Gabrielle is gorgeous: tall, sleek and powerful. Too much woman for me, though. A little on the heavy side. Bridget is more my speed. Short, compact, lightweight — she lasts a whole lot longer. In addition to these beautiful guns, the girls working at Hard Knocks Orlando aren't bad-looking either.

The arsenal of weapons that lines the walls of the armory at the new Hard Knocks mega-gaming center is full of lovely "ladies." The M-4s, M-16s and Pulse assault rifles all have female nicknames and are replicas of their real-world counterparts in weight, size and construction. The staff also is predominantly female, serving as gamers or "regulators" who are incredibly knowledgeable and dressed in matching short-shorts uniforms. No wonder the advertising features plenty of sexy girls with guns. While gaming has been the dominion of testosterone types, times are changing. Alert to women: Hard Knocks is coming after you, the untapped key to global gaming domination.

"Females represent a large segment of the video gaming market, and we think that will translate proportionately to the combat sports market," says Joe Wheeler, the mastermind behind the operation. "Having gender balance is critical to the `gaming` community."

Hidden off Econ River Place, off Alafaya Trail, near UCF at 5707 Dot Com Court, the enormous 30,000-square-foot warehouse awaits both ultimate and occasional gamers after a soft late-June opening. Inside are arenas equipped for acting out first-person shooter games that follow a backstory involving a dubious evil company, Disavow Corp., against which combatants fight. "Combat sport" (a term coined by Hard Knocks) missions include Protect the VIP, Bomb Defuse and Melee. The environments developed for each mission rival military training facilities in authenticity.

Upon visiting this Mecca for Orlando gamers, I was struck by its female-friendly qualities. I had expected to find myself surrounded by a thousand comic-book guys like the one from The Simpsons, but was instead greeted by two lady regulators in their 20s. The regulators are very helpful, not only in the armory, but also in the gaming room, aka the LAN center.

Held together by a tight concept, Hard Knocks as a whole is a meticulously planned and carefully constructed empire. Joe and Dena Wheeler, both 38, are the majority owners (they have a board of investors), and they are on-site almost 24 hours a day. The project was the brainchild of Joe Wheeler, who was a Disney entertainment exec for five years, followed by a seven-year stint as a leadership consultant, before quitting a year ago to devote himself to Hard Knocks full time.

Dena is a former schoolteacher turned mother of three who's done her share to develop the couple's million-dollar-plus enterprise. Joe got the idea by analyzing the drawbacks of simulated shooter games like paintball and laser tag. He concluded that they were expensive, painful, hot and unfair, but still brought in huge dollars in revenue from enthusiasts.

"Our plan is to replace paintball and laser tag nationally. Hard Knocks delivers pain-free, more realistic combat experiences indoors with complete control of the environment. Our law enforcement training and corporate team-building sales are far ahead of projections, specifically because of those differentiators," Wheeler says.

Needless to say, franchises are in the future, though no specifics about when and where have been shared. When developing Hard Knocks, Joe decided to take the spirit of competition and move it into an air-conditioned facility, while lowering the possibilities for cheating as well as the high cost and, most importantly, the overall hokiness that kept the fight from feeling real. Dedication to the latter led to the manufacturing of realistic weapons designed to authentic specifications — and I can attest to the heavy results; lugging around my weapon left me worn out. Hard Knocks is geared for ages 14 and up, but their target demo is the college-aged, the same crowd that dominates the console market.

In addition to its combat sports arenas, Hard Knocks also boasts the largest LAN center in Florida. The reasoning was that after everyone gets pooped from popping each other, they can slow it down by playing the latest versions of Halo or Madden. The center serves as a holding area for gamers before and after combat, and is all part of the goal: to get you there and keep you there.

As part of the push to appeal to the female demographic, women can use the LAN center for free Monday through Thursday. The usual fee is $3 an hour, making the prices several dollars cheaper than other area LAN centers, and they feature only 1080p flat-screens, all next-generation consoles (XBox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii), PCs and a full-size Guitar Hero stage with monitors built into the back of fake speakers. You can even bring your own games. Hard Knocks holds tournaments and promotions with new games and will eventually start up combat leagues. They also team up with local businesses, such as A Comic Shop, to hold events like the popular zombie nights, where instead of battling another team, you shoot the walking dead. The intended purpose of these ventures is to make the latest games more accessible and eventually replace the company volleyball team.

"Our style of combat levels the playing field while still delivering a more robust combat experience," explains Joe. "Hard Knocks promotes the social aspect of gaming and combat sports."

With comfy couches, discounted local delivery of fast food (a food station is being considered for the lobby) and a variety of energy drinks for sale, Hard Knocks is literally a gamer's paradise.

In the '70s and '80s, a handful of quarters, a two-liter bottle of RC and a ride to the arcade were all that was needed to satiate a gamer's fix. The advent of the home console evolved skilled gamers from Kings of the Arcade to Kings of the Couch. Hard Knocks brings back the social element of gaming. Sure, you can still play someone from Japan with your worn-out headphone set, but you also can jump into combat and gain fast — and unlikely — friends. After a mission, it's not uncommon to see a sweaty, potbellied 19-year-old high-fiving a 6-foot-tall juggernaut.

At $20 for a half-hour and $35 for a full hour, combat sport is truly a game of strategy here. You can't run around like a maniac shooting at anything, because you only have a certain number of bullets. It's also fair play, so even if you shoot your own teammate accidentally, it counts. Depending on your gun, you can be shot between three and eight times. (Gun stats are available at the website,

The camo vest worn in combat is lightweight and breathes well; it also comes in all sizes, including small — again, the deference to smaller body frames. The regulators are mainly females, but there are guys too, all of them experienced players, some professionally. Guns too come in sizes that take strength or lack thereof into account.

After a bit of bad planning on my part, I arrived at Hard Knocks after work in a skirt and ballet flats. What better way to test their female-forward assertions? After selecting the Pulse Assault Rifle, I donned my vest and entered the warehouse for a pick-up game. A young man named Justin kind of took over as our team leader and assigned each of us to different doorways based on our gun types. (I might have felt manhandled if he hadn't weighed a buck-twenty and really known what he was talking about.) There was a pseudo-office filled with cubicles and bookshelves for hiding behind and peeking around; on the other side, the enormous warehouse had a real forklift and giant wooden boxes that are always being reconfigured. The staggering amount of time and money invested in developing the story lines was obvious. In retrospect, the Pulse was too bulky for me, but I didn't realize how heavy it was until I spent seven minutes squatting and scurrying. Thanks to Justin's stellar leadership we triumphed over the side of good, and I got a better workout than I've had in too long. I was surprised by the instant bond I felt with my mates after the mission was over.

The dreaded Disavow Corp. has its own website and Hard Knock's online chats are incredibly active, with a mystery person known only as "Truth" leaking scandalous information a tidbit at a time. For some perspective on how many people were clamoring for this level of gaming, the cryptic ciphers on the website were cracked before the business even had a chance to officially open. Also consider that without a single advertisement, Hard Knocks had received 786 employment applications at the time of this writing.

While the combat is fun, a little voice in my head kept asking questions like, "Are we training the crazies of tomorrow on how to do crazy better?" Joe has done his research and isn't worried.

"Violence in movies and video games is not going away," he says. "That does not excuse us from our social responsibility. Combat entertainment and training should be executed in an age-appropriate way. We're very proud of our position in the marketplace and our ability to provide training and equipment to law enforcement agencies that would do without otherwise."

When you and your friends are wondering where to have fun, consider Hard Knocks for an adrenaline boost with the benefit of a workout. It'll cost a reasonable $20 for a night, depending on how long you stay and how many times you're in combat. Shoot at your boyfriend/girlfriend and then beat them at Wii bowling — you'll learn a lot about yourself. In my case, my former-Marine boyfriend — who confirmed the authenticity of the guns and battle experience — assured me that even though I had tucked myself behind some boxes for safety, my head would have been blown off had my sensor not been placed down near my collarbone but up higher where it counts. Good to know.

Don't worry, ladies, the regulators in their sporting outfits don't offend independent-woman sensibilities; rather, they're empowering, sort of like tough cheerleaders who know how to handle their guns and can kick almost anybody's ass when they pick up the controllers. On the other hand, those ladies in the armory — I have the feeling they'll keep me coming back for more.

More by Aya Kawamoto


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