Before Sunday, I had wanted to write my column this week on a new distraction which has stolen away a significant chunk of my free time: Overwatch, the new arena first person shooter from Blizzard. But then I woke up Sunday to find out that a nightclub full of Latinx queer and trans people in Orlando had been massacred by some self-hating homophobe with an assault weapon, a fundamentalist view of sex and gender, and a fetish for the militarization of the police.


That’s when I knew I had to talk about Overwatch.


Concurrent with this tragedy was E3, the electronics convention which is regularly used as a platform to launch the next generation of gaming. I am not a huge follower of the industry (though when I read gamer news, I read Kotaku), but my understanding is that there were a large number of new shooters and add-ons to existing shooters that were released, including a DLC for my beloved Fallout franchise that lets you be the amoral scientists behind their vault system. Shooters are cool, and they’ve proliferated across the console environment as we get closer and closer to a fully realistic immersive experience.


It’s all a bit much, really. I don’t know if realism is what I want in a shooter.


Amidst all that, I have glommed on to Overwatch, the first PvP experience I have enjoyed in my life. I like it for several reasons. It has a diverse cast of characters, the palate is neon and cartoonish, and, unlike Fallout 4, you can play the game without being a mass murderer. And that’s the part that most surprised me.


My main character, the one with whom I am the most skilled and spend at least 75% of my time inhabiting, is Mercy. She’s basically a pure healer; while she has a gun, I never switch to it. Instead I stay focused on my magic caduceus, kiting around the battlefield on angel wings to save my friends, and resurrecting the fallen. There are other healers and other low-combat roles, but Mercy represents an extreme, a class that’s powerful without having to be murderous, and it is crazy the degree to which this is an outlier.


Even the healing classes in World of Warcraft, a far more complicated game, had significant offensive capabilities. And even then, it was somewhat folly to play a healer on your own; the base mechanic of the games required killing mobs, for quests, experience, and even just when you were trying to travel. When you’re not playing multiplayer, games tend to necessitate the normalization of murder, because how else do you gain experience except by ending the lives of another?


But PvP allows for alternate pathways. You can get XP from capturing objectives, from healing the team, from soaking up damage, from reviving others, and from mere survival. It’s a far broader experience, and yet it is not something replicated in most single player games.


Now I’m not the type to say there’s a direct link between violent videogames and actual violence; I’m a pacifist, and I play all sorts of necessarily lethal games. But I do wonder the coarsening effect that such consumption has on discourse, as well as the degree to which these games normalize the idea of a gun as being less than fully lethal. In playing the Division, a game with utterly abhorrent politics, it used to take multiple headshots to fell on-level mooks. So while the game was telling you to fear biological warfare and people of color (again, abhorrent politics), it was also perpetuating an idea that it takes big guns to kill a person, and even then you have to really be working at it.


Whereas in the real world, a .22 holdout pistol will kill you just as dead as a .50 Desert Eagle. Maybe it will take a bit more skill, but only a bit; guns are tools with the sole purpose of snuffing out life, and centuries of refinement have made them very good at this job.


Fun fact: the recidivism factor most predictive of further criminal activity is social isolation. When you’re alone, severed from good influences, you are more likely to go down the rabbit hole. You have fewer connections to the same reality experienced by the rest of us. And when that happens, the ease at which Americans can access guns means that the potential damage is multiplied. I don’t just mean mass-murder, I’m also speaking about all the people who kill themselves with guns each year, and the domestic abusers who kill their families, or the street-level violence that seems reasonable when the “normal” world seems unavailable to you.


If you’re a loner, only playing immersive single-player games (ones that tend to require killing), being given the impression that the world is dangerous, murder is justified, and guns are weak and it takes more than one to stop a dedicated attacker… maybe you don’t go out there and murder yourself or others, but you’re probably more likely to oppose gun control. You are probably somewhat hardened to these sorts of tragedies, in that they scare and upset you less than they do me. And you probably have an easier time detaching your emotional response from your perception of reality, since that’s how you get gamers to do things like massacre a population in an airport, nuke a settlement, or mindrape a sentient AI… all horrific story moments in different single-player games.


And maybe those opinions make you less likely to support gun control. Maybe they make you more likely to think that a “good guy with a gun” could have made a difference, despite the Pulse massacre being clear evidence to the contrary. Maybe they make you callous as to the loss of life that we have somehow normalized, despite being the only nation in the world in which this happens regularly.


People tend to focus on first-order causation, when we discuss cause. They say, “this is the fault of an unhinged gunman,” and then stop their analysis, content to blame it all on the man who pulled the trigger. But cause is richer than that. It’s not just who did something, but why. Why is the LGBTQ community on the spot these days? Why is it so easy for mass murderers to get their weapons of annihilation? Why does our country have such a shamefully inadequate mental health system? Why is the media complicit in every attempt to sever responsibility from those who most deserve it: a political party whose apocalyptic rhetoric and pro-gun enthusiasm has lead the already unbalanced to feel contempt and disgust for those who are different?


Does the dissemination of the concept of tactical reloading bear some responsibility for how these mass murderers can so effectively mow down a room full of innocents?


Because those questions matter too. And so long as we just focus on the first-order causation, we will never be able to push back on the rotten context in which this keeps happening. And as a member of many communities on the front lines of these random acts of premeditated violence, I am personally interested in seeing that context change.


Next time it might be one of my friends. Next time it might be at an event important to me. Next time it might be me.


And when that day comes, when I finally die to violence, think about what I’ve said here. And remember that the solution is never more hate. Love the vulnerable enough to eliminate those vulnerabilities, to raise them up so they can be their best selves. Love them enough to care about this terrible illness that has infected our nation, and love them enough to address it head on, no matter how hopeless that might seem.


I love you all. It’s why I demand change. You should too.


Jess Stirba was raised in gun culture yet still believes fervently in the need for and efficacy of gun control.

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