Reloaders Anonymous: It's time to talk about our Chronic Reload Syndrome

Here are some of the most idiotic, wrongheaded reloads of my life.

It’s 2003. I'm hunkered down at my local internet cafe, hardwired to a LAN Counter-Strike server, watching helplessly as my counter-terrorist gets turned to mist as he takes eons to thread a fresh string of bullets through his machine gun.

It’s 2007. I'm playing Halo, and for some reason I've opted to toss aside a perfectly good clip for a new one while bouncing sky-high off a jump-pad. A beautifully placed 50-caliber bolt passes through my skull at the very top of my arc, and I feel like the dumbest person in the world.

It’s 2017. I'm playing Battlegrounds, and I'm digging shotgun shells out of my backpack in the middle of a crucial firefight. I must've forgotten what game I'm playing.

Those are all egregious examples, but without a doubt, my worst moments are in Destiny. Bungie's quasi-RPG adventure demands that traditional FPS mechanics—health, movement, and yes, reload speed—are all attributed to a network of stats. Occasionally, the deregulation of those principles can lead to some truly disastrous decision-making. The handcannons are the biggest offenders. Guardians reload handcannons like lizards that have spent too much time in the shade. That's something I forget way too often when I'm face to face with an angry legionnaire. Forgive me, Reload Father, for I have sinned.

What I do know is that this is a disease that affects millions of gamers worldwide.

The term we use at PC Gamer is Chronic Reload Syndrome—the weird, compulsive tic so many of us develop in any game with guns and bullets. You know what I'm talking about: you've fired exactly two shots out of a shiny new assault rifle, and yet you can't help but reach for the 'R' key. Apparently that uneven '48/50' in the corner of the screen is too much to bear. Actual soldiers in actual conflicts would never throw away a nearly-full clip. That would be ridiculous and unsafe. But there's something about video games that makes us paranoid. Maybe we think we're always going to need all 50 of those bullets at any given moment, maybe we just want to feel useful, maybe it's the compulsive satisfaction of pressing a button to optimize for efficiency.

What I do know is that this is a disease that affects millions of gamers worldwide, so much so that a Steam user named Richard penned a tongue-in-cheek self-help guide for overcoming the affliction in Left 4 Dead 2. One of his finer points of advice is to remap the reloading button to something other than 'R,' "so that you will feel too lazy to reach that button unless you really have to."

Diagnosing Chronic Reload Syndrome

"The thoughts of dying in an FPS game just because you were missing a few bullets can feel overwhelming. Sometimes it helps to reload when your magazine is... let say 80 percent. However, I found out that the cons most often outweigh the pros," he says, when I reach him over Steam. "You will find yourself statistically dying more by giving your location away in a stealth game due to the reloading clip sound and getting caught off guard. The fact is it only takes a few bullets to kill a player."

The games industry, for its part, has done nothing to stymie our defective reloading addiction. If anything, they've embraced it. Developers equip us with magical guns that are filled to the brim with bullets that never disappear from our inventory. Did you just absentmindedly throw 30 shells to the floor? Don't worry, they've miraculously teleported to the very next clip you load up.

This made plenty of sense in those early phantasmagoric PC shooters like Doom and Duke Nukem—because really, who cares about the nuances of ammo management when you're blasting the heads off of literal demons from literal hell—but it's more absurd in games that are ostensibly more serious and sim-y, like Battlefield. This has gone on for long enough now that, frankly, I'd be flat-out disoriented if I booted up a new FPS and lost all my bullets every time I reloaded. In fact, I'd got as far to say that the infinitely replicating clip is one of the few truly eternal traditions in game design—one of the few common treatises shared by everything from Counter-Strike to Overwatch.

"Games are all about being attentive to detail, being responsive to unexpected situations and overcoming surprise challenges," says Leroy Athanasoff, game director of Rainbow Six: Siege. "From playing Pac-Man on an arcade machine to playing Siege on your couch, you have to look at the screen and try to be reactive and anticipate as many situations as possible in order to win. Being sure that we don't end up without ammo in the clip during a dangerous situation by just pressing "R" after each encounter seems to be a nice trade-off."

Really, who cares about the nuances of ammo management when you're blasting the heads off of literal demons from literal hell?

Athanoff cites Rainbow Six: Ravenshield as one of the few shooters that did feature an honest-to-god clip management system. It makes sense. Once upon a time Rainbow Six fancied itself as the definitive SWAT simulator—a game where you really could plan out your missions down to the bullet. These days, you'll mostly only encounter realistic reloads in military sims like Arma 3 and Squad. Rainbow Six mostly abandoned those roots a long time ago, and Athanasoff opted for the magic ammo in Siege because, well, he wanted players to enjoy the game.

"In our case it was a matter of design decision; what did we want our players to be focused on and what kind of experience did we want them to live while playing Rainbow Six: Siege?" he says. "We decided to put the challenge on the destruction and all aspects that come with it: the speed and intensity of the action, this requires skills for precise aiming, rather than placing a focus on the ammo resource management."

His position is totally understandable. You can't move units on the promise of realistic reloading mechanics. I mean, yes, there is a community of people who patch their Arma games to make life harder on themselves, but that's a pretty specific niche. For the most part, developers don't have anything to gain by throwing away our bullets, so why risk it?

"Since games don't punish you for [reloading,] it's the [best] way to always make sure you have the full potential to apply damage to your target when you see it," says Bill Munk, creative director at Tripwire Entertainment, and someone who also suffers from Chronic Reload Syndrome. "Mag management in a video game adds a far more complex dynamic to combat."

Unfortunately, that attitude means that gamers will probably never get the rehabilitation they need to break themselves of the habit and save their 'R' key from more unnecessary punishment. I do feel that if every prominent FPS developer got together and imposed a communal moratorium on the infinite clip, we'd be cured of Chronic Reload Syndrome in a matter of months. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Munk is a proud sufferer of the affliction, and if anything, he's ready to embrace our shared needless reloads.

"For a game like Killing Floor 2, I don't think [clip management] would fit the play-style. I love my Chronic Reload. That's why we added weapon checks [where the player inspects their equipped gun,] when doing the reload action with a full weapon," says Munk. "I always wish games I played did that, so I couldn't resist in making the Syndrome more fun and a part of Killing Floor 2." 

How I learned to stop worrying and love the reload

So there you have it. We're probably all going to be heedlessly throwing packed clips on the ground for the rest of time, and kicking ourselves for every stupid death mid-reload. However, I’m not going to leave you without offering a few tips for curing yourself.

1: Take Richard’s advice and rebind your reload key. Yes, you’ll probably look like a weirdo, but it’s worth it in the long run.

2: Punish yourself in some way every time you throw away a clip. I prefer self-flagellation, but you can choose whatever you see fit.

3: Hire a hypnotist to come up with a custom program to ease you out of the hole. Honestly quitting reloading is probably just as hard as quitting smoking, so this might work beautifully.

Honestly though, I’m pretty sure I’m going to live the rest of my life with Chronic Reload Syndrome. After years of binging on infinite clips, I'm not strong enough to break the habit myself. I’m glad developers aren’t shaming me for my inexplicable psychological tics, but man, I'm still gonna feel like an idiot every time I impulsively ditch the remaining four bullets in my handcannon.

Luke Winkie
Contributing Writer

Luke Winkie is a freelance journalist and contributor to many publications, including PC Gamer, The New York Times, Gawker, Slate, and Mel Magazine. In between bouts of writing about Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and Twitch culture here on PC Gamer, Luke also publishes the newsletter On Posting. As a self-described "chronic poster," Luke has "spent hours deep-scrolling through surreptitious Likes tabs to uncover the root of intra-publication beef and broken down quote-tweet animosity like it’s Super Bowl tape." When he graduated from journalism school, he had no idea how bad it was going to get.