dull since the rifle's system leaves little room for error. Of course, it's not intended to be for amusement, but for training. As TrackingPoint's vice president Bret Boyd put it: "We are now the first company to create an interactive gaming experience that simulates a real-life shooting system." The idea is that shooters can try out the system, and once owning it, practice without blowing their pricy custom ammunition. To the credit of developer Chaotic Moon, the app works. After only a few minutes I felt comfortable with the principle of the tagging, tracking and firing system and was ready to move on to the rifle itself. When it was my turn I sat down behind the scope, balanced the stock on my closed fist, and with only a few additional instructions on how to zoom the scope and account for wind, I tagged and shot my first mech. Then I chambered the rifle and shot another. Everything worked well, though since my targets were on a piece of glossy card five feet from the barrel, it would be somewhat embarrassing to miss.
"Why robots?" I asked the demonstrator, changing my language in case the forty-something man didn't know what a "mech" was. "Why didn't you use pictures of deer for this demonstration, like in the app?"
The demonstrator answered that he didn't design the booth, but he felt like they wanted to fit in with the gaming theme of the Expo. When I pressed further about why they were exhibiting in a gaming area rather than with the other applied technologies, he said they were primarily there to showcase their free app.
And therein lies the problem. As a community, we're used to politicians calling our medium "murder simulators," and having madmen like Norway shooter Anders Behring Breivik make dubious claims about "training" for his spree with Modern Warfare 2. While we know this is absurd, there are plenty of people that don't understand the difference between a game that's designed for fun and one that's designed to simulate real weapons - and some of those people are now making games. After all, we've always based our argument on the assumption that no one out there was creating gun training simulators for the civilian market. That's no longer the case. For the first time in history, the game industry doesn't have full control over what kinds of games get made. With the rise of the indie scene, the lowered cost to make a game for mobile platforms, and the increasingly mainstream acceptance of games, anyone can now make a game for any purpose. There's a positive side to this democratization, since it means games like Dys4ia can talk about issues that would never see the light of day in a big-budget project, but it also means TrackingPoint can make the kind of simulator we've previously claimed doesn't exist. And I doubt Precision Hunter Lite will be the last gun simulator we see. Marketers are increasingly looking at gamers as a coveted market since we're young, technologically savvy, loyal customers and have enough disposable income to buy expensive hardware and software. There's an idea, perhaps correct and perhaps not, that if companies build a relationship with us in the digital sphere it will cause us to purchase products in the real world.
And it's not gone unnoticed how many modern games revolve around guns. While I'm uncomfortable their tactics, I don't exactly blame TrackingPoint for blurring the line between games and reality. Coming from an outside perspective, I doubt they understand the subtleties of how the gaming community views the relationship between digital guns and real guns - namely, that the two should cross over as little as possible. The reason most of us feel comfortable with digital violence is that it takes place separately from reality, safe within the confines of our flatscreens and computer monitors. When those two worlds merge, whether by simulating real gun optics on an iPhone or aiming a real hunting rifle downrange at mechs, it creates a palpable sense of disquiet. TrackingPoint didn't intend to spur this discomfort - they just wanted a cool way to sell their rifle - but their advertising is emblematic of companies that dive into the gaming sphere without first understanding its internal politics. For good or ill, we're going to see more games in the future developed by corporations to feature their products, and some of these will conflict with how gaming culture sees itself, and will shape how the outside world sees us as well.
Was it fun to shoot at mechs with a sniper rifle? Definitely. I can't fault TrackingPoint for understanding the appeal. But as I looked down those costly optics, I felt my back tense up as I thought: Please don't let a madman kill someone with this gun, because if he did, and trained for the murder on the iPad, we're all in serious trouble.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.