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Playing at Death and Mayhem 

In June of 2018 I was in Nashville, Tennessee on family business. While there I went to see Paul Simon in concert at the city’s Bridgestone Arena. As is a common practice, everyone went to the bathroom before the program started. That is where I saw the advertisement for “simulated fast paced COMBAT in the heart of DOWNTOWN NASHVILLE” posted over the urinal.

Quite frankly, the ad gave me quite a turn. Combat in “downtown” urban areas is no game and usually results in mass death and utter devastation. But then that is real life and this was just a “simulation.” What was this all about?

This “simulated combat” is actually a popular “sport” called “paintball.” It’s been around for a while, having got its start in the early 1980s, when a group of “weekend warriors” (euphemism for those in military reserve units) got the idea of taking gun-like instruments used by foresters to mark trees for harvest and “shoot these guns at each other.”

Here is how it works: you have two teams attempting to capture the opponents “flag.” Everyone is armed with compressed air guns that resemble automatic rifles. These fire “gel cap” bullets full of different color paints. Get hit with one of these and you are ruled “down” (euphemism for dead or injured) by the “referees” and therefore out of the game. At least in the organized paintball competitions, everyone has to wear protective gear. Those gel caps can put your eye out. There are versions of this “game” that are now being used as training tools for both U.S. military reserve units as well as the police. However, what I want to do here is explore paintball’s rapid rise to popularity among American youth.

Popular within a Culture of Violence

American youth are enmeshed in a culture of violence. There is plenty of evidence that this culture exists: from the amount of violence on television, to the predominant popularity of violent video games, to the influence of the National Rifle Association and its fanatical resistance to commonsense gun control, to the number of daily violent deaths in the nation’s cities, to the roughly monthly mass murders at sites ranging from schools to dance clubs. There is also the fact that the United States has been almost constantly at war since its inception, yet despite the enormous amount of death and destruction that this has caused, the military tradition is held in high regard: fighter pilots are “top guns,” marines are “a few good men,” and being a veteran is among the first thing candidates for public office announce about themselves.

It is against this background that the phenomenon of paintball has found its popularity. Paintball introduces American youth to the theme of combat violence by presenting it as “fun.” And indeed if you discuss the “sport” with college students, as I have done on numerous occasions, fun is the primary way they will describe it. But this “fun” is a function of the playing out in three dimensions a culturally encouraged theme of violence enveloped within an illusion of harmlessness—nobody dies, nobody is injured. This is, of course, what much of Western make-believe is all about. The problem with this particular example of make-believe is that, for some, the game’s illusionary qualities may make the move to enlistment in the military and, ultimately, the engaging in real combat violence, easier. In other words, paintball can be a trap for youth.

An illusion cannot really prepare you for reality. In this case, reality is reflected in a 2013 Saybrook University study which describes returning U.S. combat veterans’ suffering: “sustained mental/emotional wounding from experiencing traumatic events during combat”—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Much of PTSD comes in the form of “flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, insomnia, anger, and depression.” A study conducted by the U.S. Army estimated 1 in 8 combat vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. However, this number is too low. The sample size was a bit over 6,000 and failed to capture those who chose not to seek help for relevant problems. The truth is that, for a normal human being, it is impossible to experience combat and not be “mentally and/or emotionally wounded.” It might be the case that a good number of combat veterans go into the military having played paintball, but very few will go back to this form of “fun” upon their return.

Silly Support

Nonetheless, paintball has its supporters, even though most of their arguments are very weak. Take the pitch presented by Gordon More on 9 July 2013 on the website Social Paintball. More tells us that “Im (sic) going to dive into the debate about the positive or negative effects paintball has on a child’s mental health with some good hard solid facts.” And what are his hard facts? Here are his major ones: (1) Unlike video games, paintball “is a physically demanding sport. The average paintball player will burn 420 calories per hour while playing paintball,” and (2) adolescents with mental problems who get sufficient exercise “show improvements in depression, anxiety, hostility, confused thinking and fatigue.” So, have your child skip those after-school video games and have him or her enroll in “simulated combat.” The physical activity will do them good, especially if they show signs of mental illness.

More Serious Support?

Gordon More’s case for paintball is silly, but one can think of more serious arguments. For instance, perhaps we can classify paintball as a way humankind sublimates what Sigmund Freud once characterized as mankind’s “death wish.” After World War I Freud was pretty sure the race had such an inclination, and among the ways he believed we  handle this death wish is by channeling its urge into things like very aggressive sports. Paintball seems to fit the bill here, and my guess is that Freud would approve of “simulated combat” as a substitute for the real thing. However, given the West’s violent culture, it may well be a substitute that ultimately beckons its users toward the real thing—like a gateway drug.

Most of the people I talk to about paintball think my concerns are unwarranted. That may be because they do not actually notice the ubiquitous nature of violence in Western culture. Violence is so indigenous that many hardly register its presence unless it is presented by the media as a particularly brutal act or if one is unlucky enough to be, or know someone who is, a victim. Under these circumstances paintball fades into the background as one more make-believe activity—a mechanized version of cowboys and Indians—that has been commercialized as a form of good exercise.

 

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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