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David Mayancela aimed his gun at a man holding a woman hostage. The woman, dressed for work in slacks and a white blouse, was clearly terrified as she cowered near an elevator in the lobby of an office building. The assailant had grabbed her from behind, and was holding a gun to her head.
Mayancela fired, and the gunman’s head exploded in a haze of blood. Mayancela laughed and put down his glass of cranberry juice and seltzer.
This episode took place on a recent Friday night at a bar near Manhattan’s West Side Highway. Inside, a gun simulator called Modern Round uses filmed live actors and technology once reserved for the military and police for one of a growing number of simulators being marketed to civilians. For anywhere between $20 and $55 an hour, people can try their hand at scenarios ranging from hostage crises to zombie takeovers. But despite their growing popularity, the simulators are also garnering criticism from gun control advocates, who say their realism promotes violence.
“The weight, the trigger pull, the graphics — everything is like real life.”
For Mayancela, a 22-year-old college student studying criminal justice, the realism is the draw. “This feels like the real thing,” he said, cradling a controller that looked like a submachine gun. “The weight, the trigger pull, the graphics—everything is like real life.”
Mayancela and his friend Alyssa Ali, 27, an office manager, had come to Modern Round looking for something different to do on a Friday night. The simulator is centered around lounge-like seating with booths that seat six people in front of screens. Music was playing as I chatted with Mayancela and Ali, and a DJ was setting up. “I love shooting games,” Mayancela said, “and I heard these are the best.”
Shooting simulators like Modern Round are often described as “virtual reality” by manufacturers, but they’re more like traditional video games. Users wield realistic-looking fake weapons that fire laser beams to register hits on targets displayed on a projection screen. Customers can choose a plastic pistol or a submachine gun controller; both feel heavy, like real guns. Once a user picks up a gun, a safety video starts up, warning them to “never point the muzzle” at anyone, and to “know your target.” Participants can choose from a variety of shooting simulations ranging from simple paper-like targets to realistic filmed sequences.
There are no hard statistics on how many gun simulators are sold for consumer use, but manufacturers of the simulators say they’re seeing increased demand. Smart, a gun simulator company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., last year sold 105 of the units for entertainment purposes, doubling its sales figures to $1.7 million in 2017, says company director Brian Wardell. “These simulators are the wave of the future,” he says. “These are going to be a place to hang out with friends. It’s only a matter of time before they become commonplace.”
Smart began selling its simulators to the military and law enforcement in 1993, and in 2016 began marketing them to businesses and individuals for recreational use. Smart has also created nearly 900 scenarios, and the company films about 40 new ones a year, which can be remotely installed on existing hardware.
Firearms simulators have been around since the early 1980s, but until recently, high prices limited them to the military and law enforcement. The price of simulators has also plummeted, thanks to cheaper components and competition among manufacturers. A simulator that once sold for $75,000 now sells for $25,000; the simulators sold by Smart range in price from $15,000 to $125,000.
Modern Round, which is one of the best-known companies offering simulators for entertainment, develops its units in partnership with VirTra, Inc., a firm that specializes in military and police firearms simulators. Modern Round markets the simulators to entertainment venues like bars and restaurants: Lucky Strike, a nationwide entertainment chain, has licensed Modern Round simulators at a number of its locations, including the one near Manhattan’s West Side Highway where Mayancela was playing.
“We want people to feel like this is actually happening.”
Bill Scheidhauer, the Chief Operating Officer of Lucky Strike Entertainment, says simulators appeal to customers who are “looking for a unique experience,” adding that “you can only go out to so many restaurants and look across the table from each other.”
Many Lucky Strike customers are intrigued by the idea of shooting but “are not in a position to own a gun,” Scheidhauer says. “It’s like golf. There are people who play a game of golf but they won’t buy a set of clubs.” Scheidhauer says Modern Round is popular with cops and bachelorette parties — “They want to come in and feel like they are tough and have great Instagrammable moments” — as well as gun aficionados who want target practice without the hefty cost of going to a shooting range.
Scheidhauer estimates that the various Modern Round simulators in his venues see about 80 customers per day on the weekend, although Mayancela and his friend were the only two people playing on the Friday night that I checked out the bar.
Other shooting simulators aimed at civilian users include Adirondack Zombie Hunters in Lake George, N.Y., whose website says, “Unlike a typical arcade shooter, kill zones and target areas are not inflated, so success requires true accuracy and form.” Bristlecone, a shooting range in Denver, uses another type of simulator “to bring you an unmatched theater-style interactive experience,” its website states. “From basic entertainment to competition shooting, league play, concealed carry classes, self-defense training, firearms safety, hunter education and hunting experience applications, our Ti Outdoors system features ‘Military Grade’ simulation and training right inside our facility.”
Some gun control advocates warn that the realism offered by simulators could lead to more real-world gun violence. “I think there is the potential for harm with certain individuals,” says Ladd Everitt, the director of One Pulse for America, a gun-violence prevention group. “I’m worried that playing a simulator could fray the line between thinking about a violent act and actually committing it. We are giving everyone in this country access to guns. And now simulators are putting the experience in even more hands.”
Ladd says the simulators could be particularly harmful for children. Modern Round’s website says that “children 17 and younger are permitted in the shooting lounge as long as they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. Due to the realistic nature and language in our Live Police and Military training scenarios (AKA Shoot don’t Shoot), they are not recommended for purchase when children are present.”
“Not everyone wants their 8-year-old shooting people or zombies.”
Simulators also have the potential to lure more people into gun ownership, says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group. The center conducted a 2015 study that found the percentage of gun-owning U.S. households has dropped from about 50 percent in the 1980s to roughly one-third, prompting creative marketing on the part of gun companies. “There is a strong belief in the firearms industry that exposure to video games will engage people and eventually turn them into owners of actual firearms,” he says.
Wardell, of the Smart gun simulator company, rejects the idea that the simulators promote real-world violence and says his gear is marketed for entertainment and includes scenarios that don’t include human targets. “The simulators were designed that way on purpose,” he says, “because not everyone wants their 8-year-old shooting people or zombies.”
Mayancela played through several simulations during his visit to Lucky Strike, including one where he was a soldier in a Middle Eastern country during a hostage rescue. He burst into the room and shot a man wearing an headdress. Then he and Ali switched to a zombie game. Mayancela picked up a controller that looked like a submachine gun and blasted some undead villains.
“Damn,” Ali said. “That guy almost got you.”
As more shooting simulators are sold, manufacturers are competing to make the experience even more realistic. Smart is developing an add-on package that will generate smoke and smells along with video. “The more immersive you can make the training,” Wardell says, “the more effectively you can reach the unconscious mind. We want people to feel like this is actually happening.”
Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Bill Scheidhauer’s role at Lucky Strike. He is the company’s Chief Operating Officer.
Sascha is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
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