Is EA Going to Stop Advertising Gun Brands in Its Games?

Electronic Arts says it's ending its deals with gun manufacturers to feature their weapons in its games. But what does that even mean?

Image: Electronic Arts

The national gun control debate may be simmering on Congress's backburner, but the battle for the moral high ground still rages on throughout the pixelated landscapes of violent video games.

Game maker Electronic Arts, responsible for the war-torn Medal of Honor and Battlefield sagas, said this week that it is ending licensing deals with gun makers whose brand-name hardware it has featured in its games for years. That doesn't mean the company will stop showcasing the guns in its games, just that won't pay for the privilege.

"A book doesn't pay for saying the word 'Colt,' for example," EA's president of labels told Reuters, in an attempt to shade the blatant branding in Call of Duty behind the First Amendment.

EA, the second highest-earning game maker in the U.S., promises to "put you directly in the boots of the soldier." In striving for that authentic, front-lines feel, it hires former Navy SEALs as consultants and replicates military-grade assault rifles down to the makers' specifications.

However, the company tells Motherboard that it has never paid or received money for licenses to use guns in its games, despite rumors to the contrary that stemmed from the Reuters story.

"To my knowledge, only one EA game--Medal of Honor Warfighter--has ever sought licenses for branded images of guns," EA Spokesman Jeff Brown told Motherboard. "Battlefield and other action/adventure games from EA have never used licenses for guns."

If you think about it, neither EA or gun manufacturers need to add money to the equation to enjoy a mutually fruitful partnership. It's free advertising for gun makers, and a boon of "enhanced authenticity," as EA likes to say, for the gaming industry. But the arrangement cuts both ways: Both parties become associated in the public consciousness with violent behavior.

'Unique Partnerships'

The precariousness of EA's position came to a major head in August, when news outlets drew attention to what the company called its "unique partnerships program." The game maker had embedded links to online gun retailers in a Warfighter promotions site. After catching heat for it, EA removed the links, explaining that proceeds from purchases of weapons emblazoned with the Medal of Honor logo--including assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, silencers, axes and knives--were going to help the families of wounded and dead special ops soldiers.

Gun makers that donated to the charity for soldiers earned some prominent ad space on the site--via a specific licensing agreement for that promotion--but no money was directly transferred between EA and the gun companies, Brown says.

But EA may have overlooked the fact that, in the process, it bulldozed the fourth wall and drew a clear, convenient path for gamers to step their fascinations with weapons and violence up a notch. Consumers didn't even need a permit to buy or use the guns for sale. One maker the site promoted is the McMillan Group, which sells the TAC-416, a rifle the company boasts is "deployed by military services around the world."

Other game makers, like Activision Blizzard, give "special thanks" to Colt, Remington and Barrett in the credits of Call of Duty, which feature rifles by Bushmaster--one of which was used in the Sandy Hook shooting. But a shout-out isn't a pay out.

Bill of Rights Battle

Speculation swirls as to why EA is pulling back from the gun industry's warm embrace, even just a tiny bit. Perhaps it's in response to a few well placed gut shots the NRA landed on the game maker in December, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. Under pressure to explain the NRA's controversial proposal to arm school staff, the group's CEO and chief deflector, Wayne LaPierre, shifted the focus onto an obvious target: violent video games.

"Guns don’t kill people. Video games, the media and Obama’s budget kill people," LaPierre said. "There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people, through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse."

It was an unimpressive attempt at denouncing the First Amendment in favor of the Second Amendment. Because, after all, guns can only be exercised to help, never hurt.

Meanwhile, EA is embroiled in a legal battle with a military helicopter manufacturer over alleged trademark infringement in Battlefield 3. In 2011, the parent company of Bell Helicopters asked EA to scrub out depictions of its products. EA responded with a lawsuit, claiming First Amendment protections.