From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Games: The Strange Case Of The One-Way Crossover

The two greatest non-human passions of my life have been science fiction and a game called paintball. Interestingly enough, the thread that connects my personal involvement in these two disparate activities inversely parallels their relationship in the real world.

Science fiction (and fannish involvement) needs little, if any explanation in a magazine of this sort. Suffice it to say that I began reading at an early age, quickly found fandom and just as quickly got involved in everything from fanzines to convention running.

Paintball, on the other hand, is probably mostly, if not entirely unknown within the genre community and does require a bit of exposition.

Think cops and robbers, or childhood games of army in the woods, then replace a pointed finger, a shouted “Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!” with advanced technology that allows players to fire relatively harmless projectiles at one another. Throw in the proper protective gear and a basic set of rules, and you have a game/sport which has, over the past quarter century, become one of the most popular extreme sports in the world.

My interest in paintball was grounded in my interest in science fiction. At the time that I became involved I had been designing strategy board games, mostly of a science-fictional nature: space war combat, planetary invasion, Earth vs. the Aliens. I saw paintball as an opportunity to investigate the effects of the real world on rules and gaming systems, and as a chance to test tactical theories in a harsher environment than the cardboard and dice realm of tabletop gaming.

Like some others inhabiting the science fiction gaming field in those days (early 1980s), I believed that there was a natural and obvious connection between paintball and gaming; who wouldn’t want to substitute pulling a real trigger for rolling a couple of D10s? What game player wouldn’t give up a detached and vicarious fantasy victory in favor of “crushing their enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women” for real?

Science fiction and gaming fans, apparently.

Despite the best efforts of those of us who had been bitten by the paintball bug, we never did manage to engender any significant interest on the part of the fannish community, a situation that persists to this day.

I’ve had a quarter of a century to ponder this strange lack of relationship and have developed a few theories. There has also been plenty of opportunity to test them because while fans/gamers are mostly uninterested in paintball, paintballers are very interested in the genres.

Many open-source online gaming engines have a paintball version (Half Life, for example). Paintball slang includes referring to your gun as a BFG (from DOOM). Numerous science fiction and fantasy movies and computer game themes have been adopted as the background for paintball scenario games (Harry Potter Book 1 and HALO, for example). Several paintball comics featuring futuristic SF themes have been published over the years (Paintball: 2250, for example). Many teams adopt the names, the icons, and sometimes even the philosophies of favorite genre worlds or characters (Team Browncoats of Arizona, paying homage to the television show Firefly), and players frequently discuss genre movies and books on the numerous web forums devoted to the game.

The height of paintball/fannish crossover involvement occurred at a scenario game held outside of Chicago in 2004. Entitled William Shatner’s Splat Attack, the game featured an authorized incarnation of a three-way battle amongst the Federation (led by Admiral James T. Kirk in the flesh), the Klingons, and the Borg.

The producers of that game created it and obtained the high-profile involvement of William Shatner for the specific purpose of developing a paintball property that would help widen the appeal of the sport. In this case, the effort was directly targeted at Star Trek fans and tangentially targeted at genre fandom. (If it was successful, there was no reason not to mine other, similar properties: Transformers, Battlefield Earth, etc.)

The event was scheduled to coincide with an area Star Trek convention and was marketed to its attendees. The convention had multiple thousands of visitors. By official count, ten Trekkers put in an appearance at the scenario game.

Splat Attack was successful in its own right, though it failed to create the hoped for crossover interest. (A second Splat Attack, featuring a Western theme, was conducted the following year.)

The failure of such a high-profile event, along with my own experiences, has brought home the painful lesson that the relationship between genre fandom and paintball is a one-way street. Fans are not interested in paintball, but paintballers are interested in the genre(s).

In one respect, this is fairly understandable. Fans exist and are involved with activities that are, for the most part, of a vicarious nature. Everything is at least two steps removed from reality.

Reading about the Battle of Helms Deep, watching the clash of the Orcs and the Rohanim from a birds-eye perspective, is a thrilling, imaginary experience. Picking up the Middle Earth Battle of the Five Armies board game (or using miniatures to re-create the same) adds a tactile quality and the ability to influence the plot directly, while also allowing for the adoption of the identify of various characters.

Standing toe-to-toe with an Uruk-Hai warrior and risk having your head stove in (or worse, being captured and eaten) for real? Ummm – no.

This is not to say that all fans are couch potatoes who are reluctant, if not afraid, to engage in physicality. There is a contingent amongst fans involved with the martial arts, another that participates in SCA combat, and probably other forms of sport I’m unfamiliar with. Fans who might be interested in paintball would most likely come from those constituencies.

But even these activities are one step removed: the average martial artist does not step into the MMA ring. (Full-speed martial arts sparring is conducted in a relatively controlled environment) And, while SCA combat can deliver a pretty good thumping, my experience with participants is that the emphasis is on fun and dressing up, rather than on ‘crushing your enemies’.

The remove of vicariousness is an obvious explanation, but there are subtler ones that I suspect form the real core of the reason for this one-way traffic.

The first is a variation on vicariousness. When most fans put themselves into the story, they adopt a leading role. It is the rare bird who, given a choice between imagining themselves as Elron or as an Elf Archer somewhere back in the third rank off to the left, picks the unnamed, offstage, window-dressing character.

When you play paintball, even if you have taken on a character role in a scenario game, you are still not the lead. Anyone—including that Elven third-ranker—can shoot you and take you right out of the story. There’s no authorial ‘it didn’t happen that way’ control. You aren’t guaranteed victory and a wreath at the end.

I suspect that many fans, when confronted with the real-world aspects of paintball (everyone is making up their own story as they go along; anyone and everyone can be the lead at any moment), feel a degree of subconscious discomfort from their apparent lack of control (one that goes beyond such things as being a novice or unfamiliarity with the rules). Even while reading, the fan exerts control: you can always close the book if you don’t like where things are headed.

Then there is the general character of the community to consider. While fandom is a wonderful patchwork of (often feuding) disparate interests, a major commonality is a sense of acceptance, openness and cooperative engagement. Paintball is anything but. The whole purpose of the game is to beat the other team, to force your will (or that of your team’s) onto your opponents. In fandom, we celebrate both the award winners AND the nominees. In paintball, second place is the first place LOSER.

The other strong possibility is that the lack of crossover is a generational one. Paintball has had success with video games (one of the most popular first-person shooters is a tournament paintball game) and many video gamers—fans or not—regularly play paintball. (Indeed, I know younger players who bring their video games to the paintball field and then rush home from the field to play online games.)

Younger fans are, seemingly, much more involved with a mix of media—movies, television, video games. Most are not, however, convention goers or fans in the sense of traditional involvement with genre-based activities.

So it may be that, in the long run, the issue is not one of getting fans to play paintball, but one of getting paintball-playing genre fans to become fans.

Developing a true crossover between the two worlds could offer a ready market to authors, artists, publishers, and game developers. The opportunity to develop properties into scenario-game themes is there and waiting to be taken advantage of, with the added benefit that many players are already familiar with and favorably disposed to the worlds, stories, and characters that would form the backdrop for a game.


Steve Davidson is the author of three paintball books, including the recently released A PARENT’S GUIDE TO PAINTBALL (Liaison Press), has written hundreds of articles for various paintball publications and is currently the Editor in Chief of the 68Caliber news website. He retired from tournament play in 1997 and was named a Top 100 Player of All Time in 1999. On the genre side, Steve writes the Crotchety Old Fan blog, maintains the Classic Science Fiction Channel website and is furiously working away on various SF novels and short stories, for which he has so far received numerous rejection slips, with the notable exception of two pieces of flash fiction which have been published on the 365Tomorrows site.

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