When you’re at a convention full of games that revolve around guns and violence, real-life gun violence makes you pause.

I spent a week wrestling with my relationship with guns and gun culture at one of the largest video game trade shows of the year: E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo. I boarded a plane for LA hours after 49 people were shot and killed in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Over 100 people were shot in total, bringing the debate on gun control in the United States back to the media forefront. My heart goes out to the LGBT+ community and the families and loved ones of those directly and indirectly affected by the tragedy…perhaps this time will be the time that legislation goes through to try to prevent these events from occurring in the future, though it’s shameful that we even got to this point. I don’t know.

This isn’t my first time trying to write on this particular subject, though I scrapped it. Here’s the video game-based portion’s TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read):

  • Some people in the game community reacted to the shooting and E3 criticizing the industry for glorifying guns and gun violence.
  • Studies have shown no correlation between playing violent games and violent acts, though there are correlations between playing violent games and increased aggression.
  • People should play the games they want to play; this includes avoiding violent games if they so desire.
  • Discussion should be focused on gun control, combating homophobia, providing mental health care, and overall promoting tolerance and acceptance to actually try and prevent shootings like these in the future.

I’ve talked about violence in games before. And I’ve talked about how perceptions of violence can shape people’s attitudes towards combat and war. Yet, I still played an hour of the Titanfall 2 multiplayer demo at EA Play, shooting up both robots and virtual people. I watched the (warning: pretty violent) trailers for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Mafia III; though I found reason for pause during both, I’d be kidding if I said I didn’t want to play them. I saw VR demos of games where players wielded fake weapons, killing virtual targets with real-world motions. It’d be a lie to say there weren’t unsettling moments.

Similarly unsettling, though, was the lack of metal detectors or security. I don’t mean this to suggest that there should have been full pat-downs or metal detectors, but thoughts did cross my mind when standing in large crowds:

  • Where are the exits?
  • What can I hide behind?
  • Should I call my mother and tell her I love her?

A part of me thinks I should be thinking these things all the time.

Video games aren’t responsible for those thoughts, and all the information presented thus far shows no connections between video games and the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Yet I still can’t help but feel some sort of connection, some sort of something in my gut with certain gun games. High-energy points in the aforementioned trailers involved ripping an enemy’s helmet off in space, putting the barrel of a shotgun up to a person’s stomach before pulling the trigger, and breaking the glass of a spaceship and watching enemy troops sucked out into the vacuum of space…it’s not just guns that cause discomfort, after all.

Given, both games claim to highlight story and narrative in their campaigns. Infinite Warfare claims that the interactions you have with your squad are critical. Mafia III has a black protagonist, and a team of other criminals you’ll interact with to take over New Bordeaux. Still, these stories weren’t the highlights of their trailers or reveals.

With discussions of gun control come discussions of gun culture, the concept that we perpetuate the idea of guns being sexy and cool and good solutions to our problems. I’ve played first-person shooters since Goldeneye 64, and yet there are very few situations in which I’ve even considered gun ownership, or where I feel a gun would make me safer or more secure. As many virtual lives as I’ve taken, something about living with the knowledge that I took a real life doesn’t sit well with me, and it never has.

I recently went to a gun range with friends and felt apprehensive about the experience the entire trip there. When we walked on to the range, ear muffs shielding our hearing, other people on the range fired their weapons. Just the sound from each shot felt like it rippled through me; I sat on a stool and thought about how many other black men heard the sounds I was hearing, except infinitely louder, the last sound they’d ever hear.

When it was “my turn,” every shot from the first clip felt like I was committing crimes, the circular target  on the paper almost completely unaffected by the first two shots.

Then, with time, I got better. The shots seemed quieter as my ears adjusted. My aim got better. Clips three and four were almost entertaining. I tried another friend’s gun, one with a higher caliber bullet. The recoil surprised me. We put up the second target, a drooling, angry zombie. “Gotta go for the headshots!”

My third target was a hostage situation, a generic white male with his arm around a woman’s neck, using her as a shield. He held a gun to her head. “Ok, you only get one shot, ’cause that’s how it’d be in real life,” a friend said. We made a game out of it.

I took a breath in, breathed out. Steadied my aim. Looked down the sight. Pulled the trigger.

There was a hole right through the woman’s sternum. Dead center.

Maybe it would have gone through her and hit the guy in the heart, I told myself. “Damn. Uh, went through her, hit him in the heart?” I asked my friends. I tried to laugh it off.

My experiences with virtual guns are all over the place. I’ve fired guns that made me cheer, and I’ve held guns that nearly made me cry. That said, those experiences don’t measure up to the experience I’ve had with real guns. Not once have I ever been in a situation where I’ve pointed a real gun at a real person, and I hope that day never comes. Games with gun violence are different, they’re just fantasies, made-up systems created as sandboxes to experiment in, with parts that have no connection to reality. That said, I can’t guarantee that everyone has the same experience as me, thinks the same way, comes to the same conclusions.

We live in a world with real guns, and I suspect we’ll continue to live in a world with virtual guns to match. Thankfully, when it comes to games, we have tons of options for games without guns if we choose them, and an increasing number of games that feature guns alongside realistic consequences of their usage. I still feel conflicted sometimes when playing conventional shooters, but it’s that feeling of conflict that forces evaluation and consciousness. I don’t feel a clear push towards or away from shooters, instead I evaluate each game as it comes to figure out if it’s right for me. Perhaps that’s the best I can do.