Saturday, September 7, 2013

Clip Half-Full: The Real-Life Implications of Virtual Marksmanship

My father recently passed away at the age of 63, leading me to juxtapose his life with my own. In his terms, I will be approaching my midlife crisis sooner rather than later, and I decided to make an effort to take steps out of my comfort zone, to do the things that I would normally scoff at. Since I try to avoid needless risks in losing my life—such as skydiving—I figured the next best thing would be to do something I’m morally at odds with. Cannibalism is illegal, so I thought the next best course of action might be learning to operate and fire a weapon.

As a bleeding heart liberal, I have a natural unease regarding guns. The thought of holding the power to take a human life in your hand may invigorate some or bestow a sense of power, but it’s not the responsibility I’d prefer to have—I’m barely capable of baking a cake, for Christ’s sake. Of course, in this world where everyone has to hate everyone else over everything, it is hard to have any gray areas in your head for any issue. For most folks, it’s hard stances on every issue. The fact is, I am uneasy about guns, but I’m not necessarily anti-gun. I don’t think people should carry guns, as the thought of an O.K. Chorale on every corner when an inebriated argument escalates is senseless. I’m also a realist who understands that people who are nutty about guns will always have them no matter what.

In a controlled environment, you could label guns as fun. This is what I aimed to take part in, while also quelling my curiosity on the age old fact of video games—something I am obviously skilled in, to a certain extent—being used as a training method to better hand-eye coordination. What better way to test the knowledge of what I have learned about guns in gaming than to put them to practice at the shooting range?

Games have been the product of increased hand-eye coordination for well over a decade, according to advanced studies, and are often used for military training—for better or worse—in the U.S. and abroad. As many lives that are saved with video games as training manuals by better equipping our troops for potential threats, there can be an argument as to video games being used as a tool to desensitize those doing the killing. While I would argue a rational mind can differentiate between reality and fiction, I also recognize the sad fact of many unstable minds being implemented into military ranks—an argument for a later date, I suppose. Instead, let’s focus on one question at a time: Can shooting in video games make you a better shot in reality, right out of the gate?

I called my friend Jesse, another avid video gamer and newbie to firing guns. Jesse is the guy I usually get in touch with when I want to try something new, as he is a single guy with expendable cash. “What if they find out we’re vegetarian-lesbian-liberal-Muslim-Obamas?” I pondered. “They’ll kill us,” he surmised.

We took out a deal at the Top Gun Shooting Range via Groupon, $62 for the rental of a gun, a box of ammunition, four targets, and a lesson with a certified NRA trainer. This was particularly amusing, as the NRA is a frequent punch line to my left-wing humor.

We arrived and immediately looked out of place from the customers popping into the store. Unattractive, lumpy white men around my age or better, with the facial hair to match the cliché, made up the majority of customers. Okay, so maybe we fit the bill upon retrospect. A few elderly white men in standard plain-white-Ts filled out the ranks as we gawked around at the numerous springs and doodads being sold in the cleanly retail portion of the store. “I don’t even know what any of this stuff does,” Jesse said.

“What type of gun were you looking to use today?” The clerk was polite and could see right through us. “How about something easy?” Jesse pulled no punches. “Well, we could start you on a .22… They can barely break through a winter coat and do not have much recoil as a result,” the clerk explained. Jesse nodded, “we’ll try that one.” We were ready and set to fire the sissiest gun known to man.

Our NRA-certified instructor greeted us with a warm demeanor and a friendly smile. He asked what brought us in, and I explained the passing of my father and my desire to do something out of my comfort zone as a liberal nancyboy. He took us into his office and revealed what he had something special in store for us. “I don’t normally do this,” he explained, “but with what you said about your dad… It made me feel like doing something special for you guys.” His gift was the use of a 9mm Glock 17, a far cry from the .22 caliber we were going to tinker with. Jesse gulped. A big step up, but one in the right direction for this field test I was anxious to perform. Withdrawing ammo from his personal stock after a shortage failed to produce any for purchase, I began to realize and appreciate the trust he had in a couple of buffoons looking to do something goofy.

After thorough instructions on how to treat the gun (like it is always loaded) and how to transition your aim as to not to point at anyone at anytime, we spoke small talk with our instructor, going over zombie apocalypses and the various strategies against various fictional zombie archetypes (such as Dawn of the Dead ‘78 zombies versus motion picture-World War Z zombies), I felt comfortable with our instructor and realized that my incessant belittling of every single person in the NRA was just as close-minded as the types of things I rally against. We’re all people in the end, and our instructor was clearly a nice person both at heart and on the surface. Lesson learned. I was relaxed and ready to have some fun.

The Resident Evil CODE: Veronica rendition of the Glock 17.

Most video games have a 9mm as a standard handgun, seeing as how they are police issued. Chances are if you are starting a game with a pistol, it is a 9mm. The Glock 17 was immediately familiar to me based on its use in one of my ten or so all-time favorite video games, Resident Evil CODE: Veronica. I was very happy to learn we’d be using the weapon due to this, as I’m quite familiar with the digital counterpart to it. It has also made appearances in the likes of Battlefield 3, Half-Life, and one of the precursors to the modern shooter, Duke Nukem 3D. I refrained from using Duke’s catch phrases (“I’ll rip your head off and shit down your neck,” for example) during my trials.

We were led past all of the pros shooting their pieces as our protective head gear made the gunshots all around us feel as though they were next to our heads as opposed to inside of them. Intimidating as this was, it melted away once we were escorted to our private “beginning” lane. I was elected to go first. It was a sweltering 102 degrees outside, and the still air of the range—combined with the jitters of what was about to happen—made the sweat pour even harder.

The gun was about as heavy as I’d imagined. In most games, even assault rifles are treated to be light as a feather, quickly stored or thrown over the shoulder like an empty purse. I figured before I had ever held a gun that the density would be pronounced, and I was correct. Aiming the gun was a gift taught to me from video games, making me immediately realize the correlation first-hand. Certain games opt not to use a reticle or anything in addition to the natural alignment of the handgun; what you see is what you get. This was the case with the Glock 17. The target was placed thirteen yards out.

“Lightly and slowly squeeze the trigger with the cushion of your finger,” the instructor said. Aiming for the dead center for a solid fifteen seconds before pulling the trigger, I locked in and focused solely on my target. My hands were calm and steady.

The above picture is my first of what wound up being three targets. The farthest northern bullet hole was my first shot, a bulls-eye shot placed exactly where I had planned. You only get one first shot in your life, so I was proud that I managed to mark it exactly where I wanted it. The recoil was completely satisfying; my hands were loose and my stance was confident, allowing the gun to bop after each shot. This was very similar to what I had anticipated from Resident Evil CODE: Veronica’s character animations; it felt and looked right, fluid. My second and third shots were in the dead center of the target, and my fourth was directly between the two of them (leaving, essentially, two holes for three shots according to the target itself). As adrenaline and excitement of my success took over, my shots became clipping an inch or two south of where I aimed, but still close enough to be considered a great first attempt at shooting a weapon (“keep it in the area of a clinched fist,” the instructor directed).

The instructor chuckled. “What’s funny?” I asked. “Oh, I just get a rush when people are naturals,” he replied. “Yeah!” I rung out, holding my hand up for a high-five that never happened. Ouch.

Jesse went next. He was slightly apprehensive about the whole thing and anticipated the recoil of a magnum, by the looks of things, and his first few shots showed as much. Once he realized the power of the gun and the satisfying recoil, the jitters melted away and his shots began looking very similar to mine. It became clear to me that it’s simply true; if you’ve had experience with certain shooting games, you can apply that experience to real-life scenarios if you can quell your anxieties. I like to think for most, shooting at paper targets and shooting at living things greatly change those anxieties; I know for certain that I could not target anything alive—be it armed thug or possum—the same way I could an inanimate object, nor would I want to in the first place.

My second target teetered off by comparison to my first, while Jesse only got better. My second target was in the silhouette of a person, and I began aiming for chest shots to similar results as my initial session. Things went south when I began aiming above my line of height, targeting the neck (and hitting the chest) and head (and hitting the neck). This was a caveat I was not anticipating with our experiment; I figured aiming a gun top-to-bottom was as simple as left-to-right. Squaring up your shot is something that’s depicted as seamless in the world of gaming, and is a far cry from reality. As I began to sweat from the heat, my grip on the weapon loosened and the smoothness of my trigger finger faltered as a result—another variable than does not translate whatsoever to the digital world. All of my final shots were slightly lower than where I aimed, though still where I wanted from left-to-right.

Jesse’s second target was similar to my first with his accuracy, if not better. He shot up a zombified gigantic fly for his target, and put on quite the show for the instructor and myself. “Aim for the milk carton in the background.” Jesse would make the milk spill. “Shoot for the maggot-infested sandwich behind the fly.” Maggots were turned to dust. As we made requests, Jesse fulfilled all of them with ease. He was great this time around.

With time remaining and no ammunition left for the 9mm, we opted for something a little different than what we were using before. Our instructor brought out the AR-15 for us to toy around with, a semi-automatic rifle with a scope and laser sight. This was closer to the video game world due to these two very key features. We chose some new targets, opting for oversized spiders this time largely due to my disdain towards them, and took to the range.

The AR-15 as depicted in Dead Island.

“Now, this one will have a little more kick,” our instructor said with a grin on his face. “This is going to send me to the back of the room,” I thought to myself. “This gun will break the sound barrier, so make sure you have your ear piece on at all times.” Okay, color me intimidated. “You can go first,” said Jesse.

I noticed my hands wavering, though never trembling or shaking; the distance made its presence known. This likely had to do with my lackadaisical posture, something that is neither my best nor worst character trait. The AR-15 reminded me very closely of the sniper rifles from Far Cry 3, a game where you start off very bad with focusing on targets and gradually learn to control your nervous system to allow for pinpoint accuracy via a series of attribute points and rewards the further you progress. In other words, the game will correct your natural flaws for you. Needless to say, my stance and aim resembled the earlier portions of the game opposed to the latter, as no artificial intelligence was there to hold my hand. Luckily I had recently played the game and outsmarted the A.I. by timing my wavering shots. I’m known as a man with excellent rhythm and used this, combined with my knowledge of timing my shots, to ease my nerves. The target was from twice as far as our previous target due to having a scope and laser sight, as we attempted to shoot from 25 yards out. I eased my trigger finger and aimed for the head of the large spider…

“HOLY SHIT!” I screamed as the burst range out and echoed through the range. Our instructor cackled. “I always like seeing a shooter’s first reaction to that one,” he said. The gun jolted back upon blast into the snug grip of my shoulder. This was a gun that exceeded my expectations of recoil. My shot was precise, nailing the target directly in the dome.

Shooting with a scope and laser sight obviously made targeting easy, though the distance meant that every slight movement greatly threw my intended target off by a lot; the slightest twitch could turn a headshot into missing the target altogether. It reminded me of sniping in the Metal Gear Solid series without the use of diazepam to calm your nerves and steady your hands. Concentrating on my own breathing patterns and timing my shots mid-inhale—just as I would have in-game via my avatar’s virtual breaths—allowed me to cheat my inexperience and abilities to conquer my shakes. My results were well, though I missed the baby spider’s head by this-much. Jesse’s previous injury to his collarbone kept him from zeroing in with this rifle too much, as he risked damaging a pin in his shoulder. He still shot valiantly, given the risk.

“How did we do?” “Great,” the instructor replied with a wide smile across his face. “I thought we’d be so terrible that we’d be kicked out,” I replied, “so I’ll take that.”

Jesse and I celebrated our most ‘Murican adventure by downing some double cheeseburgers afterwards, which will inevitably end our lives as we did the imaginary lives of those flies and spiders. “It reminded me of shooting in Mass Effect before you know what the hell you’re doing,” Jesse stated. Every game we brought up had a common theme: they are games that are not known for their gunplay. The experience did not remind us of a seamless, satisfying shooter such as Call of Duty, Halo, or even Gears of War; it reminded us of games where the use of guns was secondary and not the preferred option to fight.

The Resident Evil series is derived from conservation; you’re encouraged not to use your weapons unless you have to, as ammunition is scarce. Metal Gear Solid is a stealth series where sneaking in and out without being detected—and thus not taking lives—is a less messy and preferred option. Mass Effect relies heavily on the use of bionic powers to immobilize enemy threats. Far Cry 3’s introductory mission involves escaping imprisonment from a hostage camp with the use of sneaking and throwing nearby rocks. Most of these games do not even use guns as a focal point, yet these were the examples we kept coming back to.

The reason behind this is that operating a gun is not a seamless action sequence where clips are thrown into the air and reloaded with the swipe of a hand. The likes of Call of Duty and such know that the more smooth the animations, motions, reactions, and the like of their gunplay, the more fun they will be to play. In real-life, the use of guns is a slow, methodical process—one that is even a little bit clunky—and thus we relate it to games where the use of guns are not embellished. The model on the cover of that magazine is not perfect; she is Photoshopped to look better. Not all sex resembles what you’ll find on the Internet. The image of the sandwich on the sign board at the fast food chain looks nothing like what you just ordered. Likewise, not every use of a firearm will be as silky smooth as the video games you’re used to. It's gritty and based upon precision. Throw it on the pile of American myths we love to believe, even if we know they’re probably not true.

While it might bum some out to learn that some things are false, the things we proved to ourselves to be truth far outweigh any disappointment. You can use video games to become a great shot in real-life. Everything that I’ve utilized since video games evolved to three-dimension scope in the mid-‘90s until now was relevant to my success as a first-time shooter.

“So I was thinking,” Jesse added days later, “that was pretty fun. Let’s do that again.” We are only twelve experience points from Call of Duty-smooth. We can’t stop now.