Updated Monday, December 24, 2012 at 10:46 PM
As Electronic Arts prepared to market "Medal of Honor Warfighter," the latest version of its top-selling video game released in October, it created a website that promoted the manufacturers of the guns, knives and combat-style gear depicted in the game.
Among the video-game giant's marketing partners on the website were the McMillan Group, the maker of a high-powered sniper rifle, and Magpul, which sells high-capacity magazines and other accessories for assault-style weapons. Links on the "Medal of Honor" site allowed visitors to click through on the websites of the game's partners and peruse their catalogs of weapons available for purchase.
"It was almost like a virtual showroom for guns," said Ryan Smith, who contributes to the Gameological Society, an online gaming magazine. After Smith and other gaming enthusiasts criticized the site, Electronic Arts disabled the links.
The video-game industry was drawn into the national debate about gun violence last week when the National Rifle Association (NRA) accused producers of violent games and movies of helping to incite the type of mass shooting that recently left 20 children and six adults dead in Newtown, Conn.
Yet the case of "Medal of Honor Warfighter" illustrates how the firearms and video-game industries have quietly forged a mutually beneficial marketing relationship.
Many of the same producers of firearms and related equipment are also financial backers of the NRA. McMillan, for example, is a corporate donor to the group, and Magpul recently joined forces with it in a product giveaway featured on Facebook. The gun group also lists Glock, Browning and Remington as corporate sponsors.
Makers of firearms and related gear have come to see video games as a way to promote their brands to millions of potential customers, marketing experts said. Magpul and Electronic Arts made a video posted on YouTube about their partnership.
"It is going to help brand perceptions," said Stacy Jones, the president of Hollywood Branded, a company that specializes in product placement in movies and television shows.
Assault-style rifles made by Bushmaster Firearms have a roster of credits that any actor would envy, including appearances in "Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2," a part of the popular Activision series. The gunman in the Connecticut killings, Adam Lanza, used a semiautomatic rifle made by Bushmaster, which is a unit of the Freedom Group.
The most recent entry in the "Call of Duty" franchise, "Black Ops II," featured models of weapons that are also made by Barrett and Browning. Another popular game sold by Electronic Arts, "Battlefield 3," depicts assault rifles and pistols similar to those made by Colt, Heckler & Koch, Glock and Beretta.
The U.S. military also uses "Call of Duty" and other video games for recruitment and to train soldiers.
An Activision spokeswoman said she was not able to get a response because of the holiday season. Several other companies, including McMillan, Magpul, Browning and Barrett, did not respond to telephone calls or emails. The NRA also did not respond. A Glock spokesman could not be located for comment.
In a statement, Electronic Arts said video-game makers, like film producers, "frequently license the images of people, sports franchises, buildings, cars and military equipment." The company added that it did not receive payments for using branded images in "Medal of Honor."
A spokesman for the Freedom Group, Teddy Novin, said in an email that Bushmaster had "received no payment, nor have we paid for placement of our products in 'Call of Duty.' "
"The gaming and entertainment industry routinely use likenesses of our products without our permission," he added in the email.
But he did not respond when asked if Activision had received the Freedom Group's permission to depict its products in "Call of Duty."
The Freedom Group is owned by Cerberus Capital. After the Connecticut school shooting, Cerberus announced that it would seek a buyer for the Freedom Group.
Studies have found no connection between video games and gun violence. And many players of shooting games like "Medal of Honor" and "Call of Duty" say they enjoy the simulated violence and the chance to virtually fire weapons even if they never touch a real gun. But along with some gaming fans, some firearms enthusiasts have become uncomfortable with the growing ties between video games and gun companies.
A few years ago, when the marketer of a semiautomatic pistol, the Skorpion, publicized its depiction in some games, the editor of The Firearm Blog, which follows industry developments, expressed surprise.
"I think most companies want to distance themselves from violent video games," the editor, Steve Johnson, wrote.
Over the past decade, handguns made by Glock have become such standard fare in movies and television shows that the Austrian manufacturer received a lifetime achievement award in 2010 from Brandchannel.com, a product-marketing website.
Game publishers like Activision and Electronic Arts race against one another to create the most realistic games, said Laura Parker, associate editor for Gamespot Australia, a gaming website.
"They believe the use of real-world brands — be it clothing, tactical equipment or guns — is a way to ensure that games like 'Call of Duty' and 'Medal of Honor' feel as close to real life as possible," Parker said via email.
Some video-game makers use depictions of weapons that are slight modifications of real ones or alter their names, avoiding possible legal complications.
But most established video-game developers and publishers, given the huge amount of money invested in a game, seek out explicit authorizations or licenses from product manufacturers, said Matthew Syrkin, a lawyer at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed who represents companies in the video-game industry.
"There is a material risk in putting anything into a game unless you have a license," said Syrkin. Such agreements also protect manufacturers from having their products depicted in an illegal or unflattering manner, he added.
The Connecticut shooting is not the first instance in which violent video games have been blamed for causing violence, including mass shootings. A similar outcry followed the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado by two teenagers who played "Doom," a then-popular video game. Last year, a Norwegian man who killed 77 said later that he honed his shooting skills by playing hours and hours of "Call of Duty."