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caption: Nathan Boss, 16, poses with his airsoft gun before playing the game for the first time. Airsoft guns are sold with orange tips to make them look less realistic, but most players remove them. 
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Nathan Boss, 16, poses with his airsoft gun before playing the game for the first time. Airsoft guns are sold with orange tips to make them look less realistic, but most players remove them.
Credit: Courtesy of Nathan Boss

Airsoft: An Intersection Of Youth, Guns And Combat Simulation

RadioActive's Nathan Boss, 16, made his first foray into American gun culture through a real-life combat simulation game called airsoft, where players use guns that shoot non-lethal plastic pellets. This experience inspired him to examine whether playing with fake guns fosters real violence.

The "field" is located down a high wire path, behind a Les Schwab in Maple Valley. After a couple hundred yards, I turn off of the path into a dense forest. I come to a clearing.

People are setting up, laying down gun bags and test firing guns. Most are military-looking types: short hair, good gear, well disciplined. Others have their faces adorned with bits of metal and their ears pierced. The smell of tobacco vapor fills the air.

Most everyone else is wearing camouflage. All I've got on is a brown jacket, brown pants and a green vest. I'm nervous. I'm probably the youngest one here. I don't know whether I'll fit in.

Airsoft started, like many things, in Japan. In the 1970s, while most of the world was preoccupied with disco, companies like Tokyo Marui and Marushin started churning out increasingly realistic imitation firearms. Although they're quite a bit more sophisticated than the BB guns my parents played with as children, airsoft guns have a similar core concept. Airsoft quickly evolved from simple backyard play to regulated tournaments and leagues, and the players soon followed.

Airsoft is now a highly controversial sport, mostly due to the realistic nature of airsoft guns. All airsoft guns sold in the U.S. are shipped with a bright orange tip, although most players remove them. The orange tips make it harder for players to blend in with their surroundings during a game.

Without the orange tips, most airsoft guns are indistinguishable from real firearms. Multiple people have been shot by police for carrying airsoft guns in public.

Along with that, there are questions about whether playing airsoft fosters violence in real life. My father, Al Boss, isn't sure.

"I wonder if we have desensitized ourselves as a culture because of the free access to weapons," he said. "I don't know if the replication of those weapons and the experience of using them to shoot at people in a sport contributes to it or not. It seems to me enough that it might and it creeps me out a little bit."

I'd had my own doubts about this for awhile, and what my dad said reinforced them. So I asked an expert. Jacqueline Helfgott is the chair of the Seattle University Criminal Justice Commission and an expert in violence risk assessment.

"Does it cause regular people who are not violence-prone to go out and commit acts of violence? The answer to that question is probably not," answered Helfgott. "But if you have individuals who are violence-prone, then it can be one of many risk factors to exacerbate the actual commission of violent acts in the future."

Other violence risk factors include social upbringing, biological predisposition and individual thought patterns.

This was reassuring. I don't have a history of violence, so I think I'm pretty safe playing airsoft. I'd made up my mind. I was going to play. I was really, really excited.

I played my first airsoft game on November 16, 2014. I played four scenarios that day. They ranged from standard force-on-force -- where teams compete to be the last one standing -- to bunker defense, where 10 or so people lie down in a bunker and try not to get shot by everyone else.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to play all the way through any of the scenarios because my goggles fogged up, my gun broke, and my battery died.

It was so much fun.

Airsoft is definitely something I can see myself putting a lot of time into. The best part about it is the team-building aspect. You have to work in teams and call out enemy positions if you don't want to get shot. I was also amazed at the overall kindness of the airsoft community. Someone I'd never even met before loaned me an airsoft gun when mine broke.

I've played airsoft just about every single weekend since that first day. I talked to my father again and asked him what he thought about me playing it, now that I've already played it. He said that he wants to respect the game, since it's important to me. But he added, "I don't think I'll ever like airsoft."

Still, I've got his respect going for me. Someday I might even convince him to play, but I'm not holding my breath on that.

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive's Fall Workshop at the Tukwila Community Center, in partnership with Tukwila Parks and Recreation. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.