In late May, a corner of the internet erupted in pious anger over a video game that, in most respects, resembled so many video games on the current market: a gory, shoot-em-up simulation called Active Shooter. The shoddily animated game was set at a conventional American high school in the midst of a code red. It offered players two options for avatars: an “elite” SWAT team member or the actual attacker, whose stated mission was to “hunt and destroy.”
When Active Shooter was slated for a June 6 release on the streaming platform Steam, outrage ensued. Nearly 300,000 people signed a Change.org petition calling for its cancellation, including some survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “Keeping our kids safe is a real issue affecting our communities,” Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter died in the Parkland shooting, wrote on Facebook, “and is in no way a ‘game.’” Within days, Steam’s parent company Valve pulled Active Shooter from its digital shelves.
The controversial video game offended, not precisely for its depiction of violence, but for its brazen reproduction of a modern American nightmare—the school shooting—and its seeming equivocation of law enforcement and shooter. But while the game was never released, it bore a bizarre similarity to a particular breed of simulations that have been on the market and widely distributed for nearly two decades.
TI Training, a production company based just 30 minutes north of Columbine, Colorado, specializes in the manufacture of “use-of-force simulators,” or virtual-reality systems that allow law enforcement to role-play violent scenarios they might encounter in the field. Since its founding, the company has supplied over 1,200 agencies in the United States—including major police departments like NYPD—with more than 2,000 simulation systems, and one of their signature products, advertised prominently on their press page, is a collection of scenarios that recreate, in live action, the experience of facing a school shooter.
“In almost every agency that I’ve dealt with, officers have one job and one job only—stop the killing,” said Todd Brown, vice president of TI Training and a 20-year veteran of the simulations industry. “Even though it might sound a little bit crass, at that moment, the officer becomes the hunter and his job is to put down the bad guy as hard and fast as he possibly can.”
In one of TI Training’s simulations, for example, the player enters a generic high school flocked by a team of armed guards. Students and teachers run for cover over a soundtrack of screams and gunfire. The camera pans down the hallway toward a common area, tables and chairs knocked across the floor, when two boys in black peek out from behind a couch. They fire directly out of the screen. If the player gets “hit,” the simulation ends. They’ve lost. But if they return fire, each bullet landing with a cartoonish splash of red, the boys die. The player wins.
TI Training is not alone in producing these scenarios. The company has been around since 2006, but other studios, like MILO Range or the amazingly acronymed Firearm Training Systems (FATS), were at it for long before then. The technology dates back to the mid-1980s, although Brown says active-shooter simulations weren’t popular products until 1999, after two teenagers infamously stormed Columbine High School, killing 13 people and wounding 24 others. In the years since, shooter scenarios have become a staple of any virtual reality training system, and the demand has only mounted.
In just the last two years, for example, TI Training began a partnership with Jefferson County Public Schools—the district home both to Columbine and the Bailey, Colorado shooting—to design a series of videos targeted toward teachers and administrators, whom Brown calls the “true first responders.”
Productions like these, which require VR systems that run between $42,000 and $100,000, are as realistic as possible, Brown said. Participants carry actual firearms rejiggered with infrared lasers that recoil to recreate the sensation of live rounds. They can wear bulky training vests that introduce “extreme vibration” if a player is hit by return fire. The storylines play out in vivid, stereoscopic imagery, giving the scenarios an unnerving three-dimensional realism, and some of the more advanced systems incorporate smoke, sirens, or dim lighting, which brightens once participants shine real flashlights on the screen. The company’s most expensive simulator, The Training Lab UltraWorld™, includes a model building with projectors on the walls and ceiling that play out scenarios as the subject moves from room to room.
For all their technological innovations, there is a distinct kitsch quality to these training scenes. The actors, playing a familiar cast of shrieking women, lunatic assailants, and stoic officers, give the stilted performances of a daytime soap star or some supporting character from Grand Theft Auto. “Shit man, did he get her?” one guy says, after shots ring out in a scene called “Auditorium Ambush 2.”
“Our actors will work in several scenarios over the course of a day, two days,” said TI Training production manager Lucy Fisher. “There’s not a lot of ‘find your motivation,’ or ‘here’s your character’s background.’ You don’t need people to get that deep. They just need to represent a moment.”
Though the scenes lack a dramatic score (many are eerily quiet), these recorded snips of dialogue, the movements of the camera, and the frequent gunfire recall the experience of gaming as much as any real-life threat. (The resemblance is not incidental: TI Training’s staff also write, shoot and produce a line of entertainment scenarios, with titles like “Chaos City,” “Zombie Exterminator” and “Wild West Shootout”).
When role-playing in training simulations, in other words, it’s impossible to shake their cheesy similarity to games like Active Shooter—and that’s part of what makes them so weird. Cast in the video game mold, the simulations take on the cartoonish ethical vernacular of gaming—a bizarre moral clarity, where one-dimensional good guys “put down the bad guy hard and fast,” to borrow Brown’s phrasing. In an age inundated with viral videos of police beatings and grainy body cam footage where unarmed “suspects”—usually minorities—are shot by allegedly well-intentioned officers, these heroic, black-and-white scenarios ring especially false.
(When asked whether the company considered police brutality in the design of their content, Fisher noted that the studio’s job is to “create the use-of-force simulation training videos that our clients want created.” If a scenario were to address misuse of force, in other words, it would have to come at the request of a client).
In Active Shooter, players could take on the role of the assailant, a change in perspective critics found troubling, “appalling” even, in the realm of entertainment. In training simulations, of course, the participant never plays the shooter; the perspective always follows the officer. But the result is no less disconcerting. While the former offended because of its ambivalence—because it portrayed officer and aggressor as interchangeable equals—the latter is almost creepier, precisely because it doesn’t.