Fake Scopes, Fake Trauma: Fetishism In Video Game Scope Reticle Design

EOTech XPS2 - XPS3 - using the 2-Dot Ballistic Reticle

I’ve been playing FPS games for better than 15 years now and learning the craft of rifle and handgun shooting for the past four or so, and one thing that has always annoyed me has been scope reticles. Recently, having some time playing Call of Duty: Ghosts has made me realize that it’s gotten seriously out of control nowadays.

It’s so bad, in fact, that the flaws in this design are emblematic of an aesthetically and philosophically naive modern approach to user interface design and a damning critique of a culture that simultaneously fetishizes and abjects violence. Call of Duty is a veritable library of bad reticle design. It is so profoundly bad, in fact, that it should be a resource for serious scope designers on what NOT to do. It is so bad that it transcends bad video game or scope design; it is an example of sheer, odious, crappy personal fuckwaddery.

Here’s a simple example: the Eotech reticle.
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These are laser reticles – the reticle is created by a laser scanning back and forth rapidly in a computerized pattern to produce a reflected pattern on specially treated glass. The advantage of these types of sights are several and profound, but perhaps the greatest is that they allow the shooter to naturally focus “through” the sight onto the target. Traditional scope designs require strict focus on the reticle, not the target, in order to ensure shot accuracy. With these types of reflected-reticle sight designs, in fact, focusing on the reticle will result in blurring for a large number of users – something like this:512_1

The holographic design that Eotech uses also has the advantage of making the reticle visible from multiple angles – you don’t need to have your head precisely behind the sight at a certain place, and if the glass is broken, the reticle will still be visible on the glass that remains.

The basic, famous Eotech dot and circle reticle is careful balance of design for speed and design for accuracy. The center dot is extremely precise – 1 MOA, or 1.037 inches at 100 yards. It’s so small, in fact, that without the outer ring it might be hard to catch – which is where the thought and attention to detail in this reticle design becomes apparent. The circle is 65 MOA in diameter, and the stadia lines coming off the circle at 12:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00 are each 4 MOA in length (measuring from the outer edge of the circle to the very tip). The circle is extremely fast – meaning that it is visually salient, easy to catch with the eye and well-suited for gross adjustments at speed.

The diameter of the circle and the length of the stadia lines are set at 65 and 4 minutes of angle for a reason: Since they are of a determinate size in terms of radial angle, they can be compared against apparent size of objects seen through the sight to obtain range estimation. In other words, if I know that the ring is 65 MOA wide (approximately 65 inches at 100 yards, 130 inches at 200 yards, 195 inches at 300 yards and so forth) and I can see an object I know to be 5 feet 5 inches tall through it that fits the entire width of the ring, then I can figure out what the range of that object is. Here’s a commonly taught example summed up in a very usable format by a WordPress blogger at Savannah Arsenal:
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In addition to the basic dot-circle reticle, Eotech also offers three other reticle patterns worth mentioning for this discussion: the 2-dot pattern in the Eotech EXPS3-2 and XPS2-2 (as well as other discontinued models) and the 4-dot pattern in the EXPS3-4, and the Brownells CQB T-dot pattern. The multi-dot patterns are straightforward – they are ballistically calibrated aiming dots for commonly used ammunition at various ranges. Here, for example, is the manual page for the 2-dot reticle:
EOTech XPS2 - XPS3 - using the 2-Dot Ballistic Reticle

The CQB T-Dot reticle is worth mentioning as an extremely useful and underrated reticle design. The segmentation of the circle at the 6:00 position and the additional T-shaped aiming point provide a second point of aim designed to provide point-of-impact at CQB distances. This design is a highly unique solution to a common and misunderstood problem – mechanical sight offset, or the distance between the sight and the actual gun barrel. At distances of 15 yards or so and inwards, when you aim with the central dot, the bullet will actually hit as much as 2-3 inches below where you’re aiming, because the reticle pattern is 3 inches above the gun’s barrel. The intersection of the T-dot design offers a solution to this problem by presenting a second, visually salient and precise aiming point for close-in aiming.
Eotech-2

Call of Duty is a multi-billion dollar franchise. The Call of Duty series has been going on for longer than America’s longest war. In the self-serving jargon of the video game industry attempting to create officious-sounding terms to appear more established, it’s a “triple-A” title with significant marketing and design resources behind it. So how come they have Eotech reticles that look like this?
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Or this?
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This type of visual design is a true nadir in the progress of user interface design, a real low point. It is a kind of slavish, fetishistic aping of practical design, a pimply teenaged boy of a design that wears Crye Multi-Cam fatigues and plays XBox under the gamertag “RangerSniperSpecialSEALElite”. It is a shitty, shitty design and it is amazing how no one has explained in detail just how completely terrible it is.

The first-person shooter game is essentially a stripped-down user interface with one absurdly simple overall dynamic: put an under the crosshairs in the middle. That’s it. You aren’t clicking, moving, dragging, sliding, tapping anything – there are only TWO mechanics, centration (the user moves the target to the center of the screen) and interaction (the user clicks or pulls the trigger to notionally “shoot”).

Essentially: As a reticle designer you have one job. In a situation of complete design freedom, these designers manage to fail at that job so completely and profoundly that they seem like they did not even bother to actually shoot the guns and weapon sights they are depicting. The result of their “gosh maybe this is how it should work” naivete is an out-of-touch, slavish kind of gun fetishism.

The design of magnified scope reticles in video games is another type of horrid that Call of Duty is perhaps the worst at, although other “AAA” titles that feature realistic ballistics like the Battlefield series manage to redeem the genre somewhat. Just one example suffices to explain how profoundly stupid Call of Duty’s reticle designs are – let’s discuss christmas tree or Horus reticles for a moment. Here’s the most recent Horus reticle, the H59:
h59_reticle

From the practical, ballistic perspective, the Horus reticle is simply good design that replaces visual interpolation and inference with measurement and confirmation from a grid. Here’s how it works in a video that explains it much more concisely than I can write it:

Here’s the Call of Duty version.
20-quick-scoping

Keep in mind that there is no ballistic drop in Call of Duty – the stadia lines below the central aiming point are completely useless. They are, in fact, not even decorative, because terming something “decor” assumes that it has a focal aspect in how you appreciate something. You’re not supposed to even notice the crosshair design except as a “realistic” touch – literally window dressing onto the 3-D world that is supposed to be the focus of your attention.

So these types of reticles, as it should now be abundantly clear, are inauthentic, sub-decorative forms of gun fetishism. Let’s discuss what this means about culture and video games and, of course, you.

Start with having even seen or held one of these sights or for that matter one of these weapons. Less than 1% of the American public has served in the military. Of that 1%, even fewer have been issued Eotechs – the M68 CCO, known to the civilian world as the Aimpoint CompM2 and later the CompM4 is standard issue for the Army, and the Trijicon ACOG TA31F-RCO is standard issue for the Marine Corps. Here’s what a CompM4 in a Larue mount looks like:
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For the remaining 99% of us, then, these sights and scopes are very expensive – a previous-generation Eotech 512.A65, for instance is at least $400, and a current generation EXPS3-0, EXPS3-2 or EXPS3-4 features night-vision compatibility, a lower-1/3rd co-witness quick-release riser that allows you to use your reticle and iron sights simultaneously on separate parallel planes and runs up to $700; add in a spring-loaded, flip-to-the-side 3-x magnifier and the total package climbs north of $1,000. A scope with a gridded Horus reticle is another league of expensive entirely – the Horus pattern itself is patented and offered on Horus’ own scopes as well as licensed out to other optics manufacturers that put them in their highest-end scopes running up to $4,500. This is a Schmidt and Bender Police Marksman II with an H59 reticle in a Larue scope mount – a fairly typical setup for this class of equipment:
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It costs $4,500. On sale.

A rifle that actually shoots far enough to make a Horus scope worth having – at least a precision .308, at least capable of at least 1 MOA accuracy, in other words – is even more expensive. This is an Accuracy International AX 338. ai_ax_338_308

This rifle weighs more than 20 pounds loaded with a scope and costs more than $5,000.

For the remaining 99% of us who are not shooting $10,000 rifle/optics combinations the fake scope reticle and stupidly colored gun is as close as you will ever get to the real thing. Keep in mind as well that a lot of “hardcore” Call of Duty players are people with a lot of free time – children too young to legally own firearms, unemployed or partially-employed adults too poor, too liberal or criminal to own firearms, teenagers too irresponsible or just plain stupid to be entrusted with a firearm. For the vast majority of us, firearms and sights with military levels of reliability and precisions are simply unnecessary. No one is buying a $4,500 Schmidt and Bender to take to the range once a year to shoot casually at paper plates.

For those in the 1% of us who have served – the best of us, those who have used these tools and faced down bad men with guns trying to kill them – the bare facts of the reality of scope reticles make them different things. Look again at the diagram of the Eotech reticle subtensions – 65 MOA is 5’5″ at 100 yards, the average height of a person outside the developed first world (our average height is somewhat taller at 5’9.5″).

Look at the Horus reticle – in order to even use the grid intersections further than 3 to 4 mils down as drop markers, you need to be shooting a rifle cartridge further than 600 yards. No hunters except specialized long-range hunters with extremely precise, hard-hitting game rifles in calibers like 7mm or .300 Winchester Magnum take targets at 600 yards and over; it’s simply too easy to miss and end up inflicting an inhumane wounding hit. Only military shooters – snipers, designated marksmen, selected special personnel – take targets at that range.

These reticles – these specific designs – are what you see through to look at the people you are shooting at. This is what our soldiers and marines look through when they shoot at people trying to kill them. That is why these reticle designs appeal to people too young, liberal, criminal, idiotic, insane or simply irresponsible to shoot a gun. It is a kind of compromise, for as a culture, Americans are obsessed with mankillers. Some of our most influential and important Founding Fathers were inveterate mankillers – George Washington the threadbare general masterfully laying traps for the British in the snow of New York, Andrew Jackson and Alexander Hamilton the duelists, even slight little James Madison raising an army in the snows of revolutionary New England – all killers of men, as they had to be. Call of Duty and the patriotic genre of “AAA” titles it takes part in are a kind of homage to the glamour and excitement of the killers of men that run through our national history, offering some kind of horribly misinformed homage to what feels like to look down the sights of their guns, while not rankling too badly with people disinclined to actually responsibly exercise their Second Amendment rights.

This is fetishism as design, offering the symbology of design for mankilling with none of the intellectual integrity or training typically associated with even entry-level training in defensive mankilling. Worse yet, this is design with pretensions at representing the elective trauma of training, design that offers the look and feel of righteous killing without even a coherent narrative pretext. It breeds a lack of respect for the power of firearms in the misinformed and it represents a particularly odious kind of fetishism for the informed – it is irresponsible, bad design, so bad it’s really surprising and unparalleled.

The video game scope reticle is like a GI Joe toy with a sucking chest wound, like a fake car without a steering wheel or safety belts. It’s insensitive in a manner so unthinking that it almost disappears unless you really try to pin it down and figure out why you hate it so much. It’s particularly terrible not because the design should change – no one really cares – but instead because it shows how society should change. It shows how out of touch we are with the basic facts of distant foreign violence and death that underwrite our lovely orderly society. It shows that we’ve become profoundly stupid in how we instruct our children, particularly our boys, in the usage and care of the most deadly tools that we make as a society. The video game reticle is a self-damning critique, through it visible the fake, meaningful world of violence we love and hate as a society.

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