What I learned playing America's most realistic family entertainment war game.
It was a case of spectacularly poor timing when Indoor Extreme Sports—a laser-tag and paintball arena in Queens, New York—debuted its latest offering, a battle simulation game called iCombat, just weeks after the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. iCombat is based on a training platform developed for military and tactical assault units, and it ratchets up the laser-tag verisimilitude with a set resembling an urban shopping area, flak-jacket-ish vests, and painstakingly realistic rifles. But Indoor Extreme Sports drew the most ire for pitching its game to children as young as eight.
In early February, a Bronx high school teacher led her class on a field trip to Indoor Extreme Sports … while a local TV news crew happened to be there. New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott publicly reprimanded the teacher. Parents expressed outrage. “Media psychologist” Dr. Harris Stratyner contended that the game desensitizes children to killing. The local media took up the question: isn't this game exactly the type of pretend violence that could provoke someone to commit acts of real-world aggression? So I decided to see for myself if one afternoon of iCombat would turn me—and my mild-mannered friends—into cold-blooded killers.
I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a comfortable, left-leaning family neighborhood where the gluten-free options are vast but the pickings for a post-apocalyptic assault squad are decidedly lean. Finding three friends to join me was surprisingly easy. Everyone wanted to go.
Preston is a city planner for the New York City Department of Transportation. Sohrab plays guitar in a rock’n’roll band and writes music for TV and film. Alexis is a videographer and drummer. I’m a writer with mild scoliosis and poor eyesight. To my knowledge none of us keeps a firearm. And none of us owns a car, so we borrowed Sohrab’s mom’s. Which seemed totally appropriate, because we were about to spend a Saturday afternoon behaving like teenagers.
Indoor Extreme Sports is in a treeless stretch of Queens you might call the Mattress and Prison District. It’s where New Yorkers go to comparison shop box springs at Sleepy’s (Google rating: “Overall excellent”) and sweat out parole violations at the Queensboro Correctional Facility (Google rating: “Overall very good”).
Across Van Dam Street from the jailhouse is Indoor Extreme Sports. The squat industrial façade is painted an alarming shade of hazmat yellow, a warning to middle-aged men to return to their friend’s mom’s car and go home to Park Slope. Inside the place looks like the bedroom of a Vietnam War–obsessed teen. Black walls draped in camo netting, a skeleton in a combat helmet, the mingled aroma of snacks and deodorant, like Cool Ranch Febreze.
From the coverage this place has gotten I was expecting vets in Ghillie suits thumbing through knife catalogs. Instead, a clean-cut teen capped his Snapple and checked us in on an iPad. He led us through a door to a fusillade of paintball blasts and screaming kids. Their dads wore an expression I recognized from Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties: grim, accepting. One man looked up at me with haunted eyes and then continued rooting around in a cardboard pizza box.
Past the noisy paintball enclosure we reached the iCombat desk, where another friendly kid mumbled the rules. Remain on your base until your vest flashes, he said, then begin killing. If you are eliminated, “lie down in the Kill Box.” He gestured to a grimy area marked off with potted palms, like a funeral home or the Lowe’s garden section. “On second thought,” he said, “I wouldn’t lie down on that shit.”
We split into two teams, Red Team was Alexis and Sohrab; Preston and I were Blue. Our guide handed out the assault rifles. iCombat’s replica M4s have three settings: safety, single shot, and auto. Growing up in South Carolina, I spent some Saturday afternoons blasting Mountain Dew bottles with a .357 revolver. This piece felt to me like a real enough gun. When I pulled the trigger a pop of compressed air made it recoil slightly. “You get 150 rounds,” said our guide, looking a little embarrassed. “If you run out, it’s against the rules to strike an opponent in the face with your rifle.”
“Is that something you have to tell us?” asked Sohrab.
“Yes, it is.”
We slipped into black vests covered in LED lights. “Make sure the names match up,” said our guide. He was referring to our code names, printed on the epaulet of each vest and the butt of each rifle. Sohrab was Kaz. Alexis was Master Chief—or maybe Chef; it was hard to make out. I was called Terminator. My partner Preston, he was known as Juliet.
We had to wait on an old sofa until the party ahead of us finished annihilating one another. Looking like shrunken SEALs in their bulky vests, six kids entered the arena. A tired-looking father settled in at a picnic table with his Dasani. I heard a boy of about nine shout, “I’m gonna blast your fucking face off!” A small girl giggled.
A few minutes later they reemerged, faces intact, and it was our turn to pretend like we wanted each other dead. In the dark I could barely make out the contours of a post-apocalyptic strip mall. A plywood tank stood guard over an “office” with two cubicles. Next door was a “menswear shop.” The “video store” was a pile of VHS tapes—Look Who’s Talking, a yoga tape. The apocalypse, I thought, is going to be so much more depressing than anyone imagined. Before we began a manager approached brandishing a handgun. Don’t mind me, he said, “I’m testing out a new firearm.”
Juliet and I waited at our base. Under the glaring red lights I felt like I was in the beef display at a supermarket. When our vests flashed, we fanned out. Juliet stepped into the dim video store. I swung out toward a low barricade of sandbags. In iCombat the fog of war is literal. A smoke machine gasped and we were plunged into a dense, foot-smelling smog. This put professional musicians Alexis and Sohrab at a distinct advantage, so I decided to do something bold, manly. I dropped to my knees and tried to belly-crawl behind the sandbags. Only when I my gut hit the floor did I realize that this simple action I had seen in countless movies was really hard to do. My elbows rowed back and forth, I kicked my legs like a frog, but the sandbags didn’t get any closer. Then I felt my pants snag on the cement. (These were my good cords, and I don’t own very many pants.) Hell, I thought, this is war. All in. So I inchwormed forward in a manner I can only compare to the stage-humping of Prince. By the time I reached the sandbags, Red Team was waiting for me.
I stood in the Kill Box until my teammate, Juliet, joined me. “Red Team wins,” a voice shouted over the PA. The remaining rounds went much the same way. I would try to do something military-looking and get shot, mostly by the smug young manager with the pistol. The website promises pulsating metal, real Desert Storm stuff. But this guy was taking our lives to the tune of “Love You Like a Love Song.” It’s almost like they were making fun of us.
Our fourth round I hunkered down in the menswear shop, behind a rack of cheap suits that smelled of failed job interviews. Suddenly the hairs went up on my neck. The manager was near, in the gloom of the video store … watching me. I turned, leveled my M4, and pulled the trigger. But it was too late. The manager clapped me on the arm. “Gotta be precise with your shots, bro.”
But as I slunk back to the Kill Box, Master Chef appeared from nowhere. He drew a bead on the smirking manager, and took him down.
At that moment my friend turned into Lee Marvin. He didn’t take pleasure in his kills. Neither remorse nor triumph registered on his face. He killed and then, resting his video camera on the barrel of his gun, filmed us dying.
Two hours of combat later, we gathered around a big plasma screen for our final scores. Blue Team was a clear loser. Juliet and Terminator had been outgunned by Kaz and Master Chef, whose KDR (Kill/Death Ratio) was a disturbing 12 to 1.
After a day of faux-slaughter we kicked back in a fake German beer garden big enough to hangar a Dreamliner. We shared a disturbingly large pretzel and chewed over the afternoon’s action. Everyone agreed that iCombat was too intense for preteens. We also agreed that it was fun as hell, and we’d probably do it again.
Then we went around the table and each of us offered up tales of adolescent warfare. We had all, in one way or another, participated in BB gun battles. And we all knew the rules: you counted while you pumped to give everyone a chance to run. You never pumped past twenty. You tried really hard not to hit a guy directly in the eyeball. When I was fourteen, scores of us would gather at an abandoned sand quarry outside of town for bottle-rocket wars. We’d spend all day hoarding fireworks, building rifles from PVC pipes, and cobbling together body armor from ski masks, goggles, and old clothes.
Whether it’s iCombat or an air-rifle skirmish, the intention is the same: eliminate your friends. But there’s a key distinction. When you shoot an opponent in iCombat, he or she lights up, and simply returns to base to “respawn.” If you shoot someone with a bottle-rocket—in the eye, say, when he was trying to wipe his glasses—your victim will probably bleed and might even cry a little. You might feel bad and be disinclined to shoot someone in the face again. Or you might not. In which case, you might be a sociopath who will pursue a life of crime … or grow up to be a really successful businessman with a nice lake house.
It’s telling that irTactical, the actual training platform iCombat is modeled on, registers each hit with a painful electric shock. As one trainee put it, “When you screwed up, you knew you screwed up … that hurt. I won’t do that again.”