They’d laughed at our red uniform shirts, but we’d still worn them with pride, our code names decaled in black script across our hearts, the team name emblazoned boldly across our backs. We were called Supremacy, and expected nothing less of the Novice Leagues. We were, after all, the only team with fancy red uniforms.
This was Photon, the first and greatest live-action Laser-Tag game. To play, you put on an electronic helmet and chestplate with a gun attached, then went into a big, dark maze to shoot at the other team’s players and Base, scoring points for each hit. A franchise opened in central Jersey in the mid-1980s and suddenly, for the group of teenagers and aimless twenty-somethings who were to become its regulars, life had purpose.
This was supposed to be the sport of the future, but for reasons various and complex, our beloved franchise would close down after just a few short years, forcing us back out into reality. There were many other locations around the country, but they all eventually followed New Jersey’s into oblivion. Photon now lives on only as a memory, with numerous imitators carrying the neon torch, struggling to survive as semi-profitable novelties. I admit, I’ve sought nostalgic solace a few times in these places, but have always been disappointed. The integrity of the original game has mostly been reduced to that of an inflatable carnival attraction. Today’s Laser-Tag experience never fails to entertain… but the Photon I remember and cherish was an unforgiving arena of skill and strategy, as unflinchingly competitive as any of the established major sports. In fact, I was probably in over my head, joining the Leagues so early…
I was Scourge, the youngest player on Supremacy at 12 – actually the youngest in all of the Novice and Advanced Leagues. Zephyr, my lifelong neighbor and Supremacy’s captain, was our team’s oldest at 18. Most of the regulars and elite players ranged in ages from mid-teens to mid-thirties, but that mattered little to me; I felt perfectly at ease and accepted amongst these older peers.
A complete, hierarchical social order and culture had already developed within the walls of the Photon by the time we adjoined to the microcosm in late ’86; Zephyr and I eagerly assimilated ourselves into the small, tight-knit crowd of regulars. No matter the political differences or rivalries, all players were bonded together by our common devotion to this “kids’ game”. A ragged, lively assortment of Star Wars Generation eccentrics, many of us had found ourselves at odds with the outside world and with our home lives. In this game, and the building’s confined social structure, we’d found something that truly mattered, something worth being passionate about. Even at twelve, I was confused and strange enough to fit in perfectly. The upcoming Novice League season became the sole focus of my existence - school, video games, TV shows, the friends at school who were my own age, girls (I was 12, remember); everything else shifted downward on the priorities list.
Zephyr’s younger brother, Spectre, was senior to us both in Photon tenure; he was already the veteran captain of the Advanced League squad, No Frills. He warned us of a Novice League team called Biohazard, led by Capt. Amiga and Robin Hood, who were also forming for the inaugural Novice League season. They were considered the favorite to win it all. We didn’t know those guys, but took an immediate disliking to them anyway. In spite of the hype surrounding Biohazard, Supremacy set forth under the assumption that the Novice League Championship would be ours.
And then the season began.
Our opponents in Week One were a team called On Target, which consisted of a bunch of guys we’d never heard of. Their captain was a guy called Scrounger (pronounced “Scroun-ja”).
Leading up to the start of the season, I’d whiled away my 7th grade classroom hours by drawing up battle plans on photocopied maps of the playing field, coming up with a number of no-lose strategies. Armed with my game plans and our superior playing ability, we were sure to handle this bunch of unknowns with the greatest of ease. Supremacy went into the first of the three-game set vs. On Target 100% certain of victory. We took the red side while they defended green.
We lost game 1.
In spite of our bewilderment at this unexpected setback, we somehow managed to regroup and win the second game. There was one match remaining that night; the mighty Supremacy could still take the three-game series.
The plan we chose for game 3 called for me to defend the red Base Tower. The Base is worth extra points, so we decided that we couldn’t leave it unprotected. Naturally, for advice I sought out Ares, who was considered the Advanced League’s best Base defender. His advice: “You’re the last line of defense for your team. No matter what happens, DON’T LEAVE THE BASE. If you’re covering the Base, YOU CAN”T LEAVE YOUR POSITION.”
So there I was, standing alone in the red Base, screaming my head off for help while a couple of the On Target guys clobbered me. My teammates Deadshot and Superstar had disappeared; they were supposed to be playing our Defense Wall and Defense Catacombs. I retaliated the best I could against the On Targets in the green helmets, but was at a hopeless disadvantage. There were a bunch of them with good cover positions vs. little abandoned me, standing wide open and utterly alone in the Base Tower. Why, you ask, didn’t I just ditch my post and run away?
“No matter what happens, DON’T LEAVE THE BASE,” was ringing through my red and yellow helmet, along with the incessant sounds of incoming hits. At one point, I even jumped out and ran halfway up the ramp from the Base to get away, but –
“No matter what happens, DON’T LEAVE THE BASE.”
Like an idiot, I heeded the voice and returned to my post to let the beatings continue. My final score was minus 670. Whether you’ve played Photon or you haven’t, you know negative-almost-700 is really bad. When we came out of the game, Legault (my teammate whose position was the Offense Wall) said, “Where were you guys? I got so many points up front.”
We’d lost the game, and I’d lost a considerable amount of pride. It was a pretty shattering experience for a twelve-year-old. Scrounja and his teammates turned out to be great people, and I held no bitterness toward them. But. No matter what anyone tells you; if you’re pinned down in the Base and your team isn’t coming back to support you, get the hell out of there.
The rest of the season went ok for us. Because of that negative 670 in the first week, it ended up taking me the entire season to drag my average score up to a positive number. (You think it’s not a big deal; at home I had a notebook where I tracked my average to two decimal points) We beat the bad teams, split the series’ with the average teams, and got swept by Biohazard. The season actually ended up with a minor heroic feat on my part to clinch Supremacy into the playoffs.
Our record going into the final week was 5 wins and 7 losses. Our opponents for that last three-game set were the Undertakers, who were 2 and 10. If they managed to beat us in all three matches, they would overtake us for the fourth and final available playoff spot.
It was the first game; I patrolled my central Bunker position diligently, clutching the black gun in my hands (no more Base D for me, thank you). My head was on a swivel, searching for green lights as I leapt up onto the gray-carpeted surface in the adjacent Office platform. I knew that the Undertakers were out there somewhere, but I had only caught fleeting glimpses of movement and could only get off quick potshots at them. I’d completely lost track of the time, so I decided I was going to have to salvage some kind of a score out of this surprisingly tight match.
I bolted out of my secure position and into the open area just behind the Fog Tower. I thrashed my helmet about to avoid being hit while I made my mad dash deep into green territory. In a few seconds, the floor was traversed and I was crouched down into the Catacombs’ hidden cubby, targeting the green Base through its side port-holes. One. Two. Three shots. Got it. I squeezed my trigger again, expecting to have to fight my way out of the cubby and back to my position, but there was no sound. My phaser had stopped working! Had my suit been reset? Then the robotic female voice came over the loudspeakers, “Congratulations Photon Warriors; you have successfully completed your strategic maneuvers. Disperse to exit… disperse to exit… disperse to exit…” Along with this, I heard one or two people yelling my name from the observation deck. “Scourge!” I looked up at the scoreboard screens from the field and saw that the red side was blinking. We’d won.
It turned out that the Undertakers had held a shallow lead during that entire first game, but with the 200 points I’d scored by hitting the base in the game’s final seconds, we’d won by 70 points. I’d unwittingly redeemed my humiliating -670 start to the season by hitting the playoff-clinching score. Of course, credit for that clutch win also had to be given to Zephyr, who’d earned a hard-fought score of +100 without-base for us in the Sniper’s Nest, keeping us in the contest.
Hawk, the 20-something captain of the Undertakers, marched up to me in the lobby afterwards and said, “You just knocked us out of the playoffs, you know that right?” I was a shy, fairly timid 12-year-old. I smiled right back at him.
Hawk’s teammates all hated him, so during games 2 and 3 in our set, they just walked around laughing and not shooting at us, not even trying. We all wracked up huge scores on them while Hawk continued to play seriously and scream frantically at his mutinous teammates. They said later that they’d given their best effort while the playoffs were still on the line, but once they were eliminated, they didn’t care anymore. Let him scream. I actually managed to drag my league average into the black in that last week. With a plus .500 record and a playoff berth, it turned out to be a pretty good ending to what had been a surprisingly rough season for Supremacy.
In spite of Supremacy’s arrogant pre-season presumption, the Novice League’s two best teams turned out to be Biohazard and On Target. They met in the playoff championship round, with Capt. Amiga’s squad winning it all. After scraping into the playoffs with an 8-7 record, Supremacy was eliminated in the first round by Biohazard, but managed to defeat the team called Overkill in the extra series for third place; the Bronze Medal round, if you will.
On Target and Biohazard had served us a heavy dose of forced humility during that first season. Our team was called Supremacy; I guess we needed it.
There would only be one more Novice League season. While the guys from On Target and Biohazard were graduated to the Advanced League, Supremacy’s roster remained intact. We fulfilled our original vision during season 2, losing only one game on our way to the Novice League championship. Afterward, we were all also graduated, but Zephyr and I were the only ones to take a shot at the Advanced League (Superstar was offered a spot on the Rebels, a very respectable team, but his mother banned him from any more Photon leagues). Zephyr and I ended up doing two seasons on the lower-echelon team, G.O.D.S., before the whole place fell apart and went under.
For some, nothing could fill the vacuum caused by the loss of the local Photon. They traveled far and wide in search of the other franchises that were still limping toward their own closures. The rest moved on, went back to figure out the more typical things that kids do. I was in the first group for about a year, then fell into the latter.
The age between 11 and 14, the majority of which I spent at Photon, was a funny time. I found myself transitioning from a little kid to a teenager, thinking in a new, more self-aware way, forging permanent definitions of my identity and of the world around me. The accomplishments, struggles, and friendships made during my Photon period were as integral to that process as any events and tribulations in my real world.
Countless kindred geek networks formed during Photon’s brief existence; thousands of connections were made, some of which have never been broken. I lost my virginity to a girl I’d first met at Photon. The best man at my wedding is another friend bonded by the plastic phaser. It’s been almost twenty years now, and we’ve all moved on; we’ve each acquired some variation of the marriage/career/parenthood grown-up equation, but the memories and the common bond are still there for every Photon veteran. No matter how deeply buried those Laser-Tag pasts may be, the time spent in that social environment and on that playing field helped to define who were are today.
I still identify with that skinny 12-year-old in the red shirt, his early humiliation and defeat in the red base, his struggle to develop as a Novice Leaguer and rookie Advanced Leaguer, and his exultant triumph as Novice League champion. He was preparing me for the multitudes of defeats, labors, disappointments, redemptions, and victories yet to come in the real world. He grew up a lot on that playing field.
Scourge is still a part of me.