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Archery: Real Life Versus Video Games

How realistic is archery in video games?

Shooting a gun in a video game will not make you a marksman.

Drifting a highly modified sports coupe around corners in a video game will not make you a competitive driver.

Flying a fighter jet in a video game will not make you a Top Gun pilot.

Sadly, like the examples above, slinging arrows in video games will not make you an archer. Not even close.


For reference, I’ve been practicing archery for over 10 years, with a focus on traditional archery, specifically the longbow. “Traditional” archery is classified as using a bow without sites, counterweights, or any sort of aiming or stabilization aids. Think Robin Hood or Legolas and their bows. That’s how I practice archery. No green tights.

When given a choice, I ALWAYS choose a bow in video games. But as a long-time archer in “real life,” I have a love/hate relationship with how archery is portrayed in video games. No video game gets archery “right.”

Over the years, I’ve learned that that’s okay. If archery in video games was anything like archery in real life, I’m pretty certain most gamers would skip the bow and instead opt for a reliable sword or a trusty shotgun.


Definition of archery terms used in this story:

Draw weight: A bow’s “power” is measured in how many pounds of force is held when a bow is at full draw. For example, my longbow has a draw weight of 45 pounds at 28 inches. When I pull my bowstring from its resting position back to 28 inches, there’s approximately 45 pounds of pressure on the string (and my fingers; ouch!). That 45 pounds propels my arrow to about 160-170 feet per second.

Draw weights determine arrow flight speed, trajectory, travel distance, etc. A heavier draw weight will produce faster arrow speeds with flatter trajectories over longer distances, and vice versa.

Draw length: When an archer pulls the bowstring back to his/her optimal distance, that is his/her “draw length.” An archer’s draw length is determined by a number of factors, but arm length is key.

The 28-inch draw length is the sport/industry rating standard. Bows are rated by their poundage at a 28-inch draw distance. A person with longer arms will have a longer draw length, and can, therefore, get more poundage (“power”) from their bow than what the bow is rated.

English longbows of yore (Robin Hood-era) had draw weights of about 100 pounds. The draw weight of modern-day compound bows average about 70 pounds. Makes one appreciate archers of ye olde England, eh?

Anchor: When an archer draws the bowstring, the archer stops pulling the bowstring at a certain point. That point is the archer’s “anchor.” For consistency and accuracy, that anchor must be in the exact same spot for each shot. For. Each. Shot.

Limbs: Limbs are the part of the bow that bend back when the bowstring is drawn.

Riser: A bow’s “riser” is the handle of the bow, the part of the bow the archer grips when drawing the bowstring.

Longbow: A bow with the classic “D” shape. The bowstring only touches the limbs at the tips.

Olympic recurve: A recurve bow differs from a longbow in that its limbs bend back towards the archer, and then, at the very tips, the limbs curve away from the archer. The limbs “re-curve,” hence its name. Recurve bows are the only type allowed in the Olympic games.

Compound Bow: A bow with “wheels” or “pulleys” on the ends of the limbs, or in the case of Aloy’s bow (Horizon Zero Dawn), a levering system. The wheels or pulleys are referred to as “cams.” Very powerful bows.


I’m positive that most, if not all gamers who pick a bow in video games don’t care that their digital arrow-slinging weapon doesn’t perform like a real-world bow. And why should they? Video games are supposed to be fun. And archery in videos games is supposed to be fun, not realistic.

For instance, bows firing multiple spread/shotgun-like or volley shots? Great for crowd control in-game, but in real life? Nope. Bows can fire more than one arrow at a time, but at a severe penalty.

Take my 45 pound bow for example. With one arrow on my bowstring, I can cast an average arrow speed of about 165 feet per second.

Two arrows on my bowstring splits that 45 pounds in half. That 45 pounds must now launch two arrows. Half the power, half the performance.

Three arrows? Divide that 45 pounds by three. And so on. It’s not impossible to shoot more than one arrow off a bow, but it’s not practical either.

Rapid-fire/Machine-gunning arrows? Well… Definitely not as fast as it’s portrayed in video games. I can fire 15 arrows in a minute. That’s not slow, but it’s not rapid-fire fast either. While there are archers who are much faster than me, they don’t approach machine gun rates of fire either.

Check out this video for an example of amazingly fast, accurate archer.

Poison-tipped arrows? Sure.

Explosive arrows? Okay, but keep in mind that the added weight of the explosive will affect the arrow trajectory.

Fire arrows? A real thing; YouTube it.

“Over-drawing” a bow? Well… An archer can pull their bow string beyond their normal draw length, and that will add some power to their shot, but it will also mess with the aiming. It’s not unlike changing the rear sights of a firearm.

“Over-drawing” a bowstring will require some adjustment to aiming, so a second or third shot may be needed. That’s assuming that the archer “over-draws” the bowstring to the exact same distance with each shot. See the sidebar regarding the importance of an archer’s “anchor.”

Also, holding a drawn bow longer does not make the bow more powerful. That’s only going to add fatigue to the archer’s muscles. Try throwing a 45-pound weight. Does holding it longer before throwing it improve the throw in any way? Getting tired yet?

So, how would a video game get archery “right”? That’s the problem. Archery is such a finicky, frustrating, exacting, frustrating, mentally and emotionally demanding, and frustrating (did I mention frustrating?) sport that a correct and accurate portrayal of archery in video games might well turn players away from using bows.

Real-life archery is a finesse sport. It doesn’t require great strength or stamina. It’s almost entirely mental rather than physical. Like 80% mental, 20% physical, and another 10% mental (I’m Asian; don’t math me). Think of golf, bowling, darts, or billiards. Precision, consistency, technique, form, and muscle memory of that form, are keys to success.

Being built like Dwayne Johnson won’t hurt The Rock’s archery performance, but huge muscles aren’t necessary for archery either. In fact, Googling “Olympic archer” will reveal archers with average physiques. They aren’t overly muscled and cut. Some aren’t even what might be considered “athletic” or “lean.” Heck, some archers claim having a “beer gut” helps their center of gravity. Ummm…, …sure…

Archery is mostly a mental game. Of frustration. On a good day, I can hit a target the size of a quarter at 20 yards (30 yards on a GREAT day). On an average day, if I can’t nail that quarter-sized target, I can still get a nice group around it.

On a bad day, though? On a bad day, I’m lucky if my arrow lands within city limits of my target. That’s archery in the real world.

(Please keep in mind that I’m using a bare longbow and not a sighted-for-laser-like accuracy compound bow or a highly-modified, Olympic-style recurve bow. Excuses, excuses I know.)

Archery can be so frustrating (did I mention that?). I’ll put three nicely grouped arrows on target and, for some reason known only to Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, the fourth arrow will miss. By a lot.

What did I do differently for that missed shot? Sometimes I can tell as soon as I release the arrow that I’m going to miss.

Sometimes, I’ve no clue. Was I distracted by a squirrel or bunny (found on my club range)? Did some beautiful woman whisper in my ear (I wish)? Focus! Archery requires mental focus.

Sometimes all three arrows will miss, and one will hit the bullseye. Sometimes two arrows are on, and the other two will require GPS to find (damn squirrel).

That’s real-life archery. Imagine that sort of accuracy percentage in a video game. Or placing those real-world demands upon a video gamer to consistently hit a target, one that’s moving and shooting back, and I understand why archery will never be done “correctly” in video games. It just wouldn’t be fun.

Accuracy in real-life archery is not “casual.” As the axiom goes, archery in real life is easy to learn, but impossible to master. It requires practice. There’s no magic or ancient secret technique or jutsu. Just practice and repetition. Game-ifying archery is the way to go for video games.

Some video games get archery pretty close.

Skyrim has great archery. You can’t shoot “shot-gun” or “spread”-shot arrows. You can’t rapid-fire or “machine gun” arrows. You have to lead a moving target. But Skyrim doesn’t seem to account for distance, gravity, or wind. And there was that infamous NPC AI, where the target would sometimes, somehow, know exactly when to move, skip to one side, or stop, just before the arrow was supposed to land. Annoying.

Horizon Zero Dawn has really fun archery. Nothing complicated. Put the reticle on the target and release. Aloy’s bows are based on real-world bows too, the Oneida brand compound bows. Her bows are a nice change of pace from the fantastical models found in many games.

Same with Tomb Raider, the Far Cry series, any FPS with bows. They are enjoyable, if not completely realistic, representations of archery.

Monster Hunter World…, well, it’s a Japanese game with weapons the size of minivans, so I’m just glad archery is an option. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and Elder Scrolls Online, too. All have ridiculous and silly looking “bows” but archery in these games is still fun.

An archer buddy told me Nintendo’s Wii Sports archery was pretty good. Sadly, my Wii has been a paperweight for over a decade.

I’ve never played Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a game focused on realism, so I have no idea how archery is represented. If any reader has played Kingdom Come: Deliverance, please comment below and give me your opinion on its archery system.

The Disney Pixar Brave video game must have had archery, but again, I didn’t play it. Seeing how its target audience is skewed young, I can’t imagine the archery would be difficult.

By the way, one of the most accurate portrayals of archery in any form of media is in the Disney Pixar movie Brave.

The tournament scene in Brave shows all the wrong ways to shoot a bow (the suitors/competitors). When heroine Merida shoots, she does so the right way. The high-speed, slow-motion shot of her last arrow flight is a thing of beauty. CGI perfection.

Read Jim McQuarrie’s story about Brave for a complete breakdown of how the movie got archery “right.”

Bungie recently announced that bows will be introduced in the Destiny 2:  Forsaken DLC. I haven’t touched Destiny 2 since the Curse of Osiris DLC dropped in December 2017, but I may come back to try out Bungie’s idea of archery.

Some may ask why put bows in a pew-pew, space magic game? Eh, why not? I used to make fun of the Hunter’s throwing knife, that old Untouchables movie quote about bringing a knife to a gunfight. Then I started using the throwing knife. It didn’t take me long to love my Hunter’s throwing knives. I hated NOT having a throwing knife when I switched classes.

For all of the criticism that Destiny 1 and 2 receive, Bungie does the shooting mechanics right. Having an archaic weapon system like bows in Destiny 2 could be just as much fun as having throwing knives in a space magic, energy-weapon world. Because video game archery should be fun.

Real life archery should be treated like a martial art or learning a musical instrument. A novice can learn the basics but then spend a lifetime “mastering” their art form. Any long-time martial artist or musician will admit there’s always something that can be improved. Clearly, even after 10 years of practice, I have much to learn about archery.

So, if archery in video games is nothing like real life, I can live with that. After a frustrating day of archery practice (I did mention how frustra…, NVM), I can sate my archery fix in video games.

And, who knows? Video game archery might encourage virtual archers to get off their couches and go to their local archery club and pick up a real bow. More archery for everyone is always a good thing.

…Then those newbie archers will know my pain. The pain of that one arrow that went way, WAY over there, completely missing its mark…

If you’re interested, you can find an archery club here.

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