It’s difficult for Levi Conlow to imagine a game he loved so much causing so much hurt in his hometown of Lakeville, where 17-year-old Jake Flynn and 18-year-old Johnny Price died when the pickup truck they were riding in rolled over last week.
Police are investigating whether a popular game called “Nerf wars” was a factor in the accident. Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said there were reports of Nerf guns in the vehicle, but authorities won’t release details of the investigation until Flynn’s funeral takes place Thursday.
The high-stakes competition with cash prizes — sometimes thousands of dollars — requires kids to stalk and “kill” each other with toy guns for the honor of being the last person standing.
“It’s a classic combination of hunting while being hunted,” Conlow said.
The modern-day Capture the Flag-style game, sometimes known as “Assassins,” plays out in communities throughout the Twin Cities and across the state: Bemidji, Duluth, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, St. Paul, Edina, Prior Lake.
Rules enforced by “judges” or “captains” usually prohibit the game being played at schools, churches or restaurants, but signs on social media reveal the popularity and widespread reach of the game. Kills are tracked on Twitter, trash talk is exchanged via Snapchat and a list of who’s dead and alive is stored in online spreadsheets.
“Everyone in school knew the game was happening because it was so popular,” Conlow said. “It was the talk of the school.”
Conlow, a 20-year-old Arizona college student, beat out 229 players in a Nerf war among students at Lakeville South High School in 2013. Conlow said he climbed a roof, paid off a sibling to enter an opponent’s home and had “a battle in a parking lot that involved cars moving at slow speeds and acting as a shield for players.”
The win earned him $1,300 to be split among his teammates and a write-up in the community newspaper for using his winnings to buy 64 Nerf guns to donate to a children’s hospital and Toys for Tots.
“It involves teamwork, strategy, information-gathering, planning and preparation, evaluating risk vs. reward, etc.” he said. “The game provides a major adrenaline rush as you chase someone and try to eliminate them from the game — always mindful that they may be leading you into a trap.”
As in any competition, Conlow admitted, passion and emotion among players sometimes elicited a “strong response,” although he said on the rare occasions that the game got out of hand, “it normally resulted in nothing worse than a bump or bruise.”
Conlow said judges quickly eliminated players who broke the rules and safety was always a priority. Most kids, he said, played for fun, to broaden and deepen their relationships with other students.
“No one ever wanted someone to get hurt or anything bad to happen,” he said.
Game has widespread appeal
School officials, parents, police and others who are concerned about safety have grappled with how best to handle Nerf wars.
In the Duluth area, more than 1,000 high school students participated in the games last May. Ron Tinsley, public information officer for the Duluth Police Department, said the games were the cause of reckless driving.
“Kids are jumping in and out of cars, they’re not wearing seat belts, there’s the distracted driving thing,” he said. “A lot of young adults don’t look at the dangers involved; they’re focused on how fun the game is.”
Tinsley said he searched YouTube to get a sense of how widespread the issue is and found videos from several states. “That tells me this isn’t just a local issue,” he said. “This could possibly be a national trend.”
Edina High School Principal Bruce Locklear communicated the school’s stance on “Nerf assassins” with parents and students last April. Locklear said the long-standing game is not a school-sanctioned event and Nerf guns are not allowed on school property.
“I meet each year with the student organizers to reiterate this fact and to ask them to use good judgment,” he wrote. “Face it, they are in our community carrying Nerf guns. I am sure I don’t need to explain further.”
In other communities, Nerf wars are happening under the radar of law enforcement and school officials.
A girls Nerf war league of 19 teams operated in Prior Lake last spring through the Twitter handle @PLGirlsNerf2015. But Prior Lake Police Lt. Randy Hofsted said, “We haven’t had any calls or issues related to Nerf wars.”
Lakeville Area Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Snyder also said the game “doesn’t happen in our schools.” If students are playing the game, she said, it’s a “community issue.”
Lakeville South Principal John Braun added: “We have not seen any sort of Nerf guns, etc. in our building.”
The Twitter feed @southsidenerf was locked soon after the accident and the handle changed to @lakevillestrong.
At a news conference this week, Lakeville Police Chief Jeff Long urged parents to talk with their kids who are playing the game. “Not only for the safety of driving, but in today’s day and age with the guns and people pointing guns and so forth, it’s just a bad time for people to be carrying this, for lack of a better word, tradition on,” Long said. “Maybe it’s time to put an end to that.”
Quick-draw game has rules
Nerf war tutorials and rules of engagement are widely shared online and through social media channels. Judges set and enforce rules, settle disputes and handle money.
Conlow said that shooting an opponent with Nerf guns isn’t allowed on school property, but “kidnapping” is.
“My team employed this specific tactic many times which resulted in us capturing the person typically from the school parking lot, placing them in our vehicle, driving off school property to eliminate them, and immediately driving back onto the school parking lot,” he said.
Austin Beaton, a freshman at Iowa State University, was the captain of a 613-person Nerf war league at Eden Prairie High School last school year. He said that as the league captain, he took the rules and safety of the game seriously, which is why he decided to keep money out of it.
“That way, people wouldn’t go as hard,” he said. “Instead, it was just the self-glory of winning.”