With approximately 2.5 billion gamers worldwide, never before have so many people played video games as today. The first-person shooter series Call of Duty is particularly popular. With over 300 million copies sold, it holds third place in the ranking of the best-selling video game series of all time, just behind Super Mario and Pokémon.
But with the success comes the criticism. Call of Duty is often called upon when researchers try to determine the real-life potential for violence through video games, or when journalists try to reconstruct the motives of mass murderers like Anders Behring Breivik.
What is often neglected in the debate about violence in video games are the weapons themselves, which make the violence possible in the first place. The weapons are the backbone of video game series such as Call of Duty, Battlefield or Counter-Strike, whose central aesthetic selling point is the realistic depiction of military combat and conflicts.
When players engage in the virtual battles of military shooters, they expect to do so with weapons that really exist. So the video game developers fill their games with AK 47s, M4A1s, PKMs and RPGs. This is also the case in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which was released in September 2019 and broke one sales record after another.
The title-giving promise to reflect modern warfare is also reflected in the arsenal of weapons on offer. Though only 14 of the 43 weapons used in the video game have accurate weapon names, all virtual weapons, with one fictitious exception, are visually confusingly similar to their real counterparts.
Such accuracy raises big questions:
Do gun manufacturers earn royalties by having their guns appear in such successful video game series as Call of Duty? Do the weapons act like product placements, do they raise awareness and create preferences? And does this effect perhaps even go so far that the games increase the sales figures of the weapons?
Brothers in arms – the relationship between gun and games makers
As regards to the financial involvement of the arms industry in video games, there is evidence to suggest that arms and video game producers have been cooperating, at least until 2012. It is not possible to say exactly how many games were affected by this, as such licensing agreements are usually subject to non-disclosure agreements.
Despite this, some of these agreements have come to light. One of them is the cooperation between the industry giant Electronic Arts (EA) and American arms manufacturers and dealers. On the website of the first-person shooter Medal of Honor: Warfighter, the game manufacturer thanked its 14 partners from the weapons industry and linked their products. The sponsored link led to the website of Macmillan Firearms, among others. Real versions of the in-game sniper rifles Macmillan TAC-300 and CS-5 were only a few clicks away. In December 2012 the links were removed by EA. the trigger for this was most likely the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. The second-deadliest US school rampage made big waves, with its outbreaks reaching even the world of video games.
Eurogamer’s interview with Ralph Vaughn, PR officer of the gunmaker Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, showed that EA’s cooperation with the weapons industry was not an isolated incident:
„We’ve worked with companies to send our sniper rifles into video games. Which ones? Our licence agreement prohibits us from mentioning a company by name. [However] you are welcome to check out the Call of Duty series.“
The Sandy Hook shooting and EA’s link incident originate from the year 2012, which represents a kind of turning point that was already apparent on the legal side in 2011, when the US Supreme Court in a landmark decision officially declared video games to be a form of creative expression, thus further extending the protective shield of free use and free speech over video games. „The Supreme Court affirmed […] that free speech protections apply every bit as much to video games as they do to other forms of creative expression like books, movies and music,” said Michael Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association, which among others includes Activision and EA.
Surely the lawyers of EA must have breathed a sigh of relief since they had to fight out licensing suits in the past. Not regarding guns, but attack helicopters. In 2006, Bell Textron sued EA for the illegal display of three of its attack helicopters in the video games Battlefield Vietnam, Battlefield Vietnam: Redux and Battlefield 2. The company accused EA of „infringing and diluting the trademarks and trade dress [overall design] associated with three helicopters.“ EA’s claim for the protection of free speech under the First Amendment was denied. In February 2008 the two parties settled out of court. Exactly what the conditions were is not known. What is certain, however, is that this was not only the first time that a weapons manufacturer had taken legal action against a video game company, but that it was also the first time that it most likely won.
After EA, strengthened by the Supreme Court decision, launched a new Battlefield in 2012 without licenses from the helicopter manufacturer, the court surprisingly decided in favor of Bell Textron.
It would be another 8 years before a video game producer, namely Activision, would win a similar battle.
Licensing agreements seem to be a thing of the past
Such litigation can be extremely costly even for such giant companies as Activision and EA. Especially since, despite the Supreme Court’s assessment, it is not foreseeable how such lawsuits will turn out. Which is why it is understandable that video game publishers prefer to play it safe. But that doesn’t mean that they have to enter into licensing agreements with brands like Barrett as a precaution. After all, there is still the option to change the names or the likeness of the guns in order not to infringe patent and trademark rights.
It seems that this is the option the industry is taking today. Publishers such as Take-Two Interactive, Rebellion, Bethesda Game Studios, PUBG, Epic Games, Avalanche Studios, Take-Two Interactive, Activision and EA have assured to the Atlantic last year that none of the weapons in their games are under a licensing deal. This was also assured to us by the German weapons manufacturers Heckler and Kochs and SIG Sauer. While Heckler and Koch’s head of corporate communications kept it very short:
„On the part of Heckler & Koch, there is no license agreement with Activision or other video game developers.“
Tim Castagne, the CEO of SIG Sauer, expanded on it a little further:
„Our company SIG SAUER GmbH & Co. KG has not concluded any license agreements or other arrangements with video game manufacturers, not even in the past. I can’t remember any inquiries from the past years either. (…) In Europe – our area of responsibility – I see no advantage in using our products in video games.“
But he cannot say what this looks like in the USA: „In the USA, our sister company SIG SAUER Inc. holds the rights to our brand. I don’t know if they have any dealings with game companies.“ For completeness sake we have also written to SIG SAUER Inc., but didn’t get an answer so far.
The arms of Modern Warfare
What is certain is that the products of the German weapons manufacturers continue to appear in the Call of Duty games. Almost every fourth weapon you can choose from in the new Modern Warfare comes from this country.
And even though some of these weapons in Call of Duty are now under a different name, they are very easy to recognise and, depending on the time spent in the video game, can act as a kind of product placement.
Survey on Weapons and further evidence on the product placement effects
Product placement effects are suggested by the first interim results of our pilot survey. According to it, frequent players answer questions about the weapons correctly twice as often as those who have played little or no Call of Duty. They are twice as likely to be able to assign weapons to their category, they are twice as likely to be able to identify weapons from images and estimate typical magazine capacities relatively accurately.
These results are by no means representative, with only 45 respondents and 10 questions. But in the absence of similar research, they suggest that more research on this topic is definitely needed – especially since there is already evidence that product placement effects increase the sales of BB-Guns. Cybergun, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of BB-Guns, said the following:
„We definitely see sales of particular [BB] guns increase when they are featured in popular video games, such as Call of Duty. For example, sales of the FAMAS [used by the French army] exploded in the US when Call of Duty decided to use it as one of the best weapons in their game […] When they [the children] play every day with a new brand in a video game, finally they want to buy it in reality.“
Whether these children will buy a real FAMAS later on is not foreseeable, since sales figures of weapons, with which conclusions could be drawn, are not published. The only thing certain is that at least in the past, some gun brands were counting on it: „Video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners,“ assured Barrets Ralph Vaughn.