Squad leader Michael Marks kneels, hidden by trees, surveying his target through the night-vision scope on his weapon, a paintball gun modded to look like an M4 rifle. He’s watching a cluster of concrete buildings about 50 yards away. Signal flares sputter in the streets. Armed men dart between shadows. Marks touches his neck to activate his throat mic. “A straight depopulation,” he radios to his men. “Seek and destroy.”
With that, the squad creeps out of the forest, three men decked in combat fatigues, riot-gear helmets, and flak jackets emblazoned with their unit name, Dead by Dawn. It’s a reference to the 1987 cult horror flick Evil Dead II. Yes, they know this dates them.
Each soldier also carries a thin layer of natural padding, the kind that comes with middle age and a daily commute from suburbia to a desk job. They all have macho call signs they probably don’t use around the office, though. Marks, a counterterrorism expert who writes training programs for the Department of Homeland Security, goes by Marksman. Ted Deeds, the COO of the nonprofit Law Enforcement Alliance of America, is Gunslinger. Mike Harris, a computer systems engineer wearing thick glasses and a breathe-easy nose strip, is Dr. Doom.
Staccato gunfire rips the air; Dead by Dawn charges into one of the buildings for cover. The guys flatten themselves against the interior all as paintballs rain through a window, exploding in wet pops behind them. Deeds drops to the ground, rolls to the opening, and rises to flash short pulses from a retina-burning white-LED tactical flashlight. Marks and Harris unleash their own barrage of semi automatic fire on the blinded hostiles, but they are outgunned.
Thwap! Harris’ world goes gray as a lead-colored paintball explodes across his face mask. Then Deeds gets shot in the hand. Marks raises his arms in surrender.
You already know about paintball, a sort of tactical game of tag played with nonlethal — but really quite painful — ammo. In the early 1980s, men stalked each other through the New Hampshire woods with single-shot, pump-action paint guns used by foresters to mark terrain. Now the game has gone professional. Modern guns have piezoelectric triggers and pneumatic muzzle velocities of 280 feet per second, half as fast as a bullet from a .38 special. And players aren’t just running around undeveloped land in the exurbs anymore: Cruise past ESPN2 at the right time — wee hours are good — and you might see the National Professional Paintball League play its version of the sport, a sort of special ops adaptation of soccer that confines the play to seven minutes and an arena just 180 by 100 feet.
Dead by Dawn is playing something called scenario paintball. In this latest splatter-sport spinoff, players go on 24-hour missions across battlefields drawn from Vietnam, Iraq, or Halo. A behind-the-scenes “producer” scripts all the action, assigning ranks and duties with the verisimilitude of a Civil War reenactment. The result is Rambo meets Boba Fett: Grenades spray paint 15 feet in every direction, paintball guns get modded into M16s, and homemade PVC-pipe bazookas launch Nerf rockets the length a football field.
These vicarious warfare experiences now attract huge numbers of fighters — 1,200 of them came to the National Guard’s Joint Training Center for Military Operations on Urban Terrain at Camp Blanding, Florida, on this cold Saturday night in mid-February. Scenario games have gotten so popular, in fact, that the same big companies and smart engineers who professionalized tournament paintball are starting to pay attention to scenario players, too. Sports equipment manufacturers, private entrepreneurs, and tournament types are all vying to build weapons and tech for the most active members of the role-play crowd.