Power fantasy: why we put guns in games

Understanding what purpose guns serve in video games can be difficult. In today’s world where hunting for food isn’t common place, modern guns are first and foremost instruments of war. However if we regress the concept of projectiles all the way back to their simplest form and imagine stones being thrown, we can see them as the toys they represent in games. Within games they can exist as tools to interact with an environment in a number of creative ways based on application: they can be used to hunt, to fight, and even to play i.e. skipping stones across a lake.

In games it is actually fair to refer to guns as toys. They fulfill a player’s power fantasy.  The ability to have an impact within one’s environment is perfectly expressed through projectiles. Being able to knock a tin can off of a table 3 feet away or shoot out a street light several meters away gives a player the sense that anything they see they can interact with.

Many people also tend to miss the comedic value of how projectiles and targets are used and experienced in games. Per wikipedia’s explanation of Slapstick, it is “a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of normal physical comedy.” The Junk Jet in Fallout 4 is a projectile weapon that uses junk found around the wasteland as ammunition. Meaning you can shoot enemies using everything from plungers, to dishes, to teddy bears. Hurling a teddy bear at an enemy and seeing them topple end over end off the side of a dam into the water several hundred feet below is inherently funny.

To elaborate on the concept of power fantasy, it consists of an experience that makes the player feel like they can manifest their will within a game.  For some this is the ultimate goal of a game; to attain “god mode”, essentially becoming so powerful that they can engage any number of enemies or forces and easily be victorious. Guns or projectiles in general are associated with power since they expand the player’s range of influence. Needing to be within melee range to affect an object or entity forces the player to potentially endanger themselves but also requires time before the player can engage with something. Whereas being able to sit on top of a hill and engage multiple targets across large distances in a short period of time is a totally different experience. Whether it be shooting out the tires of enemy vehicles driving by or poking a giant sleeping monster off in the distance.

In spite of the utilitarian capacities of guns within games, their primary function is still to kill or incapacitate an enemy.  However, within games we are given context for combat, conflict and a cause. They give us an opportunity to suspend disbelief and engage in our own power fantasies.  It is a rewarding experience to feel empowered and to engage in the visceral, physical experience of combat and come out triumphant.

Context defines a lot of how and why a gun or projectile may be used in a game; but it should be understood that game guns are their own conceptual system. Guns in the real world are the jumping off point; how players use and think of guns within a game move well beyond this and eventually may include uses that are as far removed from reality as possible. Such as using gunshots to get your friend’s attention or using bullets to spell out one’s own name. Thus it is common to see guns or some form of ranged projectile system being used in games because of how elegantly they exemplify power fantasy and their ability to be used in combat, for their utility, and to play with physics.


Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on Facebook, and Instagram.

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