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Rogelio "RJ" Anguiano at the Big Buck World Championship | Mikayla Whitmore/Thrillist
Rogelio "RJ" Anguiano at the Big Buck World Championship | Mikayla Whitmore/Thrillist

The Hunting Party: Two Wild Days in Vegas at the 'Big Buck Hunter' Championships

The first time I killed a deer, I cut out its heart and bit into it while it was still warm. I was 12 years old. The deer, too, was a child, thin with tiny antlers. I felled it with a .30-06, my dad’s gun, which he passed over to me upon spotting the deer across the clearing. I took aim and shot it in the neck. As we stood over its lifeless body, my psychotic uncle put his fingers in the dead deer's blood and smeared it on my cheeks like war paint. He then told me to cut out the heart and take a bite. That was the tradition, he said. After I bit into it, blood running down my chin, he told me I was a real hunter now. It was first and the last deer I ever killed.

I was reminded of that sordid scene recently in Las Vegas while holding a shotgun against my shoulder and aiming at a deer galloping through the woods. I lined up my eye to the gun’s barrel, put the buck right between my sights, and pulled the trigger. I felled it with one shot. Proud of my handiwork, I stepped back and smiled. The hunter next to me, a young woman in a neon-yellow tank top and very short shorts, did not stop shooting. She fired off dozens of shots, dropping bucks and raccoons and all manner of beasts that piled up on the ground before us. When it was all over, she put down her gun and said, “Good game.” The score: 4,000 to 700. I had lost a round of Big Buck Hunter, and badly at that.

All around us inside the Hard Rock Cafe on the Vegas Strip, clusters of spectators had gathered around other arcade machines to watch players shooting lights at the digital deer, elk and bear that appeared on the screens. Like me, they were here for the Big Buck World Championship X, held during the last weekend of October, where 64 of the best Big Buck Hunter players from the United States, Australia, and Canada were competing to win a $20,000 first prize. I may have been a real hunter once upon a time. In this room, my deer-heart consumption would earn me no truck with these competitors. In this room, a good hunt was rewarded with beer and wings.

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The reigning Ladies' Tournament champ taking aim at an elk | Mikayla Whitmore/Thrillist

Big Buck HD Wild, the latest iteration of the mega-popular Big Buck Hunter video-game series, tasks players with blasting deer, elk, giraffe, bears, raccoons, pigeons, and even zombies with replica shotguns. It’s more than just an arcade game, however. The coin-op franchise, developed by Chicago-based Play Mechanix and first released in 2000, has inspired a thriving community of fans who revere it with an almost cult-like devotion. The 2,150 Big Buck HD machines around the world, typically found in bars, casinos and arcades, are networked so as to track the players' rankings through online leaderboards.

Once a year, the top players are invited to enter a tournament that could help them to secure one of the 64 spots in the World Championship. The average Big Buck superstar spends $1,200 in qualifying play, not counting travel costs if they're invited to compete in championships. Most who attend won’t win much money. Most of them don’t care. The goal is just to get to the party.

That’s what the Big Buck World Championship is, more than anything else: a party. The faithful tend to be barflies, differing in style and substance, depending on what part of the country they're from and what kind of establishment their home Big Buck HD machine sits in. But beneath their aesthetic shifts lies one commonality: these players like to drink. The Hard Rock Cafe has filled up with young people wearing ironic camouflage and safety orange, T-shirts with slogans like “Too Drunk to Buck,” lots of animal print and silly costumes, and plenty of tattoos. One sports thick black plastic eyeglasses and has a heart tattoo with the letters “NPR” in the middle, no doubt for National Public Radio. Between rounds, they're diverted by the “Wheel of Tomfoolery," which compels members of the audience to play Big Buck HD Wild while eating hot peppers or play flip cup on stage while doing shots. The DJ keeps the Kendrick Lamar pounding as loud as it will go.

The video games and pinball machines brought in for the tournament are all set for free play and the contestants imbibe at an open bar. It's equal parts tournament and frat party -- a major reason why Big Buck Hunters work so hard and spend so much to get to the World Championship. For many of them, it is the only vacation they will take all year. But as the flip cup game stretches on, a member of the audience near me grows impatient.

“I don’t want this silly shit,” he shouts to the stage. “I want death and carnage!”

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Kylie Hodsdon competing for the Ladies' Championship title | Mikayla Whitmore/Thrillist

The organizers oblige him. As AC/DC’s "Thunderstruck" blasts from the speakers, Kylie Hodsdon, a 33-year-old mother of three from New Hampshire, takes her place in front of a machine on the main stage. She’s wearing a sleeveless denim vest with a deer skull above two crossed shotguns sketched on the back. She doesn’t dance around or mug for the crowd like some of the other competitors. She has an intense stare, all business. When her round starts, she works her plastic shotgun like something other than a weapon. She doesn’t aim with her eye, which she says she has trouble seeing out of anyway. She pumps and pulls the trigger with such force, such wild abandon, that you’d think she was just randomly blasting at whatever leapt from the trees.

You’d be wrong, though. Hodsdon's a top-seeded player, having run deep in the Ladies' Championship the past few years. (Yes, there is a separate tournament for women, though it's intended to act as a recruitment tool, not as a statement about the comparative skill levels of male and female Big Buck Hunter players. It appears to be working; the number of women competing in the World Championship has increased every year and women now make up roughly 10% of the field.) Hodsdon was indoctrinated into the cult of Big Buck Hunter 13 years ago at Colebrook House, a bar close to her job at The Balsams Resort that she describes as a “good old boy scene.” Lots of outdoorsmen-types wearing flannel shirts hung out there -- a possible and seemingly sensible reason the tavern's proprietors saw fit to install a Big Buck Hunter cabinet. But the regulars didn’t take to it.

“Anyone who actually hunts, they think the game is a joke,” Hodsdon tells me. “The old-timers never played it.”

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Kylie Hodsdon's custom "deer-and-shotguns" denim vest | Mikayla Whitmore/Thrillist

Hodsdon, however, loved it. She had logged many hours in The Balsams' employee canteen playing Point Blank, a 1994 shooting gallery game with a similar light gun controller. She soon found that her skills were transferable, and she began to dominate the Colebrook House machine's high scores. Eventually the bar upgraded to a Big Buck Hunter with a bigger screen, enhanced graphics, and new levels. It also offered connectivity. Now you could compete not just against fellow bar-goers but with drinkers around the world.

Hodsdon’s then-husband noticed that there was a World Championship tournament coming up and that players could qualify from anywhere. He encouraged Hodsdon to try. She was pregnant with their third child and not spending much time in bars. But she had a competitive streak, having been an athlete in high school and the daughter of a minor-league baseball player, and later found her real passion was video games. At the famed arcade, Funspot, in Laconia, New Hampshire, Hodsdon had held the high score on Galaga for a while. Lately she had been confined to playing Earthworm Jim on the Sega with her kids at home. She was jonesing for some action, so she decided to come out to the bar, great with child, to try and qualify for Big Buck Hunter glory.

“I was going through morning sickness,” Hodsdon said. “The only place that had a console we could qualify on was a super dive bar that made me want to throw up every time we went in.” It took less time to qualify for the Ladies' Championship event, so she opted for that over the World Championship, despite the fact that she regularly dusted her husband and all of the grizzled New England hunters at her home bar. She easily qualified and ended up placing fifth her first year. She returned to compete the next five years, improving a little each time, and in 2016 she went to the championships in Austin, Texas, with the intention of winning it all.

Before the event, some friends in Houston took her to a “gun country club,” a private shooting range. Hodsdon had never shot skeet before, but she had been around real guns growing up in a family of hunters. She was nervous, but the first plate that went up she nailed in one shot. And the next one, and then the one after that. Hodsdon didn’t think there was much similarity between shooting at buck on Big Buck Hunter and shooting at skeet, but she didn’t fully discount that her skills in one could help her in the other. For example, when she plays Big Buck Hunter she has learned to use the same stance that trap shooters use, and to lean into the gun and set it on her shoulder like a real weapon. And as for how her video game skills helped her shooting trap? “I guess I just have really good hand-eye coordination,” she says.

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RJ Anguiano, of Seattle, and Sean Chadwick, from Australia, in the championship match | Mikayla Whitmore / Thrillist

George Petro would agree that there isn’t much of a correlation between hunting and shooting skills in the real world and in Big Buck Hunter. “It’s not really a hunting game,” he explains. The 52-year-old president of the Chicago video-game design company Play Mechanix worked his way up the ladder of the video-game industry starting as a teenager working in a family friend’s arcade in the 1970s. He parlayed that job and his enthusiasm for the tech behind the games into a summer job at Williams Electronics, where he first met the legendary arcade-game designer Eugene Jarvis. Jarvis, who co-created the coin-op classics Defender, Stargate, and Robotron: 2084, would mentor Petro and, after Williams merged into Midway Games, the two teamed up to produce the highly controversial but successful arcade shooter NARC. Petro also worked on the '90s hits Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. (He's even a secret unlockable character you can play as in NBA Jam.) In the mid-'90s, Petro correctly intuited that Midway planned to move away from the arcade business, so he left to start Play Mechanix so he could continue to develop arcade games.

Petro couldn’t take any people with him from Midway, but he could contract back to them. The CEO of Midway told Petro there were four types of video games: sports, fighting, driving, and gun. If Petro was going to go out on his own, they’d only let him work on gun games, because other Midway teams were already developing games in the genres the CEO had deemed acceptable; in other words, Petro would otherwise be direct competition. Petro’s new company, Play Mechanix, worked on a few titles for Midway, even a few slot machines for some gaming companies, but eventually Petro grew weary of being just a contracting company. In 1999, Petro considered shutting down the business and going back to Midway. He and his business partner decided to take the weekend to think it over before deciding to call it quits.

Petro wracked his brain. “What are we missing?” He needed an idea for a gun game that could be big. He looked at a PC game he had that was popular that year, a CD-ROM called Deer Hunter. The game was played with a mouse, pointing and clicking on deer on the screen. It was simple, almost ridiculously so, and it sold over a million units that Christmas season. Clearly there was a market for hunting games, and pitifully few options. That Monday morning Petro presented the idea of a deer-hunting arcade game. Of everyone on his team, only one had ever even been hunting before, but they all instantly saw the potential. They were in. Petro cashed out his savings, enough of a runway for about three months. Their deadline to get a working prototype together was March 2000.

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Sean Chadwick, left, and RJ Anguiano compete for the title | Mikayla Whitmore / Thrillist

The first thing they did was buy a bunch of hunting VHS tapes. The team was struck by how funny they were. Not in an ironic sense, but how much fun the hunters had joking around with each other in the field. These tapes informed the decision to make their game campy and tongue-in-cheek, with ridiculous over-the-top voice-overs. They didn’t worry too much about getting the hunting specifics down. To them the game was more of a shooting gallery, like Hogan’s Alley. Even the guns the game used -- some cast-offs from a failed Midway game called Carnevil that the parts supplier, Happ Controls, were still producing -- were all wrong. They were sawed-off shotguns, the kind of guns you’d use when you rob a bank, not sniping deer from 75 yards away.

When it was released, Big Buck Hunter was a hit, most popular in rural areas where there were more hunters. Their top three states were Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Texas. But in coming out with the game's upgraded follow-up, Big Buck Hunter Pro, they changed distributors to a company that was stronger on the East Coast than in the Midwest, and took a completely different approach, placing it in bars in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Surprisingly, the game did as well or better in urban areas as it had in the Midwest and South. Petro and his team had followed the success of the golf game Golden Tee, which had become a staple in bars across the country since its appearance in the 1990s.

“It allows you to socialize while you play it,” he explained. “It doesn’t take all your time. You can drink.” That allowed them to find the game homes in bars rather than arcades and bowling alleys. “That’s the Holy Grail. If you can hit bars with a game, there are a lot more bars than arcades.” Their tweaks to the gameplay paid off. Players in urban areas started organizing themselves into leagues, same as darts or pool. By 2006, when Play Mechanix merged with Jarvis' Raw ThrillsBig Buck Hunter Pro had dethroned Golden Tee and was voted the best upright video game by distributors in RePlay Magazine. Soon after that, Play Mechanix decided to try another of Golden Tee’s innovations. They announced a real-money tournament, a Big Buck Hunter World Championship.

The first was held in 2008 at the Excalibur Nightclub in Chicago. With 24 players, it felt like more of a social gathering than a cutthroat competition. Over the following years, the number of competitors would grow, the prize money would get bigger, and with the advent of Twitch, tens of thousands of spectators around the world would tune in. (This year, 50,000 people watched the Championship livestream. And Twitch's first documentary produced in-house, called Ironsights, is about a popular Big Buck Hunter streamer.) Players around the country devoted themselves to the game, sometimes buying consoles for their homes or filming various levels to watch and study when and where they should point and shoot. Rivalries developed. Alliances formed. Last year’s ninth annual World Championship in Austin, Texas drew a huge crowd and fierce competition for the $100,000 prize pool. The game was surging in popularity. Leading up to this year’s championships, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke installed a dated Big Buck Hunter World machine in the Interior Department employee cafeteria, “To highlight #sportsmen contributions 2 conservation,” he tweeted.

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The trophy display at the Big Buck World Championship | Mikayla Whitmore / Thrillist

Petro knew that, with 2017 marking the tournament's 10th anniversary, it would be a big year for them and that they’d need to make a statement. So many of the Big Buck faithful built their annual vacations around the event and had been begging Play Mechanix to hold it in Las Vegas. They agreed. Ten years was a major milestone. What better place to make a big splash, to throw the biggest party they’ve ever thrown, than Vegas?

When Play Mechanix announced the location, the players rejoiced. Petro and his team spent months preparing for the event, traveling back and forth from Chicago and Las Vegas. In early October the team was on site for a tech day. As Petro walked through the MGM Grand lobby he noticed that everyone was dressed in cowboy boots and Western wear. “What’s going on?” Petro asked. “It’s the Route 91 Harvest Festival,” someone told him. A three-day outdoor country music festival, right across the Strip from the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

I left the Hard Rock Cafe late on Friday night, after Kylie Hodsdon won her first Ladies' Championship, with a smile on my face. The Big Buck World Championship was just getting started, but I was already having a lot more fun than I had expected. I hadn’t considered that video games could be an entertaining spectator sport, but watching the Big Buck HD elite held my attention. I was captivated by the action, by those rounds where competitors were neck and neck and it all came down to a bonus round or who would bag the “dangerous trophy,” the large, angry, final beast that charged toward you on the screen. I left that night in good spirits, and purposefully fucked up that feeling. Instead of heading back to my hotel, I walked down the Strip to the site of the Route 91 Harvest Festival, where three weeks before Stephen Paddock shot 546 people from a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay.

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A memorial for Las Vegas shooting victims | Courtesy of Mikayla Whitmore

The blocks around the site of the massacre were guarded by police 24/7. Across the Strip at the entrance to the Mandalay Bay, visitors had created a makeshift memorial to the victims. Scattered around the ornate entrance gate were candles, cards, notes, photographs. There were clothes draped on shrubs -- a British football club jersey, a Polish police hat, a sock with the word "love" stitched in it. From a hundred yards, it looked like rubbish. Up close, it looked like the frantic expression of confused and heartbroken people. Curiously, those people weren’t just Las Vegans. They weren’t even just Americans. They were from all over the world, so moved by the tragedy they stripped off their socks and shirts and left them behind in a strange and loving gesture of grief.

Further south down the Strip near the iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign was another memorial, though less spontaneous. A 66-year-old carpenter named Greg Zanis had built 58 white wooden crosses along the median of the Strip near the sign, one for each person who had died in the shooting. Zanis' father-in-law had been murdered by a gunman in Aurora, Illinois in 1996. Since then he has traveled the country building white crosses for victims of gun violence. In the last 20 years he has built more than 20,000. His memorial in Las Vegas is particularly haunting, juxtaposed with the bright and vibrant Vegas Strip skyline in the background. While Vegas was alive and bustling on a Friday night, Zanis’ memorial by the Welcome sign was packed with somber visitors, many of whom were also breaking from their respective revelry to be here. They lit candles, they signed their names and hometowns to a banner that read "Vegas Strong." They knelt before the crosses and prayed beneath the palm trees, beneath the lit-up sign that read “Drive Carefully, Come Back Soon.”

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The 58 white crosses, one for each victim of the massacre | Courtesy of Mikayla Whitmore

As I spoke with Big Buck Hunters at the tournament and asked them about their experience hunting in real life, with real weapons, with guns, a few people responded with apprehension. “We’re not Trump people,” a jewelry designer from Brooklyn told me. Another person laughed and said to me point-blank, “We’re all talking to you about this game, and you’re going to go write something about gun culture in America or something.” Perhaps my questions weren’t subtle. Perhaps it was just undeniable, even to the joyful Buck Hunters, that one could be in Las Vegas and not think about guns and violence right now. It wasn’t just me, or anyone in the Hard Rock Cafe. It was everyone in town.

There among the bright hundred-foot tall billboards advertising Gucci and magic shows and EDM DJs were giant signs proclaiming “Vegas Strong” and “We’ve been there for you during the good times. Thank you for being there for us now.” It reminded me of the strange way I felt in New York in the weeks after 9/11, unsure if it was OK to go back to regular life, to go back to doing normal things as if nothing had happened. I remember the first episode of Saturday Night Live after 9/11, when Lorne Michaels asked Rudy Giuliani during the cold open if it was OK to be funny. ("Why start now?" was the mayor’s reply). In the end we all decided that it was important to get back to some sense of normalcy with the caveat that we were not going to forget what happened. We would honor the dead by living. Insofar as the goal of the attack was to make our lives miserable, to fill our hearts with fear and vengeance and hate, we would fight back by staying the course, embracing our neighbors, living our lives with love and cheer. We were New York Strong, Boston Strong, Orlando Strong. We were strong enough not to let terrorists defeat us, which is to say we were strong enough to allow ourselves to feel joy.

What makes it hard to go back to having fun after these tragedies is that so often that fun involves guns and violence. I don’t say this judgmentally. Most of my favorite movies are violent. Many of my favorite video games involve guns. I understand that a lot of us are drawn to guns as a form of play. I just don’t understand why, even in a world wracked by horrifying, senseless violence, we still choose to escape into other worlds where we shoot at each other for fun. I called up the only person I thought might help me make sense of it.

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Retail display in an electronics store for the release of "Grand Theft Auto V" in 2013 | Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Jeremy Mattheis is a 32-year-old video editor in Los Angeles. Since 2014 he has been uploading videos to YouTube of himself playing the game Grand Theft Auto, an expansive sandbox multiplayer game where players commit crimes to earn money and prestige in a virtual Los Angeles underworld. The game is so violent it has been banned in some countries, condemned by governments, and has been officially called the most controversial video game of all time by the Guinness World Records. The publisher, Rockstar Games, has been sued multiple times by families of victims of violent crimes who claim the game inspired the attackers. The game involves murder, torture, sex and prostitution, drug use and drug dealing. It’s also the fourth-best-selling video game series of all time, with over a quarter of a billion units sold. Mattheis loves it. He’s logged over 150 hours on Steam (not counting the hours he’s spent playing on his home Xbox), many of which have been recorded and uploaded with commentary for his YouTube subscribers. The interesting thing about Mattheis, though, is that he chooses to play Grand Theft Auto without committing any crimes or hurting anyone. He plays as a pacifist.

In the beginning, the series was meant to be ironic, a gag, and a funny one at that. In the first episode, Mattheis finds himself tasked with robbing a gas station. He had already discarded his gun, armed with only his fists, but the gas station attendant handed over the money when Mattheis’ character put up his dukes in a fighting stance. To assuage his guilty conscience, he returned to the store again and again, purchasing sodas and candy until he had repaid the money the game forced him to steal.

“Truthfully, I have but one desire. I wish to engage in this world in a manner independent of pain and suffering,” Mattheis says in the introduction to the series. “However it appears that this society I’ve been born into is one that is rife with death and destruction, pain and loss. This world is one filled with hatred and violence, with self-declared rivals at every turn stealing as much as they can carry, hedonists risking everything for cheap thrills, all seemingly lost, all seemingly pursuing an endless goal [...] until they are inevitably bored at which time they find themselves simply moving on, choking themselves with the noose of emptiness and denial, all the while convincing themselves and others that they are happy. This game, this Grand Theft Auto, is what I believe to be an extension of this society: a boiled-down emulation of the worst principles available to humankind. I want to explore this world to see if I can exist peacefully in spite of the directives imposed. I believe there is something more to this.”

Over time the series became something deeper, a philosophical and introspective journey. Mattheis wasn’t just having a laugh trying to navigate this anomalous universe while doing no harm. He was working out his own very real feelings about living in a violent world while he did so. Each episode, beautiful vignettes both visually and in prose, were powerful meditations on the human condition through the lens of simulated people and their artificial lives.

As a lifelong gamer with "a level of social anxiety," Mattheis attributes video games with building up his confidence and helping him through real life challenges. “In our financial system we’re thrown objectives and we fail, we don’t find success, and it’s all subjective," he told me. "The appeal of video games to people in our culture is that success is objective. There’s an objective win/loss state and you can win and walk away with that satisfaction that you went toe-to-toe with players with the same rule set and won.” This, he argued, was not people’s experience in real life. As Mattheis played more and more Grand Theft Auto as a pacifist, he wondered if the violence in games that produced those positive outcomes for him were worth it. He started to feel genuinely bad about the acts of violence he would commit in video games, and in the acts of violence people frequently committed against his pacifist character in Grand Theft Auto.

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Final episode of "Grand Theft Auto Pacifist," a YouTube show created by video editor Jeremy Mattheis

In the last episode of "Grand Theft Auto Pacifist," the 22nd in the series, Mattheis tries to get his character to meditate by sitting in a golf cart and watching the sunset. Eventually he is murdered by another player, and he respawns to another location. He chooses to stand there and continue meditating, until yet another player murders him. He does this again and again for over an hour, each time respawning to another random location with a new slice of the GTA universe to watch, quiet and still, and contemplate his existence in this simulated world as the pixelated (although incredibly realistic) palm trees sway in the breeze. Each time he is inevitably interrupted by a random player murdering him for kicks. At one point he respawns on a beach near a boardwalk, the Ferris wheel in the distance spinning slowly next to the amber sun that hangs on the horizon, the sounds of the waves on the shore and the gulls cawing overhead, a perfect spot to meditate. Until a tank runs him over.

“This whole ordeal felt strangely significant,” he narrates in the video. “As if this world couldn’t handle the idea of passively appreciating it.”

“I don't mind it so much when I get killed over and over again,” he explains to me. “It's normal now for me to get killed over and over again. People either attack me and leave or attack me over and over until they get bored. Or there's people who just let me be. It doesn't bother me that people have that choice. The impact is so low. There's no big repercussions in video games. The real premise of what I've been looking at is that violence shouldn’t be the only thing to do. There should be more opportunities to collaborate. There should be more emphasis on collaboration and not competition and violence.”

A number of academics agree with the thesis Mattheis derived from the lessons of his series. Dr. Stuart Brown, who founded the National Institute of Play, is a leading researcher into how games and play, both in childhood and as adults, shapes our psychology and aids in our intellectual and emotional development. His research has shown how playing games helps human beings learn to work together, develop relationships, solve problems, and handle stress. Ironically, his work on this subject, which spans nearly 50 years, began while researching Charles Whitman, the man who shot and killed 16 people from atop the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, and discovering that he, and many other violent killers, were denied the opportunity to play as children.

Likewise, Jane McGonigal, the Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, has argued that games have the potential to bring people together to do good and solve real-world problems. She helped herself cope with suicidal thoughts by developing SuperBetter, a game that tries to leverage people’s strengths in playing games to help them overcome mental hardships. Her game World Without Oil asks players to survive in a global oil shortage and engineer solutions that could be helpful to future generations, and challenges players to think about oil consumption in the present day.

McGonigal argues that video games, even violent ones like Call of Duty, are beneficial because of the way they socialize players, requiring them to work together to come up with winning strategies. “There’s still a perception that games are like single-player experiences with guns more often than not,” she told Discover Magazine. “Usually I have to explain to people that three-out-of-four gamers prefer cooperative to competitive, and that the majority of our game play is social.”

I ask Mattheis if he thinks violent video games contribute to a “gun culture,” if they make our society more violent, expecting him to quote the myriad of academic studies that have been done on this question and have over and over again shown that violent video games aren’t a cause of violent crimes. Instead he surprises me with his response.

“The answer is yes. Games are making us more violent. Everything you do is a choice to do that thing. If you choose to do something violent, real or fictional, it’s still a choice to do violence. It makes that world more violent. We're making our world -- whatever your world is from your perspective -- you’re making it more violent.”

He stops short of saying that violent video games, or even that guns, should be banned. He has a bit of a libertarian streak in him that makes him bristle at the idea of censorship or authoritarian intervention to solve the problem. “I'm still trying to figure out my own opinion. It's tough. The bigger problems are more endemic. Deeper social problems. The answer is to create things that are fun and more entertaining than violence.”

After playing Grand Theft Auto for so long in this manner, even violent actions in other games he plays is having a profound effect on him. Although he’ll never give up video games, he’s close to giving up violent ones for good. “I have a physical, almost painful, reaction at this point when I attack someone in a video game,” he says. “It's not that I regret anything. It's not that it wasn't justified. The real question is why attack this person when I could do something with them, you know? And finding out what that thing is, that’s part of the fun, part of the challenge.”

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Kylie Hodsdon clutching her Ladies' Championship trophy | Mikayla Whitmore / Thrillist

As Day 2 of the tournament got underway, Kylie Hodsdon took her place at a table near the main stage. The night before, she'd won the Ladies' Championship title. She had entered the World Championship as well, but had been eliminated and finished in 61st place. It was hard for her to be disappointed. She had earned not just the $5,000 for winning the Ladies' Championship and the $150 just for playing in the World Championship, she'd won $900 on a slot machine as well. From here on out she was committed to having a good time and cheering on her ex-husband, Ryan Hodsdon, who was also in the tournament and kicking ass.

“We’re trying to focus on getting along for the kids,” she says about her recent separation from her former husband and hunting partner. “I used to beat him all the time so I think it pushed him to get better. It's totally my doing that he's so good at Buck Hunter.”

Ryan Hodsdon made his way to the semifinals to take on Trevor Gartner, a cherubic man in a backwards fitted hat and a jersey that read “Sconnie Snipers,” a reference to his crew of Northwest Wisconsin Big Buck Hunters. Gartner is the reigning World Champion, winning three of the last four years. There are rumors that Gartner obtained a liquor license for his house so that he could network his home Big Buck Hunter HD machine. (Play Mechanix denies that; by rule, only establishments that can sell booze are allowed to connect to the worldwide leaderboard.) As Hodsdon and Gartner face off, someone in the crowd yells out “Fuck Sconnie Snipers!”

While most competitors opted to hug one another at the end of a round, displaying the camaraderie of the community and light-heartedness of the competition, occasionally that veil would slip a bit and expose a harder-edged and less-generous attitude. Earlier, I witnessed one player storm off the stage at the conclusion of her match, shouting, “She fucked with my gun!” to her friends in the crowd. Gartner and his Wisconsin crew fell victim to this more than most; they're the New York Yankees of the Big Buck Hunter world. In this matchup between Hodsdon and Gartner, it was hard not to see it as anything other than David vs. Goliath.

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A celebratory scrum moments after RJ Anguiano's win | Mikayla Whitmore/Thrillist

Incredibly, Hodsdon won, sending him to the final match of the loser's bracket in the double-elimination tournament. There, he faced off against Sean Chadwick, one of four Australians competing; whoever won would take on the player who emerged from the winner's bracket victoriously for a shot at the $20,000 grand prize. Even though Hodsdon lost the match, he took third overall, which meant he'd be taking home a very respectable $8,000.

With the win, Chadwick moved on to the championship final against Rogelio "RJ" Anguiano, a Seattle nurse and father of two who'd claimed third place in 2016. Like Gartner, Anguiano has a Big Buck Hunter machine at home, and like other Hunters, he has a personal Twitch stream to broadcast himself racking up huge scores. Anguiano wears sunglasses and earbuds while he plays. He has three side lines shaved into his fade and sports a shirt that reads “Seattle Buckhunters.” He shoots like a madman, going into a strange ritual with his arms before each round. Just looking at him left little doubt that he'd win. He was focused and intense, and he pulled away from Chadwick and shot the lights out for $20,000, which he said he'd split evenly between his two children’s college funds.

big buck hunter
Decorative deer adorning Big Buck HD Wild cabinets | Mikayla Whitmore/Thrillist

The day after the Big Buck World Championship, I went to a shooting range in Las Vegas to shoot a 12-gauge shotgun. I hadn’t shot one since I was 8 years old, when my father decided I was finally old enough to learn to shoot and accompany him in the deer woods. Why he chose such a massive and powerful weapon for such a young child is beyond me. My father didn’t always make the best choices, though he often meant well. Looking back on it now as a father myself, I can understand the urge to rush our children into sharing our passions. But when I stood out in that field and tried my damndest to hold that 12-gauge up straight with my little arms, even at that young age I knew it was a bad idea. I couldn’t even rack the shell into the chamber without help. The kickback from the blast sent me flying across the field and landed me flat on my back. The bruise that engulfed my whole shoulder lingered for weeks. My uncle, the one who later encouraged me to eat the heart, suggested my father try a .22.

This is what I was thinking about as the young gun store attendant with tattoo sleeves and lip rings handed me the shotgun and told me to have fun. I pleaded with her to stay and take the first shot, just so I could watch her do it. “It’s been a long time since I shot one of these,” I hedged. She pumped it, put it confidently against her shoulder, aimed, and pulled the trigger.

“Nothing to it,” she smiled as she racked the gun, ejecting the spent shell out the side of the gun and onto the floor among the hundreds of other casings.

There are dozens of gun ranges in Las Vegas, many not terribly far from the Strip. Some of them are massive military-style complexes where people can shoot machine guns at exploding targets and ride around in Humvees. Others, like this one, are more no-nonsense, though it does offer on-site weddings. Gun ranges are advertised all over Vegas, on billboards, taxicabs, sidewalk sandwich boards. They beckon visitors to come and shoot fully automatic machine guns. For as low as $25, you can empty a clip into a paper target of a terrorist -- or, for a few hundred dollars, you can feed a belt of high-caliber ammunition into a mounted machine gun while your friend mows down targets. Gun ranges, especially where you can rent machine guns, have long been a big tourist attraction in Las Vegas. On this day, mere weeks from the massacre that devastated the city, the gun range was doing a brisk business. I waited a half hour before my turn to shoot.

In the 20 years I’ve been traveling to Vegas, I had never once gone to a gun range. I'd always assumed that the business was fueled by gun-crazed visitors from the American heartland -- deer-heart eaters and the like. What I discovered, however, was that these gun ranges were a draw for international tourists from countries with stricter gun control laws than the United States. I waited behind a group of men from Spain, a country with one of the most restrictive gun ownership laws in Europe, as they blew several hundred dollars firing nearly every weapon you could find in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The group behind me were from Taiwan, where civilian gun ownership is prohibited. This was who wanted to shoot these guns -- the people of the world to whom these guns were simply objects of fantasy, something they saw in movies or played with in video games. They were there for the same reason I was. They wanted to know if it felt like it does in the game.

The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. There is no analog to shooting a real weapon and a gun in a video game. Not even in a hyper-realistic game like Grand Theft Auto is there any correlation, but especially not in a game as fantastically cartoonish as Big Buck HD Wild. To George Petro, that's part of the appeal. He points to NBA Jam, the classic basketball arcade game he helped create, as an example.

“No one can jump 50 feet in the air doing 360s or 720s or 1080s or whatever and then all of a sudden they slam the ball," he says. "Nobody can do that. It’s not possible. But in a video game it’s possible. Mortal Kombat: you don’t rip people’s spines out. You don’t get to be hit like that and come back.” Petro says that video games don’t mimic real life, because real life is boring. “Video games can take you to a place that’s outside the real.”

In Jane McGonigal’s book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, she makes a similar argument to Petro and Matthies -- video games are only useful where real life fails to be. She argues that video games are where their players feel powerful, have heroic purpose, and connect with a community that understands them. In games, she writes, we are able to experience “the heart-expanding thrill of success.” For many of us, our real lives often pale in comparison. “While gamers may experience these pleasures occasionally in their real lives, they experience them constantly when they’re playing their favorite games,” McGonigal writes.

This probably explains why the Big Buck Hunter games seem to be more popular with urban hipsters than actual hunters; why Ivanka Trump gets spotted playing the game with friends in Manhattan bars (and tweeting about it), while hunters at bars in New Hampshire won’t even give it a chance. For hunters, there's actual hunting to sate them. While the experiences of actual hunting and hunting in Big Buck HD aren’t similar, they both scratch a similar itch for whoever is behind the respective guns. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, an avid hunter, wrote in his classic treatise from 1942, Meditations on Hunting, about the contradictions and consequences of finding pleasure and diversion in killing: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted. If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift he would refuse it. What he is after is having to win it, to conquer the surly brute through his own effort and skill.”

For the rest of us who aren’t hunters, who may live in a humdrum cubicle culture or in a faraway country without any access to guns, or as malleable youngsters were asked to take a bite out of a still-beating animal heart and never again picked up another gun, we have Big Buck Hunter: an ironic, cheeky imitation of what hunters experience in the real world, but still an escape into a world that, to most of us, is wholly unreal. A world where we fell fast and dangerous game, conquer surly beasts with more speed and accuracy than our opponents, and find heart-expanding victories objective and true.

Still, there is that itch. There is the target in front of you, in paper or pixel, challenging you to find its mark. In that there is not violence, only the game of the thing. The weapon in our hand is a bringer of death, both real and imagined. That fact only heightens the drama of the game. It raises the stakes. It isn’t innocent, but neither is it evil. We find ourselves coming back to it again and again when we watch movies, when we play games, when we tell stories. More often than not there is a gun. It’s inescapable. It feels strangely significant. As if the real world, too, can’t handle our passively appreciating it.

I lined up my eye to the gun’s barrel and put the paper target right between my sights. I pulled the trigger and blasted a massive hole through the bull's-eye in one shot. I stepped back, racked the pump and ejected the shell, and smiled, proud of myself for hitting the target. The woman with the tattoos and piercings smiled back. “Nothing to it,” she repeated. “Do you want to keep shooting?”

I hated to admit it, but I did.

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David Hill is a freelance writer and author. He is currently working on a book about the history of organized crime and gambling in Arkansas for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. You can find him at or at @davehill77.