Sniping in war and videogames: Why it's hated, why it's loved, and why we do it

Spielberg, Leone, the USSR, and ballistic accuracy

The first Medal of Honor was released for the PS1 in 1999, the year after Saving Private Ryan was released in theaters. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault came to the PC a few years later in 2002, just after Jude Law’s romanticizing of snipers in Enemy at the Gates. Later in 2002, Battlefield 1942 was released, and not long after that, Infinity Ward introduced Call of Duty. It seems the film industry ran just ahead of the games industry. Huh…

Steven Spielberg, of course, directed Saving Private Ryan, but he’s also the proud owner of a creator credit on Medal of Honor. Spielberg, you trend setter! He is, perhaps, the progenitor of the game industry’s World War II fever, which only just transitioned into modern warfare fever.

Of course, Saving Private Ryan wasn’t specifically about snipers, but that doesn’t matter – film heroes are always crack shots, be them WWII soldiers or one of Sergio Leone’s lonely western warriors.

Take The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: not only can Clint Eastwood casually strike down his opponents with a shot from his hip, he can then shoot them again in such a way that they fall into an open grave, and then shoot their hat into the grave to join them.

Above: Show a kid enough of this and how can he not dream of being a badass sharpshooter?

Pop culture aside, it doesn’t help militaries themselves have promoted romantic notions of snipers, as the USSR did with Zaitsev. Take Lyudmila Pavlichenko, another Soviet sniper, and possibly the most successful female sniper in history. She’s on a stamp (right). That's big time. Or US Army Staff Sergeant Adelbert F. Waldron, who accrued 109 confirmed kills in Vietnam - Lieutenant General Julian J. Ewell, who headed the Army’s Vietnam snipers, wrote of him:

"One afternoon he was riding along the Mekong River on a Tango boat when an enemy sniper on shore pecked away at the boat. While everyone else on board strained to find the antagonist, who was firing from the shoreline over 900 meters away, Sergeant Waldron took up his sniper rifle and picked off the Vietcong out of the top of a coconut tree with one shot (this from a moving platform). Such was the capability of our best sniper."

That may or may not have actually happened, but it’s fascinating anyway. Highly accurate shooting seems to be intrinsically interesting - why is that? I don’t know, but it’s possible that we’re simply genetically programmed to be partial to long-range projectiles.

From archery to darts to bowling, we love hitting things with things, especially from greater and greater distances. It’s a naturally advantageous skill to have – the greater the distance one can kill a target from, be it for food or defense, the safer the kill.

Snipers have many purposes, including demoralization, elimination of officers, counter-sniping, defense, and reconnaissance, but their existence can be generally attributed to the simple fact that shooting a target from a mile away is less risky than walking up behind it. That’s why, in 1915, the Germans didn’t hop out of their trenches and charge toward the Allied lines (as previous military strategies may have dictated). Instead, they laid low and picked off targets.

Above: Snipers of the France's 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment using a PGM Hécate and a FR-F2 in Afghanistan in 2005 (Darvic)

Hate all you want, snipers have fun

I don’t like to be sniped in games either, but I love doing it. I used to release balloons into the air, let the wind take them some distance, and then try to hit them with my BB gun (not easy, considering the significant arc of a slow-moving pellet). If a carnival had a target shooting game, I was there. I dominated the Silent Scope machine in arcades. I’m not a gun nut - I've never even fired a real gun - but I do love hitting targets with things (my dad really shouldn’t have let me buy that composite bow from a garage sale when I was a kid, lest he didn’t want his sprinkler system destroyed by a stray arrow).

So you can be sure that when Medal of Honor releases next week, I’ll be there with a bolt asshole gun, hitting tiny running men from as far away as I can.

My only complaint about modern shooters is that sniping is too easy. To maintain balance and offer a fun experience for every player, sniping is generally difficult, but not as difficult as would make me satisfied. Adding a “hold breath” button just doesn’t cut it. I would rather be required to account for gravity (which is the case in Bad Company 2, to a small extent) and wind resistance, as it makes every kill more impressive.

Though with current shooter mechanics, which encourage most players to stay on the run, scoring a kill with more realistic sniping physics may be near-impossible. Either way, I find hitting hard-to-hit targets from concealment oodles more fun than charging into battle. And if you hate being sniped, consider that the best sniper defense is counter-sniping. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? Actually… don’t. I’d rather have more unconcealed targets to aim at as I pretend to be Jude Law. I mean Vassily Zaitsev.

Sources of interest!

Oct 07, 2010

Medal of Honor – can it stand up to Allied Assault?
2010’s Afghanistan-set shooter has a lot to live up to. How will it compare to 2002?



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  • fault3 - April 24, 2012 1:10 p.m.

    that massmurdering dude has NOTHING to do on a game site like this. young kids will go "wow cool,her killed alot of germans" but was he any better than them? no,he was a murdering pscyhopath. and has NOTHING to do on a game site like this. there was a guy in norway in europe who shot down 80 defenseless teenagers. will you write about him the next time you write about postal? im disgusted by this article.
  • RammJaeger - November 18, 2010 11:17 p.m.

    Tyler, If you are looking for a game that has a very advanced sniping system and very realistic sniping check out Red Orchestra 2. The original RO already had a very realistic 3d scope sniping system and in the new game it is even better. Actually the system in RO1 is widely regarded as one of the best sniping systems in a video game, so I'm surprised it didn't make your story. Anyway, check out the videos of the sniping in RO2:
  • Obama69DoctorFunkenstein - October 13, 2010 11:28 p.m.

    great article
  • AnonymouZ - October 13, 2010 10:49 p.m.

    i almost didn't read the article cuz i hate being sniped. good read i almost miss tho. xD
  • GG Gabby - October 12, 2010 10:31 a.m.

    I love being a sniper sometimes, I feel like the hand of the Gods sniping N00BS from afar. :))) Pissing them off is the best part about sniping. Demoralization. XD
  • TruckThunders - October 11, 2010 12:33 p.m.

    Very well put together article, Mr. Wilde. While I don't care for sniping in games, I do understand its usefulness and that it can be enjoyable for the right person. I'm just not that person. Everyone has their own playing style, but I'll admit after getting shot in the head 5 times by the same person sitting the in the same spot, I'll yell "Damn camper!" just like the rest of us.
  • Smeggs - October 10, 2010 11:59 p.m.

    The thought that you hold someone's (virtual) life at the edge of a fingertip and all you have to do is pull the trigger. The thought that they feel like it is business as usual and yet in a mere blink of an eye you could end them with one shot. The fact that they will most likely never see you until they are falling to the ground and the kill-cam plays, and even if they do you can pick them off as they look right at you. That is why I enjoy sniping.
  • electricsheep - October 10, 2010 11:58 p.m.

    Real snipers use flaming arrows shot from a bow.
  • hardcore_gamer1990 - October 10, 2010 11:31 p.m.

    I love sniping in FPS. Seems so much more logical than run/gun/get-sniped-by-some-twat-with-ridiculous-aim gameplay
  • AlpineGuy - October 10, 2010 7:25 p.m.

    I showed this article to my dad, who has a Fall-pattern .50 cal in Modern Warfare 2. He really liked it, and agreed with you at the end on including more 'realistic' physics in sniping. Anyway, awesome article, Tyler! Very cool stuff.
  • Silentboy - October 10, 2010 2:42 p.m.

    Great Article. Also I loved the sniping in Bad Company 2. Adjusting for gravity was a nice touch. During a game this kid was freaking out because his bullets wouldn't hit the target. We told him to aim up to adjust for gravity but he thought we were mocking him so he left for MW2.
  • lovinmyps3 - October 10, 2010 12:44 a.m.

    Great article Tyler. Really interesting! I love sniping. It makes me feel like a badass. All of my highest killing sprees have been with snipers, in CoD, Battlefield, and any other FPS. I HATE quick-scopers though, cheap bastards.
  • EmoMuffin - October 9, 2010 10:34 p.m.

    No love for Carlos Hathcock or the Scout Snipers? Must not be any Marines working for GR. The thing with snipers in games, as in real combat, is that they can't take or hold ground. A big bolt-action rifle with a high-power scope is useful for hitting targets at several football fields away, but is useless for close-quarters fights or attacks. Plus, once the element of surprise is lost snipers who stay in a single position are easy prey for their target's comrades.
  • FinnishTurska87 - October 9, 2010 1:05 a.m.

    nice article .... and I'm such a bad sniper in games so I usually just go with assault rifle etc :D...Häyhä for the win :D
  • camelfro - October 9, 2010 12:31 a.m.

    interesting article, i enjoyed reading it thank tyler!
  • soren7550 - October 8, 2010 11:06 p.m.

    @devinejoh - I thought the longest confirmed sniper kill (mile & a half or so) was done by a Canadian in Afghanistan?
  • soren7550 - October 8, 2010 11:04 p.m.

    Interesting read, although I'm surprised that 'All Ghillied Up' and 'One Shot, One Kill' weren't mentioned.
  • zer0hvk - October 8, 2010 10:53 p.m.

    I don't know why this article doesn't have more Diggs, it's so fucking good. Lots of love to you mr. Wilde, keep up the great work.
  • devinejoh - October 8, 2010 10:43 p.m.

    you forgot the longest recorded kill was by one Rob Furlong, of Newfoundland
  • Oxfordcomma4 - October 8, 2010 8:36 p.m.

    @Phazon117: Been there, done that. It's actually not horrible if you are comfortable with firearms at all. I'd call it equivalent to a medium-gauge shotgun. I'm a piss-poor in-game sniper, but a crack shot in reality. The guy you hear muttering "stupid game that would never happen in reality" over your headset, thats me, being angry at a gun for being shit at distance.

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