Better than real: Popular new war game
Simulation gives gamers the look and feel of military
of the Gateway
About a dozen young men advance slowly down a muddy forest trail. Clad in military greens and brandishing what appear to be assault rifles, the move purposely, eyes alert. Suddenly, two cars lumber into a clearing ahead. An ambush is sprung and a shootout ensues. Afterward, captured weapons and prisoners are collected alongside the vehicles.
Despite the appearances to the contrary, this isn't the latest skirmish in the War on Terror, nor a mob hit. Most of these combatants are neither in the military nor are they criminals.
Rather, these are players of Airsoft, a combat simulation game in which players use pellet-firing replicas that are virtually indistinguishable from real military firearms.
Conceived in Japan in the 1980s, the sport has grown in popularity in recent years and spawned a subculture of gamers across the U.S.
Held last Sunday, the above mentioned skirmish drew more then 25 participants, mostly teenage boys, from across the Puget Sound to a Key Peninsula property. The game was hosted by Battlesim (www.battlesim.com)
, a Tacoma-based company specializing in period military simulations complete with tactical instruction from real U.S. Army veterans.
"It's about looking, acting and being like real soldiers," said owner Jason Daniel. "The shooting part is secondary."
A former Microsoft employee, Daniel, 35 founded Battlesim in 2004 as an outgrowth of his online wargaming. The company now specializes in historically based games, which last up to three days apiece and involve dozens of players.
Game organizers strive for realism and players are encouraged to use period weapons and uniforms. Said gear can be sold or rented at the company's Tacoma storefront.
Dubbed "Red Army Faction", last Sunday's dame was based on the Germ Cold War-era terrorist group of the same name. Participants, many clad in German and American military uniforms, were equipped with replica M-16 and Kalashnikov rifles.
The day started with an hour's training on things like squad movement, prisoner taking and how best to clear a car of suspected gunman.
Classes were led by Daniel and Josh Warren, a 24-year-old U.S. Army Ranger. The two were dressed in suits, with phony CIA badges clipped to their lapels -- costume for the day's game.
A veteran of five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Warren later said that the tactics he shares with participants are "dumbed down" versions of the skills he and his comrades had to master. However, he said the training makes for more realistic, enjoyable games.
"It's just a taste," he said while slogging up a mud road, black Airsoft rifle in hand.
Sunday's game included several "missions", as players manned vehicle checkpoints, set ambushed and practiced capturing and extracting intelligence from enemy players -- and shot thousands of plastic pellets at each other.
Airsoft replicas are virtually identical to real firearms in appearance and, to a lesser extent, in weight. Spring, gas or electric operated, the guns fire 6 or 8 mm plastic BBs and are capable of either semi or fully automatic fire.
High-end guns cost several hundred dollars and can be upgraded with accessories from real assault weapons, such as grips, magazine holders, and tactical lights. The guns, however, cannot be converted into real firearms.
The game is similar to paintball, which uses gas-powered guns that shoot ink-filled gelatin balls. However, most paintball players eschew the military aesthetic of Airsoft for bright futuristic looking uniforms and faster, sportier play typically associated with paintball.
"It's easier to sell to parents," one Airsoft gamer said of paintball's non-military approach. "There's no (military) simulation involved".
Last Sunday's game took place at the "Paintball and Airsoft" center on Lackey Road. Owner Bob Campbell, 57, has opened his 15-acre property to paintball enthusiasts for years. He also rents paintball guns, ammunition and equipment. He said his field is seeing more and more Airsoft battles recently, averaging as many as three a month. "It's growing," he said. Airsoft and paintball gamers utilized different parts of Campbell's property during last Sunday's game.
So, what's the attraction? Most players said they like the action and realism of the games as a safe and more exciting alternative to the real thing.
Port Orchard resident Aaron Cullor said he's been playing Airsoft for roughly two years. A Navy man in real life, Cullor said he appreciates the games emphasis on equipment and the honor system that regulates gameplay. Despite the outward appearances, he said Airsoft "is nothing like the real military."
Another player, Tacoma resident Matt McNeu, 17, said he appreciates the training provided at Battlesim events. Playing the role of Mercenary, McNeu carried a customized M-16. He said he had long intended to join the Army after high school, but was now having second thoughts.
Seattle resident, Marshall Smith, 17, said he has been playing for about two years now. Dressed in green battle gear and equipped with a brand new Airsoft rifle, a Christmas gift, he said he loves military simulation but has no intention of joining real armed forces.
"There is a way for me to do all this fun stuff and not get shot," he said.
Daniel said a big part of the game's appeal is allowing players with an interest in firearms and military history to simulate military action, without the very real danger and drudgery.
Daniel said Battlesim focuses on World War II and Vietnam War simulations, eschewing current conflicts such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several of the gamers said they appreciate the policy. So does Warren.
"It's weird to come home and see video games of a war I fought in, and one that's not over yet," he said.
Currently enrolled in the ROTC program at Seattle University, Warren said he plans to return to the Army. In the meantime, teaching Battlesim classes allows him to apply the skills he learned in the service to the civilian market.
An ex-theatrical production hand, Warren said he enjoys teaching the players. "It's funs," he said.
Daniel said most airsoft players are male in the late teens to early 30s, mostly from middle and upper middle class backgrounds. Some gamers are interested in joining the military, and others have served, although perhaps not in combat. Most also play computer games and are interested in history, firearms or both. The overwhelming majority of Airsoft players are members of private clubs, Daniel said.
In addition to organizing events, the company also sells period uniforms, weapons and other equipment out of its Tacoma storefront. A weekend game costs about $20. Larger events can run from about $60 to $100 per player.
An upcoming World War II-themed event, "The Long Winter" will feature period uniforms, field artillery and restored armored cars.
"It's all about the props," Daniel said. "Complete immersion is what we are going for."
The realism of Airsoft weapons, and the potential for police shootings, has caused jurisdictions across the country to crack down. Federal law prohibits the importing of Airsoft guns without bright orange tips, which many gamers later remove or black out.
Some jurisdictions are banning their use or display in public. Daniel said he expects the game to be banned from public lands in the near future.
In the meantime, Warren and Daniel say they'll continue presenting games as realistically as possible -- but with a sense of humor. Jokes and laughter peppered much of the day's game.
"We try not to take it too seriously," Warren said.
Watching the players planning their next attack, Campbell, a former Green Beret himself, admitted the game reminds him of his time in the service. Time, he said, that was among the most important in his life.
"But this is nothing like the military," he said. "Here, everyone gets to go home."
Reach reporter Michael Colello at 853-9240 or by email at michael.colello (at) gateline.com.