Toy Soldiers

10 Jun 2015

We're in trouble.

Spi is covering the front door, crouched in the corner behind a wooden barricade. He'd rather be sniping from the top of a tower, but in the cramped environment of the vehicle shed he's relying on his sidearm.

I'm facing the other way, trying to watch the wide side door and the back entrance at the same time. The rest of our team have abandoned the position, leaving us to hold out for as long as we can. By now, we're certainly surrounded.

I know this ends only one way.

I see movement at the back door and plastic death immediately clicks off the barricade, scattering against my mask. I scurry behind a parked tank, pinned down by automatic fire and paralysed with indecision.

Blue Team tosses something my way. It flies over my head and I lose track of it.

Even in the moment, something in me understands the difference between pretend-dangerous, like airsoft BBs, and actually-dangerous, like the hissing explosive that's now somewhere around here. I charge out of cover and am immediately gunned down. Spi's pistol turns out to be empty. The building floods with Blue soldiers, saying things like "Clear!" and "Got him". Elapsed time: Perhaps ten seconds. Enemy casualties inflicted: zero.

This is hard.

It's my first time at airsoft, and it's not hard in the way I was expecting. Everyone here, bar me, looks like a soldier - full camoflage, heavy black weapons, chests covered in spare magazines, grenades, radios, sidearms. Some of them probably are soldiers. But they are all polite to a fault. There's no attitude. Nobody gives me orders even when I want them to. People apologise for being in the way in the middle of a firefight.

It's physically demanding, but I was expecting that. As it turns out, a large part of the infantry combat that airsoft aims to simulate is "carrying heavy things long distances in inappropriate clothing". It's hot. There's not enough water. The ground is treacherous. It's a long way back to the respawn point. All part of the experience.

But tactically, it's much harder to get to grips with than I'd thought. I spend most of each two-hour round with no idea what's going on, where I can make the most difference, or if I'm making a difference at all. More than anything else I need information. Where are the enemy? How many of them are there? What are they armed with? Are there more reinforcements coming? Did I actually hit that guy, or did he duck? What's the status of our objectives? Nobody seems to know.

In the second mission, I think I actually do more talking than shooting. And maybe that's part of infantry combat, too. For half an hour I sit at a jetty, gun across my lap, listening to distant shots and guarding an objective that the enemy never attack, and somehow it makes the experience richer.

Not that there was a shortage of high-energy moments. Early in the session, a group of us are pinned down at a corner, trading fire at long range. I want something to happen, so I edge ahead of the squad and pop my head out for a second. A few seconds later something lands a metre away. The other guys are used to this. I'm not. I yell "GRENAAAADE!" at the top of my lungs and take off running, and I'm halfway down the track and well clear of the five metre "kill radius" when the bang goes off. Nobody else has bothered to move.

Later, a friendly is downed by a lucky shot on the far side of a courtyard. There's a medic rule, but someone has to get to him first. I go, full-auto blind-firing my AK47-lookalike with one hand as I sprint to cover. I make it, but as soon as I bring him back into the game, we're both immediately killed by suspected friendly fire. Chaos.

As a game, a lot of the moments I'd have designed away - the waiting, the confusion, the logistics, the chaos - actually add up to a real experience, something much richer than the refined combat of Call of Duty or Laser Tag. I'm glad I did this.

I'm glad I don't have to.