The men, wearing green camouflage fatigues, some with ammunition canisters strapped across their chests, crouched unmoving in the tall grass and listened for the crackle of parched leaves and twigs underfoot.

Suddenly, a rapid burst of small missiles came toward them and they returned fire, darting behind trees and lurching ever closer to the enemy. "You guys need more help?" someone yelled. "Two down to the right," his comrade answered.

As the men bolted through the tree-choked wood, a projectile hit one of them and a thick red fluid oozed onto his camouflage green. He was shot. Dead. Sort of.

The men were only playing a game, a popular one called paintball in which dozens of men and women, for a price, simulate war on acres of meadows and woods using sophisticated weapons that shoot pellets of paint.

Paintball games have been unaffected by events in the Persian Gulf, those who operate them say. Attendance at the war parks has not increased recently, and game participants interviewed on a recent day said the running and shooting they do is an attempt to escape reality, not capture it.

"It's not a warmonger game like some people think," said Houston Alvis, a D.C. police officer who is a member of a paintball team called the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol. "It's not a neo-Nazi fascist game. It's competitive; that's what I like about it.

"Soldiers" wear camouflage fatigues with matching ammunition belts and carry pistols, grenades, mines or semiautomatic weapons that shoot the enemy with paint. Maryland and Virginia fields, once used for farmland, are now weekend battlegrounds in which adults and sometimes children race around shooting each other in an elaborate variation of capture the flag.

"It's not really like a war," said Chris Pittman, 18, of Manassas, who played last Saturday on the Virginia Adventure Games field outside Leesburg. "It's basically a big game." But, he added, "It kind of scares you when you know other people are out trying to hunt you down."

Paintball aficionados can play at sites in Leesburg and Bowie. A day of war costs about $35, which covers gun rental, goggles and 40 paintball pellets. Players locally are required to wear devices that look like gas masks to protect their faces from errant shots.

The games sometimes attract as many as 100 weekend warriors, most of them ordinary doctors, lawyers, restaurateurs, computer specialists, police officers and firefighters. Together they weave through woods, slosh across streams, dive through dirt and hike up and down hills trying to capture the other team's flag without getting shot.

"Some of the guys have had previous military experience," said Todd Marshall, 24, a Fairfax County firefighter. "Generally, they lead the teams" and plan strategy, he said.

At the concession stand at the Leesburg site, participants can buy camouflage bandannas, hats, patches, belts, ammunition holders and loader tubes, which fit around the waist and make loading the guns easier. Guns have such names as Bushmaster, which shoots .68-caliber paintballs, and Phantom. There are at least 60 or 70 kinds of paintball guns, said Chris Abrahams, an owner of Adventure Games.

Some fields are equipped with forts and bunkers, and the conversation among participants often revolves around war game stories.

"One time I was in a {paintball} tournament in Chicago," Alvis said. "I went up against a female I'd rather not ever go up against."

He said she had him pinned behind a tree. He could barely peek forward or move backward. She was steadily firing at him. "She knew she had me," Alvis said.

"Then, she had something you never want to get out here -- tunnel vision," Alvis said, smiling. As she was focused on him, one of Alvis's teammates sneaked around behind her and shot her, he said.

As a recent afternoon wore on in Leesburg, a furious battle raged.

Make-believe soldiers zigzagged through the forest. Paint was everywhere. Finally, one of the teams won and a survivor tended to the only real wound of the day. His left ear was full of yellow paint.