Somewhere outside of Bowie, Maryland, at the end of a mile-long dirt road, the warriors gather every weekend. Two trailers bedecked in camouflage and made to look like army bunkers sit alongside the path to the battlegrounds. The combatants file up to a window to register and sign away their right to sue, then collect their equipment at the next bunker. This includes a facemask, an ammo cylinder, and of course the Piranha: a crude piece of piping fitted with a handle, a trigger, a CO2 canister, and a pudgy banana clip that holds a hundred or so paintballs.
Of the six of us who showed up yesterday afternoon, only one had ever been paintballing before. This showed, in that few of us were wearing enough layers, and none of us were wearing any sort of camouflage, to say nothing of full-on army fatigues. Clusters of people thus appareled were everywhere, some of them with their own fully-automatic guns and big ammo belts to hold extra paintball canisters. Others wore what looked like hockey jerseys with more vibrant, xTreme colors, clearly meant to indicate membership in some sort of paintball team. The vast majority of the crowd were male, and while I saw no older women, there were a surprising number of teenage girls, mostly in the context of what appeared to be school groups.
We waited for a referee to corral us in with a couple dozen other newbies and lead us into the forest. I’m sure we looked like doofuses, but this was probably a step up from all the guys who were trying to look like bad-asses — especially the guys who passionately _believed_ themselves to be bad-asses, despite the fact that what they were about to go do was traipse around amid the trees firing plastic balls that exploded in little spurts of green (machine-washable!) paint.
“This is unbelievable,” I said to Nick, whose impending marriage was the impetus for us being there, as a sort of Bachelor Party Phase One.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Real end-of-empire stuff, isn’t it?”
We were thrown on a team with a handful of others and led to a variety of forest courses, where we played numerous rounds of Capture the Flag, though more often than not the game ended by one team taking out everyone on the other side. Before each round our ref advised us that taking the immediate offensive and charging en masse was the best strategy; it took us a while to realize that this was, in fact, a fantastically bad idea designed to make the rounds go faster.
Paintballs hurt, a little bit, and create welts all out of proportion to the amount of pain they cause. Since the pellets aren’t traveling all that fast, the guns are rather difficult to aim — if you’re firing single shots, it’s almost impossible to hit someone at long range. This means that those who are willing to shell out some extra dough for additional ammo cylinders are at a distinct advantage, since they can pepper an area with shots and hopefully score a lucky hit.
I hesitate to draw any parallels whatsoever between paintball and combat with real guns, but if there’s any lesson to be learned at all, it’s this: communication is everything. The battlefield is chaos; green arm bands are poor identifiers when you’re peering through the trees wondering whether to shoot at someone you can barely see. Most times I had no clue what was going on or even who was winning. The last round, our team had eliminated nearly all our opponents, but since we didn’t know who other folks had killed, we advanced on their position at a snail’s pace when we could have just charged. Given a choice between infinite ammo and a set of reliable headsets for my team, I’d take the headsets.
A day later, my back is sore from all that crouching and diving and general bustling about. The welt on my shoulder smarts. But the reason I’m not in a tremendous rush to try it again next weekend doesn’t have to do with any of that; it comes down to the people. Squaring off against a field of people you don’t even know, several of whom you’re pretty sure are cheating, has its limits — it’s a lot more fun when you know everyone involved. In this sense paintball is very similar to hopping online for a bit of Quake or Battlefield 1942.
Trudging back out after a few hours, sweaty and paint-splattered, we passed by a bunch a guys on the way in who, judging from their haircuts and size, hadn’t needed to pick up their combat fatigues at the local army surplus store. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that they, even they, have an interest in playing the weekend warrior. If nothing else it’s a clear reminder that despite the whizzing projectiles, the frenzied movement, and the fog of war, it really is just a game.