‘You can be anyone you want to be’: inside the world of military simulation and airsoft

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Monday through Friday he’s your ordinary 9 to 5 office worker. On the weekend? He could be a number of things. A commando, a mad-max style raider surviving the apocalypse, or a businessman selling soda in a war-torn country. 

Eric Houseknecht, known as E House online, is a YouTuber who creates videos about the game known as “airsoft” — which pits players against each other in a deathmatch that uses replica firearms. The game is a mix of paintball, first person shooter video games and live action role play (LARP.) 

“When I was a kid, and still to this day, I was super into a lot of tactical shooters like Rainbow Six, Call of Duty, all that kind of stuff,” said Houseknecht. “Airsoft is like that in real life.”

Houseknecht’s love of airsoft led to him creating the Gun Gamers YouTube Channel in 2015. Alongside his friends, Houseknecht makes educational videos that get thousands of views from other airsoft players. The channel currently has over 27,000 subscribers and organized a podcast to accompany their videos in 2018. To Houseknecht, starting his YouTube channel was a way to get involved deeper into airsoft.  

“Being within the hobby I felt like that this was another level I could involve and immerse and ingratiate myself and ultimately become a bigger and bigger part of the experience that I hoped I could draw other people into having,” said Houseknecht. 

One of the popular aspects of airsoft for players is the equipment they use, or “load outs” as the community calls it. Depending on the theme and event promoter, this can vary widely. Some weekends E House uses military style gear commonly found in army surplus stores, other weeks he’ll be wearing slacks, a nicely pressed dress shirt, and a gold watch to the airsoft field.

The loadouts used by players can vary widely depending on the theme of the event. For Houseknecht, they add to the experience of the game. Photos courtesy: Eric Houseknecht/@gg_ehouse on Instagram.

“Part of building a character is having a certain look or wearing a certain thing, and that’s really what it comes down to. It’s that extra level of immersion in the experience and that extra level of creative expression to be able to accomplish a certain look and a certain level of presentation,” said Houseknecht. 

The theme of the airsoft events can vary widely. While some events focus on near future peer conflicts, other common tropes in movies or video games are heavily used, such as post-apocalyptic scenarios. Houseknecht says that airsoft games are played in outdoor arenas or military training centers away from the public for safety reasons. 

“Every event has their own rules based on their insurance and the experience they’re trying to create,” said Houseknecht. “Safety is always the number one priority.”         

These games draw participants from all over the county to spend the weekend role playing. Despite firearms typically being associated with straight white men, airsoft draws in a very diverse crowd. Houseknecht recalled at the last event he attended, members of the LGBT community, women, and people who identified with both sides of the political spectrum shared in the experience. The events let you be whoever you want to be, which Houseknecht believes is a large draw for many people. 

“It’s the experience to go outside and role play it yourself and get off the couch and do it. I think that extra level of immersive involvement makes it a really big draw,” said Houseknecht.

Garrett Schneider met Houseknecht through airsoft in 2013, and their friendship blossomed as they continued to play with each other at airsoft events around the country. Today, they work together as staff for airsoft games, and help to create a better experience for the attendants. 

“It’s about having an interesting dynamic with other players, not necessarily about having a gun fight or winning a gun fight or anything of that nature,” said Schneider. “It’s more communicating with players and building that story along with it.”

Houseknecht has been playing airsoft for 16 years, and he says the friendships he has made with people like Schneider is what has kept him in the hobby for so long.  

“There’s so many great people that I’ve met and a lot of these people in and out of airsoft are my best friends,” said Houseknecht. “The memories we get to create and the experiences we have together are absolutely irreplaceable.”