Crouched behind a thin eucalyptus tree on a crisp Saturday morning, I peer through my gun sight. I spot someone running through the woods. I aim for his head. And fire. The robotic voice in my gun says "CASUALTY".
My quarry stops and looks around confused, but makes no effort to take cover. So I resume firing until my gun yells "Arrrrrrgh!", signifying a kill shot. The LED lights on my opponent's head flash red and he raises his gun into the air. This little tree is proving to be the perfect spot for ambushing attackers. I maybe kind of like pretending to kill people.
Today is BattleSFO, a day-long laser tag capture-the-flag tournament. The field of conflict is a hilly eucalyptus grove in San Bruno, California, 45 minutes south of San Francisco in Juniperro State Park. There are about 30 people here broken up into platoons of 5-7. Each player is dressed to the nines in varieties of camouflage, some with black war paint under their eyes. They're not quite as geeky as I had expected them to be. Then again, this isn't exactly the kind of laser tag everyone played as kids. The gear is bigger and badder, even if the players are not.
Almost the entire crowd of mostly men has never played laser tag outdoors before. For the most part they're very friendly, though a little shy when I ask them about themselves. One team is made up of four guys who went to college together - an electrical engineer, a carpenter and an options trader. Another team makes up a local rock band (they seem more interested in drinking beer and running around the woods in battle gear then actually playing to win.) Then there's a group of three middle-aged Asian gentlemen and one of their sons who get together regularly and compete. They found the game on Meetup.com. Raymond Wan, who convinced the others to join him in the woods, explains that normally they play paintball. "The weapons and radio communication make a big difference," he says. "I'm a strategy person. This is more fun."
But among the beginners are some veterans of ray gun war.
The general of these mini-guerilla-armies today is Ziggy Tomcich. Earlier in the morning Tomcich performed his duties as the event's organiser, scurrying around the picnic table area, AKA central command. He's sort of a goofy guy, but his excitement was palpable and I couldn't help but giggle a little bit in anticipation of getting my hands on these fake guns and peering down the sight at some unknowing adversary. As I watched Tomcich untangle headsets, distribute colour-coded headbands, and make sure everyone was checking in correctly it was clear that, though his day job is as an audio engineer for the San Francisco Opera, playing laser tag is his true passion in life.
Tomcich has been playing the game since he was a teenager. Running around the Photon indoor arena in Baltimore at 15, Tomcich got hooked. After graduating college he took a job as a designer, marketer and consultant for several arenas around the country. Then, in 2006, Tomcich took laser tag to the next level. Playing in Armageddon games in the UK and Sweden, where players compete in 3-day tournaments, Tomcich played outdoor laser tag for the first time. When he returned to San Francisco, Tomcich realised that the city lacked the kind of gaming he really loved. Being outdoors and playing laser tag was something, he felt, everyone should do.
"To me, laser tag is an extreme sport," he says. For him, part of the fun and the reason why he started his event website SFLastag.org, is the idea that the game is simple to play and creates a highly social environment. "Unlike most other sports, first-time players in outdoor laser tag can do quite well against seasoned players. It's more about strategy and tactics."
Before the first battle "Cypher", aka Todd Robinson, who co-owns SpecOps Live Play, a central California company that provided the artillery, gave everyone a rundown of their equipment. SpecOps imports their guns from an Australian company called Battlefield Sports, essentially an arms dealer that deals in toys. The company custom builds 10 different models of gaming weapons from sniper rifles to sub machine guns – all equipped with real-world laser sights, speakers for feedback, and sensors to keep track of game stats. Guns can emulate any of 69 models down to recoil, and fire and reload rates and muzzle flashes (LEDs, essentially). SpecOps has brought M4 assault rifles, sub machine guns, carbine rifles and sniper rifles.
During Robinson's speech, Tomcich chimed in: "Do not aim your gun at non-laser tag players. These guns don't exactly look like Hasbro." For this game every weapon has 99 clips of 50 rounds. Those with smaller guns reload in about five seconds, the bigger ones about 7-10 seconds, so Robinson recommended taking cover while reloading. "The ‘bullets' will bounce off of pavement," he says. For this game they've disabled friendly fire. But when they hit the laser targets velcro'd to heads that belong to enemies, the guns vocalise the action like weapons with built in sports announcers synthesising current status of prey as "casualty", "killed" or "already dead".
As he went through the briefing, the look on Robinson's face was more serious then anyone in the eucalyptus grove. Listening to him describe each weapon and how they worked made it clear to me that, though some people are here to play a game, for others laser tag is a way of life. In other words, I better take good care of his guns.
Honestly, the weapons are a little intimidating. First off, they're huge and I'm, well, I'm little. The guns are so heavy, in fact, that I opted for the smallest one I could find. I was also one of two girls on the field. Cypher's father, who co-owns SpecOps, told me that women actually tend to fair better at this type of laser tag then men. Women, he said, will hang back and think tactically about the game. Guys sometimes have a tendency to run out out commando-style and shoot at everything they see. My tactics were set: I'd wait for my enemies to come to me.
The game starts and I take up position. When I shoot people that happen upon my trap, they stood still, look around and fired recklessly without making much effort to take cover. Those I shoot over 20 times are killed, sent back to the respawn area (AKA Command Centre, AKA picnic tables) where Robinson will reset them, reactivate their ordinance and send them back into the fray.
The battle heats up. Despite my overall aversion in life to things that require running and exercise, the real-world feel of this whole day is bringing up the competitor in me that normally only emerges when I'm shit-talking people during video games. It is unclear who is winning at the moment; the command centre tracks the flag movement via new GPS-tracking system and the PC that also handles all the on field comms.
But no one is listening back at HQ. The General Tomcich isn't attending to the computer anymore. Instead, Tomcich's standing across from me in the grove defending our Purple flag from capture. "We're encountering heavy resistance," we can hear over the radio. "Wear them down," a player shouts. Minutes later our fellow Purple team members come running through the brush holding a flag. Our opponents are not far behind. But they're too late. This round is ours.