They call it the “Call of Duty Effect.”

Last December, one of the hottest search terms on Google was for a gun, and not just any gun: an assault rifle made by arms manufacturer Bushmaster, designed specifically to become the main battle weapon for the United States military.

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This is not entirely unheard of. New firearms – especially those with military ties – are generally hot items, but the Adaptive Combat Rifle, or ACR, was a different story. Although the rifle had been in the hands of military testers, even fielded with select units for some months, a consumer version had yet to be released and had only been hinted at by the manufacturer. In fact, as of the time of this writing, the rifle still isn’t available to the public and may never be. And yet, for some reason, last holiday season, the “ACR” – a gun few people should have heard of and even fewer still have ever seen – was one of the top search items on Google.

Steve, who prefers to use only his first name for reasons of personal security, is the owner of The Firearm Blog, a website devoted to the latest news and current events in the world of guns, and one of the people who first noticed the strange phenomenon of the ACR’s Google rankings.

“I was surprised because compared to the AKs, M4s and Glocks of the world, the ACR is relatively unknown outside of the industry,” he says.

Although Steve had been following news related to the ACR for the entire history of its development, he was baffled as to why anyone outside of the small circle of firearm enthusiasts would even know of its existence, much less be interested in purchasing one. Then it hit him: Among the many modern firearms depicted in Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the ACR, complete with an entirely fictional “heartbeat sensor” that alerts the player to the presence of enemies – a feature one member of The Firearm Blog calls “fantastic,” and not in the good way.

Blog member “Jim” shares this story:

He came into a Pawn Shop I was shopping around at and asked for an “Ess Em Gee” (Submachine gun). The owner said that he didn’t carry them. He then asked if he had any sniper rifles. The owner showed him a .270 (I believe). As the punk (hat cocked off to the side and his pants at a level where a belt would not allow them to fall) looked down the scope, he asked how to “zoom it” (a common feature of scoped rifles in video games). The owner showed him how to magnify and clarify the image. The punk said that he was just used to the rifle doing that for him.

Finally the owner asked what the kid was looking for, to which he replied, “I just want to headshot some noobs! … Like on Halo!”

The conversation quickly degraded from that moment and ended very shortly …

The entire thread about the ACR at The Firearm Blog is worth reading (and not only because the blog itself is one of the least wonky of the many, many blogs and websites written for firearm enthusiasts). Reading through the posts in response to the “Call of Duty Effect” article and seeing users share stories about their experiences with both firearms and videogames, it becomes clear that these are two communities that have a great deal in common and that there are more gun-owning videogamers than you might think.

***

“I spend a fair amount of time playing casual games on my iPod Touch,” says Steve. “I may not play a game on my PC for a few weeks but then play daily when a new game comes out.”

Steve doesn’t say how many guns he owns, but he’s more candid about why he shoots: for the pure enjoyment of it. As for why he games, he says it’s for the intellectual challenge and stimulation.

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“I enjoy the excitement of a good FPS or the challenge of a strategic game,” he says. “I have always been a PC gamer. My very first gaming experience, technically, would be at the video arcade, but my real gaming enlightenment came playing some ASCII NetHack-style adventure game on one of the original IBM PCs.”

Steve isn’t alone. Of all the gunners and gamers I interviewed for this article, most answered my questions in roughly the same manner. Shooting is fun; gaming is stimulating. Not quite what you’d expect to hear, and certainly not what many anti-gun and gaming advocates would lead you to believe. In fact, most people who neither shoot nor play games assume that people who engage in those activities do so for the opposite reasons, and the mere suggestion that gamers might also own guns brings to mind the horrific images of the shootings at Columbine, perpetrated by two boys who were videogamers and firearm fanatics.

Yet in talking with the gunners and gamers, it becomes clear that these are not members of the lunatic fringe. In fact, those who are most serious about gaming and gunning are probably the least dangerous people you’ll ever meet, and less likely to harm themselves or others than “casual” hobbyists – i.e., people looking for a combat rifle on Google so they can “pwn noobs.”

Enthusiasts who share a passion for both games and guns are generally well-educated, well-trained and well-practiced in the detailed minutiae of how to engage in their hobby safely. In fact, to borrow a line from a movie, you should be less worried about someone who owns many guns than someone who wants only one.

“It depends on the individual’s mental maturity and attitude,” says Edwin, a lifelong gamer and gun-owner whose first videogame was Super Mario Bros. on the NES and who learned to shoot in the Boy Scouts. “Do they treat [a gun] like a cool toy? If so, then yes, it’s just an accident waiting to happen. But for those like me who took two years to research before purchasing a firearm and then waited until after taking a safety course to even fire it, the potential for an accident is much lower.”

Rees, a student who first discovered videogames in high school by playing Counter-Strike with friends and who learned to shoot on his uncle’s farm, approaches the hobby of shooting the way some people tackle mathematical puzzles or engineering problems. For him it’s an intellectual exercise as well as a visceral thrill.

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“There is something very primal about mastering explosive force through machinery,” he says. “It’s like man conquering the natural a little bit every time you shoot. The machinery of guns is interesting; just like building a computer, shooting guns is a study in machinery to me.”

Tim, another gunner and gamer, says his reason for owning a gun is a little different. For Tim, gun ownership isn’t so much about fun as it is self-preservation. He says he owns only one gun, which he keeps for home defense.

“I’m new to owning a firearm,” he says. “I’m not a ‘gun guy’ but may eventually be.”

Tim might sound like the kind of guy legislators and anti-gun advocates are concerned about – new to gun ownership, videogamer, potential obsessive – except for one thing: He, too, is well-trained in firearm safety. Although he’s new to gun “ownership,” he’s not new to guns. Tim was in the Air Force.

“[I] did well with the M16 training I received,” he says. “Being on the range was fun. Now I just want to be prepared if I’m on the wrong side of that 100,000 to 1 chance of a home invasion.”

***

I asked the gunners and gamers what they thought of military shooters like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and how accurately they presented firearms. Most agreed that although the games are fun to play, they don’t come anywhere near to presenting the actual feel of shooting.

“[There is] no recoil or smell of gunpowder, obviously, but also little of anything else that goes into using a firearm,” says Tim. “No loading rounds into clips, no stripping or cleaning the weapon, no hot brass burning your elbow if you’re firing from prone.

“Most of all, there is no need to respect the virtual weapon as you would its real-life counterpart. From a technical standpoint there are things to be gleaned I suppose. Some games take into account bullet drop, for example. Management and conservation of ammo may also translate into real-world skills.”

Steve says the best way to gauge the realism of shooting guns in games is to compare it to the realism of anything else you can do in a game, like driving: “The best analogy that I can think of would be motorbikes. How realistic is riding a motorbike in GTA compared to riding a motorbike in real life? Not very. Same with guns.”

Although there have been videogames about cars for about as long as there have been games about guns, there isn’t’ a single licensing agency in the world that will issue a driver’s license to someone who hasn’t driven the real thing. To most people, the concept alone is ludicrous.

Consider, then, that the U.S. military has been training soldiers using “simulated” combat scenarios for years. If games are real enough for the military to use as a training tool, then doesn’t it make sense that kids playing Modern Warfare would be getting the same effect? Aren’t games “murder simulators” as has been popularly assumed? According to Steve, the answer is “no.” The simulators used by the military are nothing like what you have in your home.

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“I have ‘played’ on a military shooting simulator,” says Steve. “The sim I used had a real (but modified) rifle hooked up to a bunch of wires and tubes. The rifle operated just like it would in real life. When I pulled the trigger, gas made the bolt cycle just like a blow-back operated Airsoft gun. To reload, I had to change magazines. I shot at bad guys on a big screen in front of me.”

Yet in spite of the military’s efforts to capture the physical experience of shooting in simulation, Steve believes there isn’t an army in the world that would deploy soldiers who’ve never fired a real gun.

“I imagine action games like Modern Warfare and America’s Army are more useful to teach teamwork and coordination under stress, rather than how to shoot,” he says.

Edwin says that he did learn at least a little about shooting from a videogame – specifically, the U.S. Army-designed military shooter America’s Army – but it wasn’t much more than basic familiarization with a rifle. To learn how to actually shoot, he had to go to the range.

America’s Army taught me how to use … the standard sights you see on the M16/M4/AR-15 platform firearms. Not that it’s helped me in my accuracy. The physical part just can’t be replaced by games.”

Tim believes that videogames and simulators may be a useful supplement to combat training, but will never be a substitute.

“Hand-eye coordination is a good example,” he says. “I think that videogames help to improve or at least maintain that coordination.” But he cautions that real military training involves much, much more. “Basic Training offers discipline, the ability to handle real-world stress and the physical conditioning a videogame can’t replace. It makes failure unpleasant.”

***

What, then, do the gunners and gamers make of the suggestion that the two hobbies are a toxic mix? That people who both shoot and play games are accidents waiting to happen, like the two shooters at Columbine? I asked them if they believed restrictions on either guns or videogames could have prevented that tragedy and if, as serious gamers and gun-owners, we should be advocating new laws.

“Restrictions are for those who follow the law,” says Edwin. “Those who committed the crimes at Columbine are clearly violating the restrictions. … They used pipe bombs and other IED devices – those are restricted no matter if you are gun owner or gamer.”

Rees says it wouldn’t have mattered what the two shooters had access to. “The fact is those kids went there that day to kill,” he says. “It could have been guns, homemade explosives or knives – someone was dying that day.”

Tim believes that the only practical way to have prevented such a tragedy as Columbine would be to completely outlaw all firearms, explosives or anything else that may be used to harm another person, which, when you think about it, isn’t very practical at all. He does, however, believe videogames can stimulate behavior.

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“I do think they can encourage aggressive behavior,” he says. “At least in the short term, the ‘heat of the moment.’ I draw a distinction between aggressive behavior and violent behavior, and I think that in the majority of people the former doesn’t automatically lead to the latter. There are always exceptions, though.”

Exceptions like the Columbine shooters, perhaps. But as for the effect of banning videogames on violence, Tim is skeptical. “I don’t think restrictions on videogame use would have prevented the occurrence at all,” he says.

Steve agrees. “They were pure evil,” he says. “I am sure that in a world without guns or videogames they would have still committed murder.”

***

Looking at statistics related to firearm-related deaths in the United States paints an even more interesting picture. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of people killed in the U.S. by firearms in the year 2005 was 31,000, but the number of people killed in traffic accidents was 43,150, making driving in the U.S. almost 40 percent more dangerous than guns – a fact you don’t hear a lot of talk about on Capitol Hill.

Looking closer at the numbers, though, leads to an even bigger surprise. Of the 31,000 gun-related deaths in 2005, over half – 55 percent – were suicides. This suggests most gun owners are more dangerous to themselves than to anyone else.

But what about the recent rise in both the production of violent videogames and the skyrocketing sales of guns, including assault rifles like the ACR? While it’s true that starting in 2008, in response to fears of new gun legislation, firearms sales increased by an unprecedented 14 percent, the FBI’s violent crime statistics show that in the same year, murder rates dropped five percent to the lowest they’ve been in 43 years. In the same year, videogame sales increased by 19 percent, and one of the top-sellers that year was also one of the most violent, Grand Theft Auto IV.

If you’re still worried about game-related gun violence, however, consider this: In most states in the U.S., would-be gun owners must be at least 18 years old, and all retail gun purchases in every state are subject to an FBI background check and registered in a national database. Yet anyone who passes a simple test can drive a car. Perhaps the next person you see playing a racing game is the one you should be really concerned about.

Russ Pitts is a “gunner and gamer” who received his first firearm and his first videogame console at about the same time. The former was a .22 caliber rifle that had belonged to his grandfather. The latter was a Fairchild Channel F. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist and a member of the NRA.

The Player and the Pusher-Man

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