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Search and destroy

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The "Air Force Experience" touched down at several Triangle locations this month. The Air Force's latest recruiting show, which features an F-16 fighter plane parked next to a tractor-trailer full of combat simulators, mostly hit high schools, where the top gunners hope to replenish their post-Cold War ranks with students seeking high-tech adventure.

But when the exhibition made its way to the parking lot of the Durham Festival Shopping Center on Hillsborough Road, an older set reported for duty. About two-thirds of those who waited in line to sit in the virtual cockpits were men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The Air Force isn't targeting this particular demographic, but perhaps it should. Many of these men are seasoned combat veterans: They've logged thousands of hours, hunkered down on the home computer with a finger on the trigger.

Which came first, the war games or the game wars? Ten years ago, the Air Force unleashed its fury on Iraq, blowing the country's infrastructure to bits. The images that made it home to American TV screens, the Pentagon's showcase of "precision-guided" hits against buildings and bridges, drew many a comparison to the antiseptic portrayal of war found in video games.

That version permeates the inside of the exhibit. "We used to have just a van with a slide show," explains one of the Air Force recruiters. "This is much more advanced." After gaining their "security clearance" by punching personal data into touch-screen monitors and posing for an ID-card photo, visitors are ushered into a pre-mission video briefing.

"You will be assigned a classified sortie of utmost national importance," the briefer explains. "The objective: annihilate two hostile targets." First, "blast that bridge to smithereens"; then, "engage and eliminate these off-shore oil derricks--in other words, I want you to get rude with the crude." He doesn't say what country the targets are in, but that doesn't seem to matter--he spends most of the briefing describing the simulator controls.

Bret Young, 35, an experienced computer war gamer who works at a Domino's Pizza in Durham, came by to see if the Air Force's simulator was up to snuff. "I'm not a real pilot," he acknowledges, but he's spent so much time playing air war on the Internet that at times he must feel like it. By his reckoning, he's one of the top 20 online dogfighters in the world. "I'm awesome, man," Young says, quite convincingly.

He can't say the same for the Air Force Experience, however, likening the simulator to an out-dated arcade game. "The PC games have gone beyond that now," Young says. "Now they get into more realism." Still, he says, the Air Force's new road show makes a good effort: "They're just trying to give you a taste of search and destroy."

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