Ethics of the cross hairs

On your computer screen, which is worse -- blasting an alien or shooting a deer?


Andrew Leonard
January 13, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Two state-of-the-slaughter computer games arrived in my mailbox last week. I looked at the first, the Broodwars expansion pack for Blizzard Entertainment's hugely successful Starcraft, and rubbed my hands with glee. It had been far too long since I last battled against the insectoid Zerg and the fearsome psionic Protoss warriors. How I yearned to see my Behemoth Battlecruisers wreak havoc on the alien swarms! Or even better, to play turnabout, and unleash my feral waves of Zerglings on pathetic Terran marines, and hear their death screams ring from my computer speakers.

The other game box in the mail was Field & Stream's Trophy Buck -- a super-realistic deer hunting simulation game. Yuck, I thought -- how awful. What kind of sicko wants to simulate killing Bambi on a computer?

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Don't get me wrong -- I know deer are little more than over-sized rodents. If I caught them eating my roses I'd be happy to mow them down with a 30-ought-6. And I'm sure venison tastes great when you're hungry enough. But to simulate the murder of those poor little darlings for sheer sport? Sheesh -- at least with aliens you can pretend that it's all just a fantasy.

Trophy Buck is no fantasy; the cinematic live-action intro to the game is proof enough of that. Four men wake up in their tents, put on their camouflage outfits and warm their hands at the fire, then drive their pickup truck deeper into the wilderness, grab their rifles and start tramping through the woods. Every sound and image is razor-true to life. Cut to a scene of mule deer grazing peacefully in a meadow. One supremely antlered buck looks up, straight at you, and the cross hairs on your rifle sight center first on his head, then swivel toward the heart. A rifle shot breaks the silence, and ends the introduction. The point, it appears, has been made: This game is about killing deer.

Trophy Buck is one of a slew of death-to-deer games now hitting the market. All are aiming to capitalize on the huge success of last year's Deer Hunter -- a cheap, Wal-Mart-marketed, low-production-value hunting simulation that was one of the top-selling computer games of 1998. In contrast, Trophy Buck is super slick -- Sierra Sports, a division of Cendant Software (which, incidentally, also owns Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of Starcraft), put some real programmers on the job. The landscapes are realistic and the sound quality is pristine (the tramp of boots crumpling snow, the click of the safety going off). The game's liner notes even claim that it uses artificial intelligence to model the different behaviorial characteristics of the two main species of deer that roam the "lower 48," mule deer and white-tailed deer. Normally I tend to sneer at any computer game's claim to use artificial intelligence -- but I suppose deer are dumb enough that it's possible.

To be honest, though, I had my sneering muscles all limbered up long before I took a closer look at Trophy Buck. I've never been a fan of hunting or of guns, and the very idea of sitting in front of a computer screen pretending to be out in the woods sniffing for deer scat struck me as ludicrous. At least when my Protoss Archons are unleashing devastating psionic shock waves against rampaging mutated Zerg Ultralisks (kind of a cross between a wooly mammoth and a scorpion), I am experiencing something that can't be readily duplicated in real life. (At least I hope not.)

But while spending many a fruitless hour chasing virtual deer through the Colorado mountains, I had time to reflect on my trigger-happy scorn toward simulated deer hunting. And I had to 'fess up to some change of heart. First of all, when you get right down to it, there isn't all that much moral difference between exploding a nuclear bomb on a Terran command center (even if it did belong to the perfidious General Duke) and popping an artificially intelligent mule deer with a simulated beanfield rifle. In the virtual world, killing is still killing. It actually began to strike me as somewhat dishonest to sublimate my primordial hunting urges by raining death down on aliens when I could be doing it the old-fashioned way, by pretending to stalk game animals like my ancestors did.

More intriguing, however, was the realization that Trophy Buck, despite the game's introductory act of deer-death worship, isn't just about killing deer -- it's about a whole way of life. Trophy Buck is a well-executed reflection and reinforcement of a set of values that are integral to American culture, whether I subscribe to them or not. From the sound of the pickup truck's engine to the passionate help-menu discussion of the differences between various rifle models, it's obvious that the makers of Trophy Buck are paying close attention to at least one version of what it means to be an American.

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It's no accident that the original Deer Hunter was a runaway bestseller. There's a mess of deer hunters in the United States -- as many as 12 million, according to Trophy Buck. And it's very easy to see how a well-designed game can work as an effective adjunct to the hunting life. I don't have enough experience with hunting simulations to know how well Trophy Buck compares to others in this genre, but there's certainly no question that the game enriched my understanding of hunting. Did you know, for example, that while there may be more white-tailed deer in the United States than ever before (some 25 million), the much larger (and more cutely antlered) mule deer are on the retreat, a victim of increasing development in their Western wintering homelands?

It may be easy to dismiss Trophy Buck's constant enjoinders to safe gun handling and law-abiding behavior as cagy National Rifle Association propaganda aimed at keeping deer hunters' flanks safe from criticism. But it still came as something of a surprise when I fired a shot at the ground and a stern voice told me, with scorn dripping, "Not smart! You're gonna hurt somebody doing that." Jeez, Dad, lighten up! I'm not really used to being scolded by my computer games for inappropriate gunfire. It was as if Clint Eastwood had just dissed me, bad. I was the alien in this game.

The question then became: If Trophy Buck celebrates a particular -- and real -- strand of American culture, what does a game like Broodwars represent? Is the mass murder inherent in every game of Starcraft harmless escapism, without strings attached? Or is it something darker -- repressed xenophobia, slaughter without responsibility? Where is the voice saying, "Watch it with that photon blaster -- you could take somebody's eye out?" Nowhere.

In the Starcraft universe, death is cheap and easy. Not so in the world of Trophy Buck, where death really is death -- at least for the deer.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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