The Science of Videogame Weapons – Part 1

The Science of Videogame Weapons – Part 1

Weapons are an essential part of videogames. They are the reason most of the current generation will apparently become serial-killers, much in the same way that people who grew up playing Tetris are now all brick-layers. But more accurately, a good, satisfying tool of destruction can be a source of tremendous enjoyment in any game you play. So we’re going to spend a couple of articles reminiscing about some of the coolest WMDs that never existed, and maybe even take a stab (if you’ll excuse the pun) at when they will.


Weapon: PLASMA

(BFG, Plasma Rifle, Plasma Torch, Plasma Grenade etc.)

While “Plasma” has become a sci-fi buzzword that’s often interchangeable with ‘energy’, real plasma is just a mundane state of matter, as we discussed in The Science of Dead Space. To recap, it’s like a normal gas, only the molecules that make it have been reconfigured to have a different charge.  It’s hard to find a sci-fi game that doesn’t include a plasma weapon; the BFG from Doom and Quake, the Plasma Rifles from TimeSplitters or Halo, or the aforementioned Plasma Torch from Dead Space to name just a few.

We see plasma in the real world each day – be it lightening, ‘neon’ signs, or plasma globe ornaments. In fact, it turns out that Plasma is the most common state of matter in the universe- more common than solids, liquids or gasses. The idea of plasma weaponry is in essence to literally capture lightening in a bottle, then hurl it violently at a target. Plamsa can be extremely hot and energetic, so its potential to maim and kill is tantalising.

Lightning Strike Survivor Take the BFG, for example – not much information is given, other than that it is a ‘Big Freakin Gun’. In the Doom and Quake series, it appears to hurl a large ball of plasma at relatively low speeds towards an enemy. On impact, the ball does catastrophic damage – thus earning the BFG the mantle of being one of the most powerful (and memorable) weapons in videogame history. How realistic is this? Well, we are still technologically a long way from being able to produce hand-held plasma weapons of any kind. We’ll look at some of the reasons why later, but for now there is an interesting natural phenomenon that mirrors the BFG – “Ball Lightning”. I know what you’re thinking – it sounds like some kind of Essex slang for an STD, but in reality Ball Lightning is nature’s BFG.

One of the the first recorded sightings of Ball Lightning was in England in 1596:

“There entered in at the west window of the church a dark unproportioned thing about the bigness of a football, and went along the wall on the pulpit side; and suddenly it seemed to break with no less sound than if a hundred cannons had been discharged at once; and therewithal came a most violent storm and tempest of lightning and thunder as if the church had been full of fire.”

Sounds like nonsense, but this phenomenon has been reported many times throughout history, and may even have been recreated in a lab. There was even one instance in the 1940s where ball lightning left a 5cm circular hole in a window it passed through before detonating. Freaky stuff. Although nobody knows quite how it forms, it is known to be a ball of plasma that travels slowly then explodes upon contact with it’s target.

Timespliters Plasma RifleSo we’ve established that plasma is a real thing, and that it can be powerful, but can we expect to see Halo-style plasma rifles make their way onto real-life battlefields any time soon? Unfortunately not. The power required to create plasma akin to lightning is so great that no hand-held device made with current technology is even remotely possible. Another problem is that plasma at lower energy tends to dissipate within the atmosphere, meaning that an attempted Plasma Rife would have an effective range of only a few centimeters.

The closest thing we currently have to a plasma weapon is the ‘PASS’ – the Plasma Acoustic Shield System. It is a bulky piece of kit designed for crowd control; it fires a ball of plasma and instantaneously uses a laser to ‘burst’ the plasma ball, causing a shockwave to stun the target. Unfortunately, however, because of unreliability and drawbacks with current technology, research and funding for this project is currently non-moving, meaning that the only appearance this is likely to make will be in the next Call of Duty as a kill-streak.

Next time we’ll look at the Gears of War Hammer of Dawn, the Ion Cannon from Command & Conquer, and a US Military project known as “Star Wars”. Stay tuned!

Avatar of Anthony Richardson
Anthony Richardson

I'm Anthony, but you can call me Anthony. I once fit 20 grapes in my mouth, and 40 pencils in my hair. I haven't written a book, but if I did I would give it a confusing title, and I'd make every effort to ensure you hadn't a clue what relevance it had to gaming. Oh, and also I write about games.

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  1. Joey V2
    January 30, 2013, 10:10 am

    Would a plasma grenade be possible?

    • Avatar of Anthony Richardson
      Anthony Richardson
      January 30, 2013, 10:36 am

      You’d still need a power source small enough to fit in a grenade, which would be even smaller than a gun. One day, hopefully!

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