The Implications of Big Buck Hunter’s Barroom Superiority

What Big Buck Hunter tells us about gaming in public spaces.

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Social

In the era before home consoles had firmly established themselves, gamers flocked to arcades, stood before hulking machines and played their favorite games in full view of the world.  If you did well, an audience gathered.  You could be a high-score hero, if only for a few minutes, an ephemeral champion surrounded by your peers and the glow of a hundred screens in the dark.

That era is gone.  Arcades still exist, but they don’t have the vibrancy, the sense of being on the forefront of gaming that they used to.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not disappointed that we usually play games at home now (or, in some cases, on our phones).  Trying to imagine playing an RPG in an arcade and pumping quarters into the machine at every death gives me a stress headache.  I love the kind of long-form narratives that have developed because of the rise of home gaming.  And if you really want a communal gaming experience, you can always fire up some Call of Duty multiplayer and have an eleven-year-old from halfway across the globe say things about your mother that would make Howard Stern dry-heave.

It is hard not to feel a bit of nostalgia for a time when there was a public forum for the latest video games, but that time is almost irrefutably gone.  Except for a handful of kitschy places, the public game machines of years ago are largely absent from our world today.

The exception is Big Buck Hunter.

I don’t know to what extent Big Buck Hunter and its off-shoots are a localized phenomenon, so let me explain to the uninitiated. In the bars of NYC today, it is not uncommon to come across a pinball machine or a jukebox, but bonafide video games are few and far between.  Except for Big Buck Hunter, which you can find in a surprising number of New York dives.

In Big Buck Hunter, one to four players compete in a series of simulated hunting treks.  Players wield one of two brightly-colored controller-shotguns, and the goal is to bag as many bucks (or similar deer-like species) as you can, while shooting small game for point bonuses and trying not to hit “cows,” or female bucks.

I can’t stress that last point enough.  I don’t know if this applies to actual, real-life buck hunting, but Big Buck Hunter becomes shocked and kind of offended if you shoot a cow.  You are encouraged to blast every other animal that wanders onscreen to buckshot-flavored smithereens, but God help you if you even graze a cow.  If you are unlucky enough to let some of your fire hit one, the game announces in bold, furious text that “YOU SHOT A COW!” and your turn is summarily ended.  I always imagine your hunting buddies wrestling the shotgun away from you, screaming “Not cool, dude!  Not cool!”

And so the game goes.  There are bonus animals (which, in the Safari version of BBH, are often critically endangered species) that can be shot if you feel like extra credit.  After each trek, stats pop up showing you exactly how you felled each buck and what your accuracy rating is.  Armed babes in camo-colored Daisy Dukes make eyes at you while the game loads environments.  You get the idea.

But why has BBH been so successful in becoming a staple of the city’s bars, to the point that the New York Times did an article about the phenomenon?  What about this game, specifically, has allowed it to circumvent the gradual shift of video games from out in the open to behind closed doors?

Part of it is, no doubt, the general content of the game.  It has the visceral excitement of other shooting games without the stigma of depicting violence against anything resembling a human being.  It has clear objectives and the only plot is, “One day, the players killed some bucks.”  And one can’t deny that it’s a charmingly imbecilic, fairly fun stationary shooter.

But I believe the bigger reason that BBH has achieved a level of success is that its tone, the feeling it instills in the player, is perfectly suited for the environment in which it has found a home – that is, the bar scene.

The feelings of Big Buck Hunter – blustery confidence, friendly competitiveness, a pervasive sexual undercurrent – are all feelings that are quite natural to the nightlife that the game has become a part of.  Big Buck Hunter welcomes the player into the space it inhabits by encouraging the exact emotions a player would feel regularly during a night out at the bar.  Thus, the oddness of stalking virtual deer at your local pub is superseded by the fact that it feels right.

Movies, books and TV shows require nothing of you but your attention.  Video games elicit a more active form of engagement from the player, constantly asking the player to make choices about how to proceed.  In this way, since video games are constantly drawing their audience directly into the action, they have even more power over a consumer’s mood than other media.  Which is why Big Buck Hunter’s appearance in so many bars is exciting to me – it demonstrates that a video game which instills an appropriate mood in the player can thrive in a public space otherwise completely disassociated from gaming.

This idea of gaming affecting people’s mindsets in ways that make them more attuned to their surroundings is an interesting one.  It opens up the possibility for gaming as a public activity to reemerge.  And as electronic gaming continues to grow, it also becomes more plausible that we’ll see more games that inspire feelings of peace or introspection.

I can imagine a future where patients waiting for chemotherapy can play a tablet version of something calming and involving to relax them; something like Minecraft, where they can gather resources and build their dream world.  Or perhaps in the anteroom to a therapist’s office, clients could play a highly conversational game; like something based on BioWare’s conversation wheel interface, but perhaps first-person to encourage openness and empathy.  It’s a future where video games are relevant and useful in unexpected areas.  And it means perhaps that unlike phone booths, those arcade-style games may have a comeback in them after all.

Filed Under: Social

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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