Shooting simulator offers range of fictional scenarios


MELLETTE (AP) – Willie Dvorak was looking around for something to entertain his hunters once their time in the field finished for the day.

He guides hunts in Alaska for brown bear and elk and, back home in South Dakota, for trophy whitetail or coveys of ringnecks.

"Evening rolls around a little earlier in the winter," he said.

Dvorak's interest was piqued by a shooting simulator. He said he got to try one while visiting a client who works for the New York Police Department. The department uses the simulator as one facet in its training cadre.

Dvorak started looking into the units, which can run up to $75,000 or so. He was going to purchase straight from a company, then caught wind of a fairly new one a man in Sturgis, Michigan, was looking to sell. He hauled the unit home just a few weeks ago.

The man who previously had it used to for concealed-carry, law enforcement and self-defense training.

"He didn't have the time to use it as much as he'd like because of his job in law enforcement," Dvorak said. "That was a lot of money to have tied up for him, so he decided to sell it to me. I think he had about $50,000 into it."

The previous owner helped walk Dvorak through the system so he hit the ground running. The manufacturer was also willing to give assistance as needed.

The simulator's scenarios range from target shooting at plates to zombie fiction to terrorist and other life-or-death situations. As people started using Dvorak's entertainment investment, he came to a realization.

The device gives insight into high-stress situations only small factions of people deal with regularly – those in law enforcement, the military and first response teams.

Dvorak's Mellette home is unassuming save for a trophy room of animals from across the world. A spare room on his second floor is outfitted with the Tactical Arms Simulator, or TASimulator by Ti Training.

A white wall works as a drop screen for the images projected from the shelf of an entertainment-like system set in the middle of the room. The top, covered in black cloth, holds a handful of guns and cartridges. Laser sensors wrapped along crown-level frames detect the player's weapon – a Glock 17 with a Dvorak-system.

"Like my name," he said, explaining the chamber-bullet system that's been replaced with a carbon dioxide cartridge and laser.

Ultimately, it's danger-proof but the recoil feels like that of a bullet-firing Glock. A plastic option is also available with negligible recoil. It's good for first-time shooters.

The simulator is labeled for "use in force" training. That's the only option – deadly force. The player, or "good guy," ventures into one of roughly 650 scenarios, and his or her only option is shooting or not.

"The name of the game is to not get killed, to not kill the wrong person and to make it home safe," he said.

Dvorak briefly announced scenarios and what good-guy persona the player should adopt. The player could be a citizen with conceal-carry permit at a rowdy bar, a campus security officer at a high school or a soldier at a border crossing. All are very in-the-moment scenarios that grip headlines with sobering adjectives and body counts.

The entertainment aspect is felt in the adrenaline and wary excitement as a player approaches the life-sized scenarios in full live action.

"Just like if the cops hear on the radio, 'Domestic dispute at the Dvorak's place,' then all they really know is there is a bunch of screaming and hollering and someone called to tell you," he said, his mouse clicking to set up another scenario.

The operator of the simulator can ramp up the stress level by adding more distractions. Moving backgrounds, vocal tracks and traffic noises amplify the stress and fuzzy the player's focus. The scenarios can even be directed to some extent. In one scene, a player's eyes focus on a fellow campus officer subduing a volatile student. Dvorak causes another teen to pull a firearm from the other end of the screen. It's too late and thankfully not real, Aberdeen American News reported.

Despite it being a wall projection, using only deadly force can be difficult to commit to, especially in a bar fight scenario when the "bad guy" has no apparent weapon. In real life, physical restraint seems the likeliest go to, but that doesn't work in a simulation.

Then Dvorak makes a point. When the character breaks a beer bottle, it becomes a potentially deadly weapon. And, in the subsequent scene, sure enough, a deadly attack ensues unhampered by the player's bullets.

In most scenarios there is a clear weapon or firearm, but Dvorak's message of "action is always faster than reaction" plays out over and over:

— A school shooting scenario with multiple distractions and a sniper-range shooter.

— A border stop gone awry with a suicide bomber.

— An active shooter in a business who knows the layout and the targeted scenario.

Each scene eases in, then comes on fast, like a nervous sweat, and by the time the player has deduced how the scenario might play out, the "bad guy" has already taken aim.

A player's shot accuracy has a margin of about an inch, Dvorak said. There're about 15 feet between player and wall with graduated depth of field, meant to look as real as possible. Some targets have bullet-proof vests, others hide behind vehicles or hostages or other officers. It's hard to know the right call. Dvorak simply asks players to put themselves in their character's shoes — an all but impossible task, especially with no prior training or experience.

The simulator offers a glimpse into the lives of those on the frontlines.

"A lot of people don't realize that if the cop fails to shoot, then he goes home in a body bag. If the cop gets too antsy, he kills somebody that shouldn't be killed. If he kills somebody that shouldn't be killed, he's going to jail for murder," Dvorak said. "The cop is being asked to make some really, really tough decisions in split-second timing."

So far, Dvorak's new entertainment trap has gotten a boon of attention from just word of mouth. He charges $30 per person per hour-long session. The device, which includes a computer system, sensors, a projector, a screen and accessories, is easily transported for conventions, business events or other events.