Saturday, September 7, 2013

Clip Half-Full: The Real-Life Implications of Virtual Marksmanship

My father recently passed away at the age of 63, leading me to juxtapose his life with my own. In his terms, I will be approaching my midlife crisis sooner rather than later, and I decided to make an effort to take steps out of my comfort zone, to do the things that I would normally scoff at. Since I try to avoid needless risks in losing my life—such as skydiving—I figured the next best thing would be to do something I’m morally at odds with. Cannibalism is illegal, so I thought the next best course of action might be learning to operate and fire a weapon.

As a bleeding heart liberal, I have a natural unease regarding guns. The thought of holding the power to take a human life in your hand may invigorate some or bestow a sense of power, but it’s not the responsibility I’d prefer to have—I’m barely capable of baking a cake, for Christ’s sake. Of course, in this world where everyone has to hate everyone else over everything, it is hard to have any gray areas in your head for any issue. For most folks, it’s hard stances on every issue. The fact is, I am uneasy about guns, but I’m not necessarily anti-gun. I don’t think people should carry guns, as the thought of an O.K. Chorale on every corner when an inebriated argument escalates is senseless. I’m also a realist who understands that people who are nutty about guns will always have them no matter what.

In a controlled environment, you could label guns as fun. This is what I aimed to take part in, while also quelling my curiosity on the age old fact of video games—something I am obviously skilled in, to a certain extent—being used as a training method to better hand-eye coordination. What better way to test the knowledge of what I have learned about guns in gaming than to put them to practice at the shooting range?

Games have been the product of increased hand-eye coordination for well over a decade, according to advanced studies, and are often used for military training—for better or worse—in the U.S. and abroad. As many lives that are saved with video games as training manuals by better equipping our troops for potential threats, there can be an argument as to video games being used as a tool to desensitize those doing the killing. While I would argue a rational mind can differentiate between reality and fiction, I also recognize the sad fact of many unstable minds being implemented into military ranks—an argument for a later date, I suppose. Instead, let’s focus on one question at a time: Can shooting in video games make you a better shot in reality, right out of the gate?

I called my friend Jesse, another avid video gamer and newbie to firing guns. Jesse is the guy I usually get in touch with when I want to try something new, as he is a single guy with expendable cash. “What if they find out we’re vegetarian-lesbian-liberal-Muslim-Obamas?” I pondered. “They’ll kill us,” he surmised.

We took out a deal at the Top Gun Shooting Range via Groupon, $62 for the rental of a gun, a box of ammunition, four targets, and a lesson with a certified NRA trainer. This was particularly amusing, as the NRA is a frequent punch line to my left-wing humor.

We arrived and immediately looked out of place from the customers popping into the store. Unattractive, lumpy white men around my age or better, with the facial hair to match the cliché, made up the majority of customers. Okay, so maybe we fit the bill upon retrospect. A few elderly white men in standard plain-white-Ts filled out the ranks as we gawked around at the numerous springs and doodads being sold in the cleanly retail portion of the store. “I don’t even know what any of this stuff does,” Jesse said.

“What type of gun were you looking to use today?” The clerk was polite and could see right through us. “How about something easy?” Jesse pulled no punches. “Well, we could start you on a .22… They can barely break through a winter coat and do not have much recoil as a result,” the clerk explained. Jesse nodded, “we’ll try that one.” We were ready and set to fire the sissiest gun known to man.

Our NRA-certified instructor greeted us with a warm demeanor and a friendly smile. He asked what brought us in, and I explained the passing of my father and my desire to do something out of my comfort zone as a liberal nancyboy. He took us into his office and revealed what he had something special in store for us. “I don’t normally do this,” he explained, “but with what you said about your dad… It made me feel like doing something special for you guys.” His gift was the use of a 9mm Glock 17, a far cry from the .22 caliber we were going to tinker with. Jesse gulped. A big step up, but one in the right direction for this field test I was anxious to perform. Withdrawing ammo from his personal stock after a shortage failed to produce any for purchase, I began to realize and appreciate the trust he had in a couple of buffoons looking to do something goofy.

After thorough instructions on how to treat the gun (like it is always loaded) and how to transition your aim as to not to point at anyone at anytime, we spoke small talk with our instructor, going over zombie apocalypses and the various strategies against various fictional zombie archetypes (such as Dawn of the Dead ‘78 zombies versus motion picture-World War Z zombies), I felt comfortable with our instructor and realized that my incessant belittling of every single person in the NRA was just as close-minded as the types of things I rally against. We’re all people in the end, and our instructor was clearly a nice person both at heart and on the surface. Lesson learned. I was relaxed and ready to have some fun.

The Resident Evil CODE: Veronica rendition of the Glock 17.

Most video games have a 9mm as a standard handgun, seeing as how they are police issued. Chances are if you are starting a game with a pistol, it is a 9mm. The Glock 17 was immediately familiar to me based on its use in one of my ten or so all-time favorite video games, Resident Evil CODE: Veronica. I was very happy to learn we’d be using the weapon due to this, as I’m quite familiar with the digital counterpart to it. It has also made appearances in the likes of Battlefield 3, Half-Life, and one of the precursors to the modern shooter, Duke Nukem 3D. I refrained from using Duke’s catch phrases (“I’ll rip your head off and shit down your neck,” for example) during my trials.

We were led past all of the pros shooting their pieces as our protective head gear made the gunshots all around us feel as though they were next to our heads as opposed to inside of them. Intimidating as this was, it melted away once we were escorted to our private “beginning” lane. I was elected to go first. It was a sweltering 102 degrees outside, and the still air of the range—combined with the jitters of what was about to happen—made the sweat pour even harder.

The gun was about as heavy as I’d imagined. In most games, even assault rifles are treated to be light as a feather, quickly stored or thrown over the shoulder like an empty purse. I figured before I had ever held a gun that the density would be pronounced, and I was correct. Aiming the gun was a gift taught to me from video games, making me immediately realize the correlation first-hand. Certain games opt not to use a reticle or anything in addition to the natural alignment of the handgun; what you see is what you get. This was the case with the Glock 17. The target was placed thirteen yards out.

“Lightly and slowly squeeze the trigger with the cushion of your finger,” the instructor said. Aiming for the dead center for a solid fifteen seconds before pulling the trigger, I locked in and focused solely on my target. My hands were calm and steady.

The above picture is my first of what wound up being three targets. The farthest northern bullet hole was my first shot, a bulls-eye shot placed exactly where I had planned. You only get one first shot in your life, so I was proud that I managed to mark it exactly where I wanted it. The recoil was completely satisfying; my hands were loose and my stance was confident, allowing the gun to bop after each shot. This was very similar to what I had anticipated from Resident Evil CODE: Veronica’s character animations; it felt and looked right, fluid. My second and third shots were in the dead center of the target, and my fourth was directly between the two of them (leaving, essentially, two holes for three shots according to the target itself). As adrenaline and excitement of my success took over, my shots became clipping an inch or two south of where I aimed, but still close enough to be considered a great first attempt at shooting a weapon (“keep it in the area of a clinched fist,” the instructor directed).

The instructor chuckled. “What’s funny?” I asked. “Oh, I just get a rush when people are naturals,” he replied. “Yeah!” I rung out, holding my hand up for a high-five that never happened. Ouch.

Jesse went next. He was slightly apprehensive about the whole thing and anticipated the recoil of a magnum, by the looks of things, and his first few shots showed as much. Once he realized the power of the gun and the satisfying recoil, the jitters melted away and his shots began looking very similar to mine. It became clear to me that it’s simply true; if you’ve had experience with certain shooting games, you can apply that experience to real-life scenarios if you can quell your anxieties. I like to think for most, shooting at paper targets and shooting at living things greatly change those anxieties; I know for certain that I could not target anything alive—be it armed thug or possum—the same way I could an inanimate object, nor would I want to in the first place.

My second target teetered off by comparison to my first, while Jesse only got better. My second target was in the silhouette of a person, and I began aiming for chest shots to similar results as my initial session. Things went south when I began aiming above my line of height, targeting the neck (and hitting the chest) and head (and hitting the neck). This was a caveat I was not anticipating with our experiment; I figured aiming a gun top-to-bottom was as simple as left-to-right. Squaring up your shot is something that’s depicted as seamless in the world of gaming, and is a far cry from reality. As I began to sweat from the heat, my grip on the weapon loosened and the smoothness of my trigger finger faltered as a result—another variable than does not translate whatsoever to the digital world. All of my final shots were slightly lower than where I aimed, though still where I wanted from left-to-right.

Jesse’s second target was similar to my first with his accuracy, if not better. He shot up a zombified gigantic fly for his target, and put on quite the show for the instructor and myself. “Aim for the milk carton in the background.” Jesse would make the milk spill. “Shoot for the maggot-infested sandwich behind the fly.” Maggots were turned to dust. As we made requests, Jesse fulfilled all of them with ease. He was great this time around.

With time remaining and no ammunition left for the 9mm, we opted for something a little different than what we were using before. Our instructor brought out the AR-15 for us to toy around with, a semi-automatic rifle with a scope and laser sight. This was closer to the video game world due to these two very key features. We chose some new targets, opting for oversized spiders this time largely due to my disdain towards them, and took to the range.

The AR-15 as depicted in Dead Island.

“Now, this one will have a little more kick,” our instructor said with a grin on his face. “This is going to send me to the back of the room,” I thought to myself. “This gun will break the sound barrier, so make sure you have your ear piece on at all times.” Okay, color me intimidated. “You can go first,” said Jesse.

I noticed my hands wavering, though never trembling or shaking; the distance made its presence known. This likely had to do with my lackadaisical posture, something that is neither my best nor worst character trait. The AR-15 reminded me very closely of the sniper rifles from Far Cry 3, a game where you start off very bad with focusing on targets and gradually learn to control your nervous system to allow for pinpoint accuracy via a series of attribute points and rewards the further you progress. In other words, the game will correct your natural flaws for you. Needless to say, my stance and aim resembled the earlier portions of the game opposed to the latter, as no artificial intelligence was there to hold my hand. Luckily I had recently played the game and outsmarted the A.I. by timing my wavering shots. I’m known as a man with excellent rhythm and used this, combined with my knowledge of timing my shots, to ease my nerves. The target was from twice as far as our previous target due to having a scope and laser sight, as we attempted to shoot from 25 yards out. I eased my trigger finger and aimed for the head of the large spider…

“HOLY SHIT!” I screamed as the burst range out and echoed through the range. Our instructor cackled. “I always like seeing a shooter’s first reaction to that one,” he said. The gun jolted back upon blast into the snug grip of my shoulder. This was a gun that exceeded my expectations of recoil. My shot was precise, nailing the target directly in the dome.

Shooting with a scope and laser sight obviously made targeting easy, though the distance meant that every slight movement greatly threw my intended target off by a lot; the slightest twitch could turn a headshot into missing the target altogether. It reminded me of sniping in the Metal Gear Solid series without the use of diazepam to calm your nerves and steady your hands. Concentrating on my own breathing patterns and timing my shots mid-inhale—just as I would have in-game via my avatar’s virtual breaths—allowed me to cheat my inexperience and abilities to conquer my shakes. My results were well, though I missed the baby spider’s head by this-much. Jesse’s previous injury to his collarbone kept him from zeroing in with this rifle too much, as he risked damaging a pin in his shoulder. He still shot valiantly, given the risk.

“How did we do?” “Great,” the instructor replied with a wide smile across his face. “I thought we’d be so terrible that we’d be kicked out,” I replied, “so I’ll take that.”

Jesse and I celebrated our most ‘Murican adventure by downing some double cheeseburgers afterwards, which will inevitably end our lives as we did the imaginary lives of those flies and spiders. “It reminded me of shooting in Mass Effect before you know what the hell you’re doing,” Jesse stated. Every game we brought up had a common theme: they are games that are not known for their gunplay. The experience did not remind us of a seamless, satisfying shooter such as Call of Duty, Halo, or even Gears of War; it reminded us of games where the use of guns was secondary and not the preferred option to fight.

The Resident Evil series is derived from conservation; you’re encouraged not to use your weapons unless you have to, as ammunition is scarce. Metal Gear Solid is a stealth series where sneaking in and out without being detected—and thus not taking lives—is a less messy and preferred option. Mass Effect relies heavily on the use of bionic powers to immobilize enemy threats. Far Cry 3’s introductory mission involves escaping imprisonment from a hostage camp with the use of sneaking and throwing nearby rocks. Most of these games do not even use guns as a focal point, yet these were the examples we kept coming back to.

The reason behind this is that operating a gun is not a seamless action sequence where clips are thrown into the air and reloaded with the swipe of a hand. The likes of Call of Duty and such know that the more smooth the animations, motions, reactions, and the like of their gunplay, the more fun they will be to play. In real-life, the use of guns is a slow, methodical process—one that is even a little bit clunky—and thus we relate it to games where the use of guns are not embellished. The model on the cover of that magazine is not perfect; she is Photoshopped to look better. Not all sex resembles what you’ll find on the Internet. The image of the sandwich on the sign board at the fast food chain looks nothing like what you just ordered. Likewise, not every use of a firearm will be as silky smooth as the video games you’re used to. It's gritty and based upon precision. Throw it on the pile of American myths we love to believe, even if we know they’re probably not true.

While it might bum some out to learn that some things are false, the things we proved to ourselves to be truth far outweigh any disappointment. You can use video games to become a great shot in real-life. Everything that I’ve utilized since video games evolved to three-dimension scope in the mid-‘90s until now was relevant to my success as a first-time shooter.

“So I was thinking,” Jesse added days later, “that was pretty fun. Let’s do that again.” We are only twelve experience points from Call of Duty-smooth. We can’t stop now. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Of Socks and Sapphires: A Love Story

Thirteen years ago, I was speaking with a good friend of mine on my computer about wrestling. We were discussing our favorite performers in the ring. I remember it vividly, for whatever reason. “No, I don’t like him,” my teenage friend Valerie said of someone whose name faded away over time. I asked, “What about Foley?” “Of course, everybody loves Mick,” she replied. “He’s such a nice guy.”


Val and I love wrestling. No, no… Not the Olympian-style of wrestling, but the kind that used to light the world on fire in the late 1990s. The kind where grown men oil themselves up and roll around with other men in tights and pretend to hurt each other with their fake wrestling moves, so say the non-fan. It’s not an easy thing to admit to enjoying in our society, given the fact that it is an elaborate ruse and people do not like being tricked. To partake and revel in an outright lie means that you’re stupid and you fell for it, right?

I see it in a different light. Wrestling is a form of art, in the same way that dancing or figure skating is a performance art. Nigel McGuinness, a brilliant pro wrestler who was unfortunately forced into retirement due to injury and never once made it on Monday Night television, said that the pinnacle of the art is to suspend disbelief. Bret “The Hitman” Hart, a childhood idol of mine, said that the very best pro wrestlers land blows that look real without leaving the scars to prove it. It’s walking a fine line, where your forearm hits a man in the chest so hard that he flips backwards and lands face-first, yet never harms him. It’s a rugged man’s form of magic, and the trick is to never let them see you fake it.

I was brought up with the stuff, like a lot of wrestling fans. My grandmother regaled me with stories of lining up to see the legendary Lou Thesz take on all comers, including Everett Marshall. I started with Andre the Giant tossing Big John Studd around in the ring. It was more entertaining than it ought to have been, as the two hated one another behind the scenes and it showed in the ring. Unaware of the man behind the curtain, I cheered the good guys against the bad guys. It differed little from my comic books; for a true good guy to exist, an equally impressive villain loomed in the distance.

Like any awkward teenager in the age we live in, I pecked away at a keyboard trying to impress a pretty girl from a state I’d never visited. Little did I know that it actually worked. I’m funny, admittedly so, and I’d make wrestling jokes to make the pretty blonde giggle.

She got my wrestling jokes, which was a miracle in itself, but the fact that she appreciated them and found them amusing was like catching lightning in a bottle.

Fourteen easy years from those conversations, the ring was purchased. Locked away amidst my sports cards collection (baseball cards and wrestling—ladies, try not to be seduced, I’m officially off the market), I conjured up numerous plans that fell through or just didn’t seem right. At the ballpark? It wouldn’t work out. At the sea lion show? Nah, overdone these days. I needed something unique, something personal.

It hit me at 4:42AM on a Friday night when I should have been sleeping, but anxiety got the best of me. I was going to recruit the talents of the one, the only… Mr. Socko.

Mick Foley is “the Hardcore Legend.” He depicted deranged characters such as Cactus Jack and Mankind. He dove off of cages, took steel chairs to the back of the skull, fought in barbed wire death matches, and even lost an ear in a contest. Wrestling never looked faked when Foley was in the ring, because it never was. “Fake matches” became coordinated destruction. The man billed from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico could have suffered far dire consequences over the years with the risks he took. I was never into the blood lust, which became popular in my teenage years within the world of wrestling. I empathized with the talents and knew they had families waiting for them outside of the ring; I did not want to see them so broken down that they could not hold their kids, let alone play with them. Unfortunately, not many others saw my way of thinking.

Thankfully, Foley is a smart man—a New York Times best seller, no less—and saw that he could not keep up with nearly dying on a nightly basis. He was fortunate enough to be born as arguably the most charismatic presence in the history of wrestling. While his “hardcore” personas cut deep in their interview segments, getting the attention of his audience with a proverbial grip to the throat, he was equally entertaining—and more likeable—as a good guy. And by good guy, I mean just that: He played himself, a good man who you wanted to see succeed and wanted to walk out of the ring unharmed.

He used his uncanny sense of humor to create Mr. Socko, a deranged puppet made out of a dingy old sock and a marker. Socko took off, and wound up being a fine piece of merchandise for the then-WWF machine to produce. It successfully helped Mick get over the hump of being the heap of man disfigured on the mat.

He was presented as he should have been all along. Unlike the situations of past, Mick didn’t require a dastardly villain stalking in the background to make people like him, nor did he require sensationalist team mentality that made luminaries such as Bruno Sammartino and Hulk Hogan icons in the past. Mick was a good person. That is why you liked him. He was also a great wrestler. “You always want to give him a big hug,” Val thought aloud about the man whose wrestling catch phrase is “Have a nice day.”

My plan was made: Create an alternate Twitter account from my own so that Val could not witness these interactions; follow Mick Foley; wait until I saw he was tweeting and thus looking at Twitter; try to persuade him into helping me out by offering a $250 donation to RAINN, the charity closest to his heart. I was at the grocery store when it happened. My tweets were sent out as I checked out. My phone vibrated as I walked home. I fumbled for it to find a Twitter alert telling me, “tell me more … sounds like fun.”

That is when I fell down with all of the groceries in my hand. “Splat,” went the frozen yogurt on the sidewalk. Dammit.

Over the course of the night, I spoke with Mick. He said a donation was not required, though I plan to make it with my income tax refund once I receive it. He agreed to make Val a personalized Mr. Socko with a note enclosed asking her to try it on. I would get to the package first, as I usually get the mail, and slip the engagement ring inside of Mr. Socko. I would take her to our romantic spot in St. Louis, the Grand Basin in Forest Park. Upon Socko’s arrival, I sprinted blocks and blocks to find suitable gift wrap. I ran home and threw everything in the basement, wrapping it and storing it in the trunk as she showered.

I presented the idea to her. “We should go for a walk at the Grand Basin after dinner.” “Okay,” she replied, “I’ll put my purse in the trunk.”


It all went according to plan, however. I placed her purse in the trunk, “like a gentleman,” and presented her with the gift at the waterfront on a bench. She was taken aback. “You got me a present!?” She feverishly tore into it, revealing the signed 8x10 from Foley.

“Go ahead, try on Mr. Socko,” it read. “You got me a Mr. Socko!? Oh my God!” She slung the Socko—ring enclosed—around as I panicked at the thought of it being flung into the murky water of the Basin and advised her to take his advice in trying it on. She motioned at me with Socko for a moment like a child with a new toy before thinking aloud, “Wait, there’s a ring in here…”

I took a knee—the same injured knee from the fall, mind you—for twenty seconds as she marveled at everything that just happened. She seemingly ignored my purposely-mispronounced question of “Will you be my husband?” She looked back at Socko, and back to the ring.

“You got me the prettiest ring on the planet! And a Mr. Socko! A real Socko!”
“Will you please answer? My knee hurts!”

She said “Yes.” Passersby offered congratulations. The cloudy skies literally went away for a while between an impending storm to give us some sunlight. Happenstance is fun like that.


We are dorks, which is why we work together. We like the same music, the same movies, the same television shows. We've become adults together. And yeah, we are wrestling fans. If I've learned one thing in life, you shouldn't be ashamed of what you enjoy and you shouldn't surround yourself with people who make you feel ashamed of what you enjoy. We didn't. We're happy.

I think I still impress her occasionally today with my dorky incantations, reciting a match with my own play-by-play and successfully naming most wrestling maneuvers off the top of my head. I suppose it’s a lot like language, in that it’s ingrained seamlessly into your vocabulary at an early age. It’s harder to learn if you weren’t a toddler growing up with it, but that’s okay: We’ve got plenty of years to learn everything from arm bars to Emerald Fusions together.

P.S. Mick, if you’re reading this, you’re sort of extended family now. Sorry buddy.