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The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Make-Believe Gunbattles; Paintball Game Gaining Popularity

By Tina Traster

June 6, 1999 -- Television images of U.S. Army helicopters airlifting dead soldiers from Vietnam three decades ago remain etched in David Huryn's memory.

The 35-year-old Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., man says war is horrific, but paintball, a simulated war sport he enjoys, is "just a game."

Jason Jagudaeu, a 13-year-old from Woodcliff Lake who was playing the game on a recent Saturday at ABC Paintball in the Hewitt section of West Milford, likes "war, and anything to do with guns. "He said killing in a fantasy setting, gives him a "feeling of power."

Huryn and Jagudaeu understand that paintball, a rapidly growing sport, is make-believe. But psychologists, law-enforcement agents, and educators nationwide are debating whether simulated killing for a thrill is worrisome when considered in the context of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Paintball advocates argue that the sport, like football or basketball, promotes teamwork and releases aggression. But detractors say paintball, which involves dressing in combat garb, desensitizes people to guns and violence. They are concerned, too, because the Columbine shooters played the game, and the fastest-growing group of enthusiasts is between the impressionable ages of 12 and 18.

"Paintball is pure play," said Jerry Braun, a paintball magnate who owns two outdoor fields in New York State and a 12,000-square-foot indoor site on Long Island, a professional paintball team, and a monthly magazine, Paintball Sports.

"Paintball is antithetical to violence, "he said at his paintball equipment store in Mount Kisco, N.Y. "It makes adults feel emotions they have not felt since childhood. And it gives people a respect for guns because it's scary to be shot by a paint pellet that's traveling 200 miles per hour."

Paintball is played in wooded areas or on courses with obstacles used to shield opposing teams. In a modern-day version of "capture the flag," players usually divide into two teams, and the one that eliminates the other team's players wins. Players move around the field or through the woods like soldiers, ducking and hiding and looking for an opportunity to shoot an opponent. A player hit by a paintball is declared out by a referee.

Robert J. Louden, director of the Criminal Justice Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, says paintball is useful for military or police training, but inappropriate for children.

"In the last couple of years, we have seen how easy it is for youths to get hold of firearms, and how it's become more common to see them shooting at people," he said. "The more often kids do something in play, the harder it is to shift from play to reality. And with guns, that comes with a finality and with consequences."

Experts say no research proves that desensitization to violence necessarily promotes it. Still, paintball and other games such as laser tag are being scrutinized by experts examining links between real violence and a predilection for violent themes in music, video games, movies, and sports. Paintball enthusiasts, meanwhile, say they are associated undeservedly with the paramilitary subculture that popularized the indestructible Rambo character and produced Timothy McVeigh, the architect of the Oklahoma City bombing.

"The difference between John Wayne and Rambo is that in the old westerns, gunslingers fought within a system or rules, and usually on behalf of the country, whereas Rambo and Chuck Norris feel betrayed by established military systems, and take it upon themselves to create a new moral order," said Michael Flynn, associate director of the Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College.

Exasperated by the intense focus on his industry, Erik Guthrie, executive director of the International Laser Tag Association in Indianapolis, said an implied connection between shooting laser beams and violence is absurd.

"When I was growing up, I played Monopoly, a game that taught you to ruthlessly remove your opponents until they went into bankruptcy," he said. "That didn't make me a slumlord."

No one has been killed while playing paintball, although a rash of paintball vandalism in New Jersey has caused some injuries and property damage.

There were a number of vandalism incidents with paintball guns in Wayne, including one on Nov. 14 at the Wayne Towne Center near the Willowbrook Mall, in which a couple's car window was splattered with paint.

Meanwhile, the industry has been flourishing, with gross retail sales rising from $ 175 million in 1996 to more than $ 700 million in 1998. Mike Henry, who publishes paintball publications for players and the industry, said 4 million people played paintball in 1998 on a total of 2,500 indoor and outdoor sites nationwide.

The phenomenon is growing fastest among players ages 12 to 18. In part, that is because insurance companies in the early 1990s dropped the minimum age requirement on the fields from 16 to 10, said Henry. The game is catching on fastest among middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites, he said.

A day of paintball costs about $ 60. Cathleen Escobedo, co-owner of ABC Paintball, located on 10 wooded acres, said 95 percent of paintball players own their equipment.

Kevin O'Brien, 13, of Woodcliff Lake, said he bought his Trippmann 68-Carbine with $ 235 his grandmother gave him for spending money. He said he enjoys paintball more than other sports because" it's more intense. There's no seventh-inning stretch."

Rockland County, N.Y., residents John Smith, 42, and his son, Ryan, 14, find that paintball is great father-son bonding. "It's not like when he comes to watch me play basketball or baseball and has to sit on the sidelines watching," said Ryan. His father said he had reservations about paintball, but now believes the game builds strategic thinking skills. He compares it to chess.

"In today's society, where guns are so prevalent, I would favor an activity that does not include any type of weapons," said Dave Vanderbush, athletic director of Ridgewood High School. "Let's play flag football. Or hiding and stalking using wooded terrain. Why do we need weapons?" Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters in the April 20 massacre at Columbine High School, reportedly were preoccupied with computer games such as Doom, in which a lone soldier kills everything in his way or gets killed, role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, and paintball. A student witness at Columbine told reporters after the blood bath that the boys, who killed themselves after killing 12 classmates and a teacher, played paintball to practice shooting.

Since the Colorado shooting, lawmakers have been wrangling in the media over gun control and violence. The Senate recently voted to authorize studies that examine whether the entertainment industry is marketing violence to youngsters.

But Reece Jackson, a referee at ABC Paintball, said the game is a positive influence on youngsters. "It hones their instincts, teaches them to take chances, and most of all, it makes them work together, because the winning team is the one that works as a team."

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