Sue and the Splatter Gun Gang

By Metta Spencer with Sue Mackenzie | 1986-06-01 12:00:00

War games are a fast-growing new entertainment being played in countryside franchises across North America. In Ontario alone during 1985 there were 32 clubs organizing war games in which about 30,000 players participated. The country around Victoria B.C. also is full of splatter-warriors. Franchise purchasers buy the rights to a game, lease land, and build some facilities such as outdoor toilets and a "movie set" where people can hide and shoot at each other. People come out to the country on weekends, ordinarily in groups, rent camouflage suits and special guns, and for about $35 apiece spend the day in mock battles. Typically, the sport involves capturing the other team's flag. To do that one "kills" members of the opposing team by shooting them with pellets that resemble gelatin bubble-bath capsules, but which splatter red dye on impact. Thus bloodied, the opponent is supposed to fall down and feign death. Teams usually comprise about 15 members-mostly males in their twenties and thirties, but sometimes also women.

Players report a sense of excitement similar to real battle, the main difference being an absence of fear. However, the game is not without hazards. The pellets hurt when they hit (the guns are modified .32 caliber weapons) and leave dime-sized bruises for days afterwards. Players are supposed to wear goggles, but these often fog up or get scratched, so that rule is often ignored, with serious consequences. In 18 months, 29 cases of eye injury were reported in Québec and Ontario, 12 of them resulting in blindings in one eye.

he games have their opponents. Take Sue McKenzie, for example. Sue is a teacher in Gravenhurst, Ontario, a wife, mother of a little girl, and a dedicated teacher who takes seriously her duty to teach peace to children. When flyers appeared in her local Canadian Tire store announcing the coming of a war game on her road, Sue was offended. She and her friend Arleigh Luckett decided to oppose the game nonviolently, including picketing it, if necessary.

First they phoned the game's owners and arranged to visit the site. Expecting to meet a macho gang of thugs, they were surprised to encounter instead two young couples much like themselves-people who had invested $20,000 in the games and who were obviously worried about this new obstacle. Together they walked a short distance from the road to a "Western" movie set. The proprietors claimed to dislike the military viewpoint and were planning to turn the game into a Western shoot-out game instead.

"We started thinking," reports Sue, "about why it offended us less for people to shoot at each other in a Western getup than as soldiers. Partly it was probably our desensitization, because we were exposed to Westerns when we were growing up. And partly it's because it doesn't relate much to what is going on today, whereas fighters in camouflage clothes are like the guerrillas all over the world today. They touch more nerves with us than cowboy gunslingers. And yet their brochure was clearly military. It starts off, 'You are an armed member of a crack tactical unit.' They were still using the military stuff in their flyer to draw people."

Sue and Arleigh proposed alternatives. They loved the idea of a game in the woods for people to crawl through the bush chasing each other. But why with guns? How about inventing a new angle? You could have players stick velcro on each other's back, for example. A player who was stuck with velcro might have to join the other team. But no: The proprietors insisted that the guns were essential to the thrill of the sport. Without guns, nobody would want to play.

Sue and Arleigh told them that they must at least obtain a zoning permit. "We went away chuckling," says Sue, "because they thought they could just go get their permits on Monday. We knew you don't just walk in and get rezoned."

It was surprisingly easy to stir up community resistance. Sue and Arleigh put out a letter and soon the phones were ringing in the mayor's office with calls from local citizens. Sue notes, "The wider community was immediately opposed to the war game. They understood on a gut level that there's too much violence. It was encouraging because these people had obviously begun to think about war toys. It also gave me an opportunity to talk about television. Anything like this that brings people together promotes the exchange of ideas. Before the public meeting I circulated a petition in my neighborhood. Ninety five percent of the people signed it."

There were physical dangers in the sport, for one thing. A trucker had been driving past one of the war games in another area when his truck was splattered by pellets of red dye. He stopped and lectured the "soldiers," who were drinking beer by the roadside. Had he not known that there was a war game there, he claims he might have swerved and had an accident. Of course, drinking and shooting at passersby are forbidden by the rules, but still cannot always be prevented.

For many people, it is the eye injuries that seem most to call for regulation. Sue feels otherwise. "I can be quite democratic about such matters. People know they may break a leg skiing too, and we don't prohibit skiing. It's not the physical danger but the values-fallout that upsets me.

"The people who set up these games say they are not for children. But the kids are affected. My school is twenty miles away, yet the Grade Four boys shoot at each other and say they are playing a war game. They know what it is and how to play it. Of course! They live in this society and its values will fall on them.

"Besides, I resent that it's city people who are ruining our rural life. Why don't they take over an old warehouse and do their fighting in the city? City peace groups ought to be going after the guys who sell franchises. They're making a fortune down there."

Sue asked her own peace group to form a special committee to mobilize opposition to the rezoning. The local newspaper opposed them with editorials referring to them as "clucking hens" and saying "We can't legislate morality."

Sue partly agrees: "City council doesn't have the power to legislate on morals, so we had to show it was a land-use issue. I talked about the physical and psychological aspects, and then the global implications. The debate went on all summer in the newspaper's letters column, and it was a fine issue for raising consciousness."

Most people around Gravenhurst keep rifles for use in hunting or destroying sick animals. They all learn certain absolute rules of gun safety: You never point a gun at anything you don't intend to kill, and you never ever point a gun at a human being. "So now we have these yahoos coming up here shooting actual projectiles at each other. My neighbors understood immediately that it raises questions about whether kids know what is supposed to be fantasy and what reality. "The difference is not even obvious to adults. For example, what is the difference between "fantasy warfare" and real military training? Several people mentioned a story on The Journal about a camp in Georgia where mercenary soldiers train. In the one case they're supposed to be "playing" and in the other they're training. But the actions are identical. It's all training. Last year, there was a case in the papers about a California motel janitor who is believed to have murdered 25 people. He spent his weekends playing war games. Fantasy and reality were all of a piece in his life."

ue began to read up on psychology and found research that emphasized the importance of play-acting for learning. "If you tell children something, they don't necessarily learn it. But if you allow them to enact it, they internalize it," she says. "I asked the researcher whether the same principle applies to adults as well and she said yes. In fact, if you can get people to act out attitudes contrary to their own true beliefs, they will begin to take on those attitudes. That's a principle used in behavior modification all the time."

Of course, culture itself is contagious. People imitate one another. A great deal of research lately has focused on "suggestive effects." For example, one researcher gave subjects a sentence-completion test either in the presence of a tennis racquet or a toy gun. Those who had the gun nearby wrote sentences containing far more violence than those who were in the presence of the innocuous racquet.

And the effects are not just verbal, either. David Phillips has shown that the mass media suggest violent ways of behaving that are carried out on a wide scale. For example, whenever a suicide is given front page coverage, the suicide rate increases for several days. Whenever there's a championship prizefight on TV, the U.S. homicide rate goes up an average of 12 percent for about a week. That means that thousands of people are killed each year as a result of suggestion. Even fictional TV dramas prompt some people to kill.

To get a civilized, humane society, we have to "advertise" civilized humane behavior, not violence. And advertising is not just in paid commercials, but in the dramas, articles, and newscasts that fill the space between the commercials. Advertising is what we do in the company of other people, for we are all models for one another. Whatever public behavior we tolerate will become the culture our children inherit and which some of them will imitate.

A few weeks after our visit, Sue phoned to say the war games people had packed up and left. She and Arleigh had won. Rural Gravenhurst was to remain a peaceful place.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1986

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1986, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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