Sunday, September 15, 2013

Death, you old toad, where is thy sting?

I hope that my two or three loyal readers will not mind another article about Photon. Beyond  repeating the same press-release bullet points, this one gives brief accounts of some municipalities' reluctance to accept laser tag as a business acceptable to the morals of their communities.

It's fair to say the inhabitants of Houston and surrounding communities (both then and today) would generally be comfortable with guns, and that there was scarcely a moment of fear that the game would transform the visiting child into a killing machine. Finding a jackrabbit in the city limits might have been tough, though, even back then. The fathers of some of those inhabitants picked most of them off a generation before.

For those not aware, the Houston City Council will issue a proclamation for the asking. It is of no particular significance and just shows that Sheil was doing her due diligence.

Spokane Chronicle - Mar 27, 1986
For Photon's warriors, death's just an inconvenience
By Fred Grimm

HOUSTON — A sudden buzz, like a burst of radio static, and a phaser-wielding assassin leaps, giggling, from ambush and disappears down a darkened maze. The victim (me) was zapped, fatally.

But death is only a minor inconvenience there amid the rising fog of Photon.

Just four seconds. Just a four-second sojourn into that darkest void. Sort of lacks finality, doesn't it? Death, you old toad, where is thy sting?

But to experience numerous deaths (one reporter succumbed 30 times in 13 minutes) can induce a feeling of savage vulnerability — the same crisis of confidence endured by a slow, fat, ugly armadillo plodding across 10 lanes of Houston freeway at 5:15pm.

"You don't think of this as killing, you think of this as scoring points," insisted Astrid (yes, her real name) Sheil.

As director of marketing for Photon, Sheil is anxious to de-emphasize violent aspects of this bizarre, run-around-and-shoot-em-up, laser-phaser space game.

Not for the benefit of the local market. In Texas, people tend to worry more if their son turns 12 without asking for an Uzi to keep the local jackrabbits in their place.

The $3-a-skirmish, computerized, ray-gun game that opened Dec. 6 in South Houston never set off a single ripple among local politicians. Rather, the Houston City Council waited just one day to declare Dec. 7 "Photon Day."

So the sanitized, non-violent public relations aren't for Texans but for places such as Chicago and Miami, where pointy-headed intellectuals theorize of a relationship between bullet wounds and guns.

Suburban city councils outside both cities have recently been engrossed in vigorous debates about the wisdom of allowing Photon franchises to arm their citizens with ray guns.

In January, the Palatine (Ill.) Village Council held up zoning approval for Photon until council member James V. Wilson could fly to Houston, don a space helmet, chest pod, energy pack and phaser gun and wage a little space war. After Wilson came home with no noticeable homicidal tendencies, Palatine said OK.

North Miami Beach voted 5-2 in favor of Photon Feb. 4, but only after some heavy lobbying, testimony from a psychologist and a promise from the host shopping center that it will never rent to dirty bookstores.

Photon was developed three years ago by Dallas entrepreneur George A. Carter III, described by Shell as "the last great American tinkerer. He has been compared to Thomas Edison."

Of course, history must yet decide whether to equate the phonograph, light bulb and movie projector with Carter's motorized surf board and his "off-road vehicle manufactured under the trade name of Snoopy."

Legend has it that Carter, 39, who went to the same Arizona high school as Steven Spielberg, drew his inspiration from the movie "Star Wars." Two years ago, he opened the first Photon in a Dallas office park. Since, Carter has sold rights to some 70 franchises. Others have opened in Kennilworth, N.J., Toronto, Denver and the big double-battlefield Photon in Houston.

The Houston City Council just bubbled over.

The city proclamation said: "Photon's combination of NASA-caliber technology and Walt Disney fantasy not only provides entertainment for the entire family, but also teaches strategy, hand-eye coordination and physical dexterity and features Houston's only continuous laser show on a daily basis."

Photon's doors open to a long black tunnel, dimly marked by strips of illuminated red plastic hose. Then into the lobby, where annual memberships go for $6 and Photon jackets are on sale this month only for $37.50, and into the "transporter room," where the rules are laid out. No alcohol. No smoking. No beeper pagers. Warriors must be at least 4-foot-6.

A change machine converts dollar bills to "clinkers," metal tokens. Three clinkers and you're ready to go to war.

Players are outfitted in visored helmets, computerized chest pods, battery packs and laser phasers, shaped like guns. "They look like guns, but they're phasers," Sheil said.

The helmets are either red or green and are aflash with tiny red or green lights. Red or green signifies the particular team a space warrior has joined, up to 10 on each little army. Then the respective teams are led into the battle field.

Fog rises in the dimly lit, 8.000- square-foot complex of tunnels, ramps, and mazes. A laser flashes overhead. Weird music, Japanese synthesizer stuff, fills the room. A referee points out what looks like an illuminated mixing bowl nailed to one wall — the goal.

Protect that from the enemy. Shoot the other team's and pick up a quick 200 points. Shoot an enemy person with a ray gun and get 10 points. Get killed and suddenly your helmet lights turn orange and, for those four eternal seconds, your ray gun goes impotent, and you lose 10 points. Accidently shoot a teammate and the master computer subtracts 30 points from the team score.

The battle lasts 6-1/2 minutes, but stumbling about in the dark with 13 pounds of equipment, dodging death, makes those few minutes intense. The average age of these suburban space warriors is 22, and most of them seem to scurry about like palmetto bugs and claim to be having fun.

A more seasoned sort — say, about 38 — may find the equipment heavy, the dark confusing, the music disorienting and the enemy elusive. Lurch around too quickly, and the head turns faster than the helmet, leaving the nose approximately where an ear once resided.

This sort of paranoid spectacle by an older space warrior apparently makes a tempting target. (One reporter's computerized chest pod registered scores of minus 130 and minus 140 in two games.)

Monday and Tuesday nights are league nights. "It's like high-tech bowling," said referee Miles Cook, who began working for Photon after he was laid off at an oil refinery.

"League nights are a little more bloodthirsty," said manager Frederick Riley, who lacks the same sense of public relations as Sheil, who shot him a panicked look.

Blue-collar teams seem to include guys who take on names like Mopar, Zig, Hemi-cuda and Mechanic. And the Trekkies, the computerized kids of the '80s, demonstrate sci-fi leanings: Solarflame, Zaphod BO, Hal 9000.

"The guys who call themselves 'Terminator' or 'Rambo,' they always get the lowest scores," said Dan "Tagir" Friedman. Except for the guys who call themselves "Fred." Dead meat. Thirty times over.

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