When novelist Joseph Conrad tossed around possible settings for what would become his signature work, Heart of Darkness, it’s a safe bet Mayflower wasn’t a candidate.
Even at the turn of last century, there was far too much civilization in this south Faulkner County area to support Conrad’s harrowing tale of moral disintegration. No true chaos can emerge from the so-called wilderness flanking I-40. Yet in those sparse woods, among rusting husks of old cars and vans and hordes of young men wearing plastic masks evoking chemical warfare, I saw the lights going out.
Laughter filled the few hours we seven adults shared on a recent Saturday afternoon trip to the paintball facility Paintball Arkansas. Two women and five guys, all affiliated with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, with hardly a scrap of paintball experience between us.
Still, after five games between ourselves, we felt ready to take on the outside world.
That came in the form of four boys, 11-to-14-year-olds, who assured us they hadn’t played much organized paintball. We nervously laughed. One of their guns far too closely resembled an AK-47 for us to take them lightly.
“Oh, by the way, we’ve played paintball hundreds of times in the woods before,” one child said.
My eyes narrowed, though our outing’s ringleader Bobby Ampezzan and I still tried to keep the tone light. Then, the referee told us that to level the sides, we must send over one of our own.
As cartoonist Dusty Higgins dutifully trudged across enemy lines, the six remaining adults knew our backs were against the figurative orange-splattered wall.
It didn’t take long.
“Ah! I’m out!”
“They got me, too!”
One by one, the ever-patient Enemy picked off my teammates. In this sport, the eliminated don’t fall to their death; They stand, guns upraised, and walk to the sidelines to huddle under a giant burqa. En route, they are easy pluckins for the trigger-happy opponents who conveniently don’t hear the soft-voiced ref signal these targets have, in fact, already been thwacked. The kids seemed to have an especially vibrant interest in slamming the stingers of their 190-mph, gelatin-filled wasps into Ampezzan’s skin.
Hunkered behind a giant wooden, circular structure, I resolved to survive.
From the outside, I might have resembled a fish on a boat deck, frantically flipping from one side of my wheel to another to determine the Enemy’s location. But, believe me, if you had seen me as I saw me, you would have seen none other than Dolph Lundgren from Universal Soldier coolly assessing the terrain with that cyber eyepiece of his.
Across the battle field, I glimpsed a white sneaker – one pitifully unaware kid’s only exposed area, which would become the canvas of my finest work. I quickly fired off a Jackson Pollack, and inwardly rejoiced as the splatted kid left the field, head hanging.
A few moments later, I had another masterpiece in my sight line.
Just 20 feet away, I saw another kid’s head dart around the side of his obstacle. Amazingly, it stayed exposed for a couple seconds, as tantalizing as a Whack-a-Mole at Chuck E. Cheese’s. I fired five successive shots before the mole darted back into its hole, leaving me cursing my plastic blunderbuss of a gun.
Around that time, they took out my last teammate.
Again, manly eye narrowing. I imagined myself morphing from Lundgren into the badass sniper Jude Law played in Enemy at the Gates. Sensing my finest hour had arrived, I gripped my semi-automatic maiden, determined to dance with her to the death.
“He’s over here!” a prepubescent voice squeaked. “He’s behind that one!”
Then, the sound of leaves crunching. My elusive Whack-a-Mole was coming out of his stand to get me. Somehow, I reasoned, this guy hadn’t gotten the ref’s memo about no shooting within 20 feet.
“Fair enough,” I briefly thought. “I doubt the stream of paintballs smashing point-blank into the kid’s visor will be strong enough to break through and blind him anyway.”
And just like that, the ref’s voice punctured the suspense. “Game over.”
I stood, unsure of what happened. A couple teammates nonchalantly mentioned in this game, if your bunker obstacle is tagged, you’re out. I had no idea. So, that battle was over.
But the reflection had just begun.
While only a game, paintball triggers the very same flight-or-fight chemicals which sustained the human species for millions of years. Without such responses in the face of hungry mastodons, grizzly bears and Pauly Shore, there would be no mankind, let alone civilization and the layers of rules supporting it.
In the real world, there is faith the rules we call laws are enough to promote commerce while warding off war.
In the world of games, we also cling to rules. They allow us to simulate killing again and again.
A shortened version of this article originally published in Sync magazine