I’ve been to a range of laser tag venues, and they tend to have common features. Arenas are often in spaces that are effectively a secondary enclosure in a larger building (such as a shed or shopping centre). As a result, they are usually completely internal (no external aperatures or light) and can be sunk into semi-darkness at will. In addition to the the hard boundaries that this secondary enclosure represents, there are often a range of smaller insertions. These take a range of forms and include fixed insertions such as columns and walls, (usually slit to provide apertures through which you can shoot and be shot); enclosures (areas bounded by a perimeter hard wall, an insertion wall and usually incorporating overhead horizontal elements); movable cover (such as inflatable opaque balls) and ramps to access elevated areas (anywhere between a full story above or a mere half meter).
Less tangibly, the ambient noise of electronic music and the artificial ‘explosions’ and updates that issue from your equipment distract you from the faint smell of sweat (or if you’re particularly unlucky, Lynx deodorant) of your equipment. Some venues will also pump smoke machines periodically, which allow you to follow the line of your laser rather rely on the small dot it makes on your target [nerd fact: most indoor laser tag games are actually infrared with laser targeting systems]. Due to the health and safety concerns innate in an activity that require you to move around in a gloomy obstacle strewn room, glowing tape and padding are used liberally. This covers the physical elements of the arena.
The second element of laser tag is the strategic element. The characteristics of the laser tag encounter are usually negotiated between participants prior to commencement. Options include dividing into equal two groups (A vs B, a symmetrical warfare scenario in which friendly fire is impossible), dividing into small teams (A v B v C…, multiple opponent mode, usually symmetrical and friendly fire is impossible), or simple ‘every man for themselves’ scenarios (where shifting alliances may emerge, but all fire is hostile). ‘Base protect’ versions of the team games are also popular. Further variations are possible to ensure that players of different skill levels can play together (eg more skilled players may need to shoot a beginner several times to deactivate them), while higher skill level players may have a reduced number of ‘lives’. The type of match selected (as well as personal game play preferences) can have a profound effect on the use of space in the arena.
Eyal Weizman has written extensively on the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) concept on “walking through walls”, the result of the rather unlikely union of architectural theory and modern urban warfare. This approach includes several elements, but in particular relies on drastically reconfiguring the concepts of movement. Soldiers avoid open spaces such as roads and paths instead travelling by erupting into private apartments through walls and roofs and emerging unexpectedly through party walls and floors. For example, it is possible for the IDF to subvert a planned ambush by literally cutting through a building to emerge behind a group located around a corner, rather than following conventional paths.
While the goals of laser tag players are often geared around maximising the number of encounters (and thereby points) rather than systematically and physically advancing through and occupying territory to assert control, the basic premise that abandoning preconceptions about how space can be used or occupied and replacing it with a creative approach holds.
Despite the fact that laser battles take place in small, purpose built arenas where there is either arbitrary or no territory to defend and there are no pre-existing assumptions regarding thoroughfares or public/private spaces to disrupt, a lifetime of expectations and conditioning on how to use space and evade physical projectiles is still evident. You cannot lob a laser ‘over’ or around something and walls can obstruct as much as they protect. Skilled laser tag players quickly learn that proximity can provide safety by making shot angles too tight, while distance offers no protection from a light beam. A deactivated player can be used as a physical shield (thank you Ender Wiggin) or use the temporary increase in stealth and mobility that a darkened vest offers to relocate. Everywhere hides a potential enemy – and every enemy is a potential target. In a multiple opponent game, your side is someone else’s front and you can never be sure whether you’re ‘behind’ a column – or if someone else is behind you.
Since playing laser tag, my understanding of what role simple architectural elements like narrow windows, sill heights, ramps, corridors, balustrade walls, tapered columns and zigzagged corners has rapidly expanded. An enclosure with two exits may be easier to escape – but harder to defend. Ramps and doors are natural constriction points and are thus easier to defend single handedly. A change of direction or a zigzag can offer safe haven and elevation is almost always your friend. And just as important are the abstract lessons. Doing the simple things well can be the difference between triumph and disaster. Switching between two ideas half way through because you got ‘bored’ will only result in chaos. There’s a time to be creative and a time to learn from history. And so on. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to a dark room to point glowing sticks at people. I’ll be the one walking through walls.