Picture this: you're uncomfortably positioned behind a battered old wreck of a car, dressed to kill in army overalls and mask, clutching a high-powered weapon and feeling that unique killer instinct completely overpowering your senses, as bullets fly overhead missing you by inches. Your comrades are nearby, all breathing heavily and with that unmistakable manic look in their eyes. You're waiting for the first enemies to appear, but you can't see any. You pop your head over the bonnet of the car, and take a quick glance around. Suddenly you see one. The muzzle of his gun is in front of him, pointed at you. You think that you can see the bullet with your name on it, for a split second, whizzing towards you. Then it hits you.
No, you're not dead. the bullets are paintballs, the guns are pump-action paint guns and the game is paintball. But anyone who's experienced it will tell you that it sure feels real.
Let's go back a bit, to when it was first invented. It was in the 1980s, when modern cowboys shot paint pellets at their cattle to brand them. They soon realised that it was a lot more fun to shoot at one another than at the animals.
It was introduced in England in 1984.
You'll see that the word paintball doesn't appear in the dictionary. And yet it has already become a multi-million pound business, with addicts all over the world (40,000 in Britain). There are even tournaments organised from September until May, notably the Mayhem Open in Sussex, in which teams from all over the world compete for a first prize of £70,0OO.
It is difficult to explain, to someone who's never actually played paintball, the sensation you experience as you're crawling through the undergrowth, no longer feeling the sting of the nettles nor the painful bruises where you were hit the previous games, observing the desperate enemy manoeuvres trying to outflank you, and then at last spotting an uncovered member of the opposite team, vulnerably exposed between scattered oil-drums and hay-stacks, and finally feeling the surge of power as you pump on the semi-automatic gun and release a hail of those deadly paintballs.
Yes! I've hit the bastard!
Then again, it is equally as difficult to explain the bitter resentment and disbelief of being hit in the very last seconds of the game, when you are just so close to that enemy flag you had to capture.
The frightening thing is, you can't even see who you are shooting at. All that is visible is a protruding robotic-looking mask behind the muzzle of his gun, pointing your way. You could be in the midst of an Alien movie, blasting extra-terrestrials into nothingness. But the intense and real pain of a hit soon brings you back down to Earth.
Yet this is a game of teamwork: no prizes are awarded for individual achievements such as not being shot. In fact, no prizes are awarded at all; there's just the sheer satisfaction of hitting the enemy. On this point, it is very similar to actual warfare, in that apart from your survival, all that matters is the good of the team. No-one will be there at the end of the day to award points or a trophy; it'll just be "your side has won" or "your side has lost". But, in comparison to warfare, this is a game: if at the end of the day you feel like charging down the middle of the battlefield, bellowing war cries and braving enemy firepower, it is not your life you're playing with, but the risk of getting bruised by a hard-hitting pelting of paintballs.
How did I feel at the end of the day? Well, to be quite honest, a little empty. I also felt that something was amiss. The inaccuracy of the guns? The aching bruises and the stinging nettlerah? The unreality of it all? It's hard to tell. But overall, it is an unmissible experience, whatever your age or sex. And, if you've got the money to keep it up, it's easy to get addicted to.
Some people will tell you that this is a game for testosterone-crazed, over-stressed psychotic maladjusted macho males, with a big ego and an even bigger criminal record. Then again, those are the people for whom action, fun and outdoors is something you read about in books.
Everything considered, at a price of £30-£40 inclusive of all extras: lunch, extra ammo, etc. (and reductions for students), it's definitely worth it.
Try it, and see for yourself.