Ellen Freeman Roth                      

May 26, 2007

Water-gun game: harmless fun or in bad taste?

At 6:45 a.m. they planned their ambush and hid with weapons drawn, Jared Schy with his compact purple 3-for-99-cents water gun, Jeremy Glissen-Brown with a bulkier blue and orange Buzz Bee Toys special. When the target walked out her front door carrying her school bag, the young men jumped out and squirted, knocking her out of the game.

The game is Assassin. Akin to an elimination game of tag, it combines the element of surprise, sleuth-like scheming, water guns, and menacing lingo. Each of the 105 seniors at Newton South High School who paid $5 to participate in the six-week game was assigned a player as a secret target. When a player is squirted by his assassin, the eliminated student reveals the name of his would-be target, who becomes the assassin's next mark. The two players who knock out the most targets without being eliminated themselves win the pool.

The game has few boundaries, so these mischievous "assassins" bearing squirt guns take their chase into the community, and that's where the concerns begin. One student walked into the Fenway movie theater before a film, strode down the aisle, and spritzed his target. Such incidents highlight an array of concerns about the game. There's the chilling name and the idea of students shooting one another in the age of Columbine and Virginia Tech. There's the danger that bystanders or police will mistake a toy gun for a real one, a problem underscored by a call to police during the game several years ago. And there's the cash buy-in and award, which give the game undertones of gambling.

Assassin, which is not affiliated with or endorsed by the high school, has been played by Newton South students for at least five years, and variations of the game have been played by students across the country for years. Students try to minimize the risk of danger with a set of rules. Shooting is prohibited on school property, during any event involving school sports, at a job, inside a house, at four specified restaurants in town, or from or at anyone in a car.

"We created the car rule this year because there were accidents in past years," says Dan Hatten, the senior who stepped up to run this year's game after school administrators asked class officers not to participate. One-fourth of the senior class opted in.

While Newton South High School principal Brian Salzer says that the game sounds like an innocent diversion for teenagers, he does not allow it on school grounds.

"I wish they'd call it Squirty Squirt or something, because the name carries a very negative connotation and the kids obviously think that's funny," Salzer says. "And talking about the game sends up red flags with parents, who don't want to hear it associated with school. If I could change the name and take the money piece out of it, it would be a relatively harmless avenue for teenage energy." Salzer adds that carrying any weapon or lookalike weapon on school grounds is cause for suspension or expulsion. The administration confiscates squirt guns but doesn't impose more serious punishment if the squirt guns clearly look like toys.

John Panica, the Newton Police Department's youth officer, says the game may sound like fun but it can raise safety concerns. Many raids occur early in the morning, when students leave home for school, and some water guns look like real weapons. One year a resident called police and reported a man in the neighbor's bushes with a gun.

"I tell parents and kids that when a call comes in at 6:30 a.m., our officers' response would be to draw a weapon as well," Panica says. "We're concerned that kids are putting themselves in threatening situations." (Schy and Glissen-Brown happened upon a way to avert mistaken identity. They informed the next-door neighbor of their planned sting when they were in the neighborhood the prior afternoon.)

While Newton South students run their own game, the contest has become so popular around the country that there's a website, campusassassins.com , to help administer games. David Grayson, who co founded the site, says he currently hosts 44 college and high school Assassin games. One group -- on the campus of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia -- recently terminated its game after the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech.

Given the obvious parallels between recent acts of gun-related violence and this game of hunter-versus-hunted, the idea of Assassin as entertainment is startling to many local residents.

"In light of recent events and the general violence pervading our lives, I'm appalled that anybody would allow this to go on," says Judi Hindman of Weston, mother of a high school and college student.

Newton resident Jeanette Kruger, whose son is participating in Assassin, says she's conflicted about the game.

"On one hand I'm horrified that kids are playing with guns in a neighborhood that's safe whereas in communities not far from here it's not a game at all," Kruger says. "I wish there were some other form of tag that could have the same bang for the buck. On the other hand, this is a risk-taking experience for the kids, and it's safer than other ways they could be taking risks. "

David Cunningham, professor of sociology at Brandeis University, agrees that the violent imagery is troubling but points out that the central component of the game relates more to tag than to deadly violence. The game also provides communal benefits, says Cunningham, who studies youth culture. "Games that have broad participation tend to build solidarity within groups," he says. "These ritualized fun practices bring people together around shared competition and a common goal."

Colin Chauche, who leaves his Newton home in the mornings via the back door with a squirt gun ready after his mother checks the bushes for him, agrees with that observation. "Is it a good way to spend your time?" he says. "Probably not, but it's fun and a lot of people are playing, so it's a senior bonding experience."

"It's fun double-crossing and messing around with people," adds Schy. "My first kill suspected me, but I wove a web of deception. I got to lifting weights with him after school, and since he didn't have a car to get to work, I offered him a ride and as we walked outside -- squirt." Schy was later ousted from the game by his good friend Glissen-Brown, who had wiped out Schy's original assassin.

Asked to consider the game in the context of society's gun-related violence, Schy and Glissen-Brown conceded they did find the similarities disturbing.

"The fact that we're using guns, maybe we should change," says Glissen-Brown.

"If there were some other way of throwing water," says Schy.

"Yeah, it's fun to soak people," adds Glissen-Brown. "It's almost summer. It's hot."

"In eighth grade we played a game in which you grab someone's ear from behind," Schy recalls.

"But that would get so violent," says Glissen-Brown.