In my youth, I took to video games like most adolescent males did – the habit continued into my adult life. As I aged, the time investment gradually decreased, but never disappeared. I played all sorts of games, but seemed to prefer first person shooters and strategy games, above all. Despite my gaming experience, there is one first person shooter that I prefer over all the others. As it turns out, I’m not referring to a video game, but instead… the sport known as Paintball:
Paintball is a sport first played in 1981 in the U.S. state of New Hampshire, in which players compete, in teams or individually, to eliminate opponents by hitting them with capsules containing paint (referred to as paintballs) propelled from a device called a paintball marker. While oil-based paint was originally used, paintballs are actually made of a special non-toxic, biodegradable, water soluble mineral-oil. The game is regularly played at a sporting level with organized competition involving worldwide leagues, tournaments, professional teams, and players. Paintball technology is also used by armies to supplement military training, riot response, and non lethal suppression of dangerous suspects.
Games are played on indoor or outdoor fields of varying sizes. A game field is scattered with natural or artificial terrain, which players use for strategic play. Rules for playing paintball vary, but can include capture the flag, elimination, defending or attacking a particular point or area, or capturing objects of interest hidden in the playing area. Depending on the variant played, games can last from seconds to hours, or even days in scenario play.
I’ve played Paintball a few times in my life, and each time has resulted in valuable memories. You see, there’s nothing quite like experiencing the action in person. Our bodies are fantastic instruments, and this was certainly apparent to me when playing Paintball. Once the round starts, all my senses fired up, my adrenaline began pumping, and everything suddenly slid into focus. The dangers of the battlefield are made pretty obvious, pretty fast, as it does hurt to get shot. Paintball markers fire paintballs at a speed of approximately 200 miles per hour, so you generally do everything you can to avoid being shot. Not only will a popped Paintball eliminate you from the match, but it will hurt too. Not agonizing pain by any means, but bruising is fairly common.
Beyond the bruising, Paintball is a pretty safe sport… and that is key. When I play, it is usually with a group of friends… and while I do enjoy eliminating enemy players from the game, I wouldn’t want them to get seriously hurt from it. The safety precautions are pretty well designed. To give you an idea: foreign markers are all examined to ensure they meet safety requirements, foreign paintballs are usually rejected in favor of the field’s, and protective gear is worn at all times.
The people working these Paintball fields are very insistent that the safety rules are followed. Sometimes, they even come up with creative punishments for players that disrespect the rules. For example, one place I went to was very strict about players keeping their masks on at all times. There were designated places, called graveyards (where you go when you’re eliminated), where masks could be removed. Graveyards had protective netting all around to ensure no stray paintballs could be fired in. To help govern this rule, they said the third person to take off their mask in an unauthorized location would be “executed”. By that, they meant the entire paintball group would line up, and each would fire one paintball upon the offending individual, at one time. Since paintballs hurt, no one wants to be shot so many times. It was an amusing rule, and I know this for a fact – because I was the third person to violate it.
You see, certain paintball masks have serious issues with fogging. That is, your visibility drops significantly because of breathing, and your overall body heat. This was always an issue for me in the past, so I was usually eager to take off my mask. It would allow the fog to clear, and give me greater visibility for a few minutes. Unfortunately for me, at one point, as we were all gathered with the referee, I really wanted to take off my mask. I looked ahead of me, and saw that another player already took off his mask. Because of this, and my overall lack of visibility at that moment, I thought we must have been at a Graveyard. I took off my mask… and because the referee was looking in my general direction, he noticed me, and announced I was the third. I only knew about one prior violation, so the fact that I was third was a surprise. I laughed at my luck, and quickly gave up my efforts to describe why I took off my mask. I was told to stand at a distance, and every other player lined up and took aim at me. The referee made it clear that only one shot must be taken by all players. Should a player violate this rule, they would executed in turn. Now, given that paintballs bruise, the last place you want to be shot is in the groin. So, naturally, I had the habit of wearing a jockstrap when playing Paintball… and on this day, I was very, very glad. When asked if I was ready, I slid my ammo cannisters to the front of my belt, further protecting my family jewels, and gave my executors a thumbs up. Three seconds later, I was hit with approximately 20 paintballs at one time. To my surprise, it really wasn’t very painful… it just stung for a moment, and then it passed. I had a friend among the executors, and he assured me afterwards that he did not fire along with the others. I appreciated the gesture, but as I had just discovered, it really wasn’t that bad. Still, definitely an interesting life experience.
Though the the mask penalty was unique, additional rules exist that are far less controversial. A good example of this would be the “Freeze” rule. It goes like this: if you’re very close to an enemy player, you have the option of telling him to “Freeze”, instead of shooting him point-blank. Given the speed at which paintballs are fired, point blank range would likely hurt more than from a distance (lack of deceleration time). In my case, however, I don’t mind being shot up close – I seem to have a pretty good tolerance to bruising. Still, I respect the Freeze rule when it is active – it offers some strategic benefits as well. Consider the following scenario: if you run out of ammo on the battlefield, you’re normally pretty much finished. You have to leave the field, and wait for the next round. Yet, with the Freeze rule active, you can simply keep playing, and essentially bluff. With or without paintballs, a marker, when fired, will make the usual CO2 firing sound, and smoke will leave the barrel as it normally does. In the chaos of battle, this trick can be helpful in keeping enemy players hidden behind cover. While they’re too afraid to emerge from cover, all you have to do is run up to them, and scream “FREEZE!”. They’ll likely surrender, and thus, you will have managed to eliminate other players without ammunition. I’ve seen this strategy used by many players, though I’m not sure it is legal in professional leagues. I personally really enjoy it, as it represents a realistic challenge, rather than an instant forfeit on your part. It makes me feel like I’m unarmed, and with proper strategy, I can still contribute to the team beyond the usual limits.
I always like tough challenges, both physically, and mentally, and that’s another reason why I’m fond of Paintball. Unlike most first person shooters, Paintball can keep me fit physically, as well as mentally. It represents, to me, the ideal gaming experience… not to mention the best graphics I have ever seen. In the spirit of challenge, I once decided to use a handgun marker for one round. Handgun markers generally have limited ammo, and they use tiny, swappable CO2 tanks. The marker I used supported only 8 paintballs at a time, and the CO2 tank could only power roughly 20 shots. This meant that reloading had to be performed on the field, whenever necessary. Rather than worry about this, I saw my challenge – how far could I get with only 8 paintballs?
My handgun round turned out to be the last of the day, where my team was attacking a building that was fortified by enemy players. Since it was the last round, upon being eliminated, players from both teams could exit the battlefield, and immediately re-enter. The building was therefore a very significant threat; even if you eliminated the occupants, they’d be back in a couple minutes. Armed with a single handgun, I spent most of my time slowly approaching the building, without ever firing a shot. This required a significant amount of time and strategy, and due to running in between cover, it was very tiring. However, I eventually reached the outer wall of the building. I placed my back to it, and slowly approached the door. I could hear the players inside communicating with each other, aware that an enemy was close. After trying to get a few shots at the occupants, I decided to do something unexpected. I slowly backed away from the building, and bolted through the front door as fast as I could. Immediately in front of me was an enemy player, who screamed at me, “FREEZE!”. Unfortunately for him, my adrenaline-enhanced reaction involved shooting him in the chest immediately, before my brain registered the “Freeze” completely. The enemy player, who was a friend of mine, was rightfully angry that he had been shot. A Freeze is a courtesy, and it essentially equates to a valid shot. Alas, he had been bluffing, and confided in me afterwards that he would have shot me point blank in revenge, but had no ammo left. I assured him that my elimination soon followed, and boy, did it ever. After my initial entrance and subsequent “kill”, I entered another room in the building, where two shocked enemy players blasted me with an excess of paintballs. Despite the fact that I ultimately was destroyed, I had more fun than I’ve had in a while. The fact that I was there in person, experiencing the situation with all my senses, made a world of difference. No longer could a video game satisfy the sensory overload that was Paintball.
Experiencing the game first-hand brings about new possibilities as well. While you could be limited by game world architecture, in Paintball, the boundaries are much more broad. This is perfectly natural, given that games aim to re-created real-world mechanics, whereas Earth already has some clearly-defined. In both video games and the actual sport, I like that creativity goes unhindered. Here’s an example: at one point, while defending a castle-type structure, I had a significant amount of difficulty seeing through my mask, so much that I stopped caring about the round. If I couldn’t see, what was the point? So, instead of firing at the attackers, I would get them to shoot at me while running back and forth on the castle walls. I would occasionally stop to do a little dance, at which point I noticed more paintballs were being fired. I didn’t do this solely for amusement, though. I had warned nearby teammates to exploit the opportunity to take out the enemies, knowing very well that their attention would be on me.
All that said, I personally feel that Paintball is the best first person shooter… the only problem I see is the price. I usually pay around 125$ every time I go, so it’s not something I’m willing to do on a monthly basis, at least not yet. Buying my own gear could alleviate the costs by removing the rental fees, which are significant. Cost aside, in my mind, the sport simply cannot be defeated by video games. Until, of course, virtual reality is released, with neural connection a la Avatar.