Note: A lot of readers in asked for a continuation of last week’s primer on BioShock: Infinite. I’m planning on doing that, but I’ve decided to delay “Part II” until I’ve played the game. Expect to see it in the near future.
This year’s SXSW Gaming Expo turned out to be an interesting gauge of what companies want to sell to the “gamer” demographic. There’s were things that I expected to find – the new Xi3 Piston, for instance, as well as various computer accessories and “geek” apparel – but out on the periphery there were several organizations whose connection to videogames was tangential at best. The Boy Scouts of America touted their new game design badge, the Air National Guard attracted potential recruits with an Ace Combat 5 setup and NASA funneled gamers outside to check out a life-size model of their new James Webb Space Telescope.
Then there was TrackingPoint, a company that walks the increasingly thin line between the gun industry and the game industry.
TrackingPoint’s booth wasn’t off to the side, but right in the middle of the action. It was a short stroll past the stage where Jenova Chen and the The Walking Dead team talked about developing compelling narratives. Close enough to the Piston booth you could smell the machine-generated steam. At first I thought I was looking at a very expensive peripheral, something like a realistic version of Big Buck Hunter but with high grade sniper rifles. On one side the booth was the normal thing you’d see at SXSW, a collection of iPads and iPhones, but on the other were two stations with rifles and screens that streaming the view from the scope. Gamers lined up for a turn at the stations, sighting down the monstrous optics to dry fire at a printout of mechs tromping through a ruined building.
They weren’t peripherals, they were rifles. Very real, very advanced, very expensive rifles. TrackingPoint is an applied technology company that manufactures the PGF, the Precision Guided Firearm, and it’s probably the most impressive and disturbing civilian rifle I’ve ever seen. In short, the PGF is an integrated system that allows long-range rifles to benefit from fighter jet lock and launch technology, allowing novice shooters to make shots at 500 to 1,200 yards with less than an hour of training. More than a rifle, it’s a fully-integrated system that includes a custom rifle, optics, a guided trigger, laser reference, software and even its own brand of precision ammunition. To use the PGF, the shooter goes through a unique target acquisition and firing process. When he finds the target, he presses a button to electronically “tag” it with a red dot, which is a visual indication that the rifle’s laser rangefinder has painted the target. Once tagged, the rifle’s optics take pressure and temperature readings, and calculate ballistics like spin drift, the Coriolis effect and how much the shooter needs to lead the shot. As long as the shooter keeps his scope trained on the target, and the target moves less than ten miles an hour, the rifle will maintain its lock. The shooter then moves the reticle over the tag until the reticle turns red, and pulls the trigger – but the rifle only discharges when it calculates a firing solution. Essentially, the gun won’t shoot unless it determines the shot will hit the target, meaning you can squeeze the trigger and float the reticle over the tag, letting it fire when it’s in the right position. The scope can also stream video to an iPad, which TrackingPoint claims is useful for shooting instruction, father-son bonding and spotters. It also captures images, video and audio of the shot so you can upload your most impressive feats onto YouTube and social networks. Rifles start at $17,000 for a model that can shoot accurately to 800 yards – actually a good deal considering what high-end rifles usually cost and the amount of training it replaces – but the premium model costs somewhere in the mid $20,000 range and can drill targets at an incredible 1,200 yards. TrackingPoint envisions the product filling a role in the civilian market as a first-class tool for target shooters and hunters, not the military. In fact, to make training as easy as possible, they’ve developed an iPhone and Android app that trains you to use its unique system.
There are a few issues I have with the PGF in general, both as a product and how it’s being marketed. First, I’ll address the concerns I have as a gun owner and shooter: While I understand the appeal of being able to hit targets and wild game at ranges usually reserved for military snipers, there’s something about the PGF that seems like cheating. Sure, homemade hunting videos are popular on the internet, but that’s more about look what I did than look what my rifle did. All that technology takes away some of the man vs. nature appeal of hunting and man vs. physics appeal of nailing targets at extreme range. Also, I’m yet to be convinced the rifle works as infallibly as advertised. Videos of novices using the gun in an uncontrolled environment show misplaced tags and some other hiccups, but ultimately the rifle does help shooters hit targets they’d probably miss otherwise. If I were a big game hunter going after something that could easily crush my ribcage or tear into my intestines, this is probably the rifle I’d use. It seems like a good system with very narrow appeal – but it also scares the hell out of me. Visions of someone spending $20k, sniping a congressman and uploading the video to the internet keep floating around my brain.
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.