War Games

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About the only thing Young doesn't seem to know about the AR-15 from all those hours of playing with its match in Battlefield is how gingerly it kicks on the recoil. When he finally squeezes off a shot, blasting the Bawls into tiny shards of ribbed blue glass, the rifle barely jostles Young's husky frame an inch.

"It's like shooting a little .22," Young says, sounding just a bit disappointed.

"That's the one thing they can't simulate in the game -- the recoil," adds pal John Czechowski. "If they could build some kind of vest that, when you shoot it, you feel it, that would be realistic."

Oddly enough, even firing the actual AR-15 feels a little unrealistic today. If Czechowski's rumble-vest ever makes it to the game shops, it seems, engineers would have to amp up the actual recoil effect to make it more, well, realistic.

"Nobody who plays the game would believe how light it really kicks," says Scott Tindle, who's brought along his own AR-15 to the shootout today. "It's a baby."

Like the other 16 guys -- and one girl -- taking their turns firing assorted military weapons out in the Arizona desert on this warm mid-April afternoon, Young, Czechowski and Tindle have come here to literally step inside "the game" they've been playing almost obsessively for the past 18 months.

"It is pretty similar, the way the guns handle in the game," says Young, referring to Battlefield 1942 and the other entries in the series.

The Saturday Shootouts, held about once a month, are organized by fellow LanCamper Ken Schneider as an extracurricular activity to get the gang away from their computer screens and commune with the real world (occasionally, the group also goes bowling).

But invariably, comparisons between the real world and the world created in the game are impossible to avoid -- especially when you're playing with the same toys in each.

"If you're running with these guns and try to shoot, the spread of your aim is too wide to hit anything. And that's the same way it is in Battlefield," says Young. "You have to stand still or lie down to get any accuracy. So it's real close to what you'd probably find in real war."

The armed computer junkies -- "geeks with guns," Schneider quips -- are a bit wary of how their offshoot hobby might be perceived. "We don't want anybody to think we're all Trenchcoat Mafia types," says Young.

The guys are also keenly aware that, beyond target shooting with the actual weapons they use in the game, there is no "next level" they can sanely take their immersion to. "What do we do next?" Czechowski says, laughing. "Go downtown with some tactical nukes in a briefcase?"

But for Young, at least, getting a feel for the weapons is not about using the game as a gateway drug to real gunplay. Rather, the ultimate goal, he insists, is to become satisfied enough with the realism of the game that firing the genuine article finally becomes unnecessary.

"I personally think all wars should be fought on the computer," he says. "There's nobody dying, it's all very strategic.

"Plus," he adds, citing what may be the biggest political advantage of the virtual Battlefield over the real one in Fallujah, "there's clear scores."

More than half of all Americans play computer or video games today, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and the average age of the player is 29.

For many, the image that statistic immediately brings to mind is of a growing legion of aging, pimply-faced loners -- a Nerd Nation of stoop-shouldered, socially challenged geeks finally venturing out of the house.

In fact, though, many of the millions playing video games today -- particularly the massively multi-player online games made for the PC -- are guys (and even a few girls) who were never part of the pocket-protector culture to begin with.

"I never got into the early computer games," says Young, whose backyard at home is filled with classic cars and motorcycles in various stages of customization, a benefit of his job scouting vehicle purchases for the Phoenix Police Department. "My brother, Brian, was into 'em. He was playing these text-only games back in '91 -- all that Dungeons & Dragons stuff -- when I was out working on bikes and cars. I didn't care about that."

Young found himself drawn to computer games only once the graphics got better and the ability to play online with buddies over high-speed Internet connections became a reality. Suddenly, the more outdoorsy fun seekers like Eric -- prior to getting into computer games, Young used to enjoy driving around new housing developments in his pal's Chevy S-10, shooting paintballs at the windows -- discovered they could derive similar visceral thrills from the safety of their own homes.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern