The laser gun points a concentrated beam of light. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
Zack Barry is training to become a police officer. But for the moment, there are more pressing matters to attend to.
Like pressing the button on his laser gun, and making sure he tags more people than tag him. Almost every week, Barry and his friends can be found at XP Laser Sport in Reisterstown, pointing concentrated beams of light at one another, exulting in every hit and snarling in disgust whenever they're the ones being tagged.
"It's a lot more complicated than people think," the 22-year-old Howard Community College grad says of laser tag, the '80s entertainment-center phenomenon that's gaining a whole new generation of fans. Some, like Barry, take the competition very seriously, while others, including young kids who organize their birthday parties around it, see laser tag as simply a way to have fun and burn off steam. But the opening of two new operations in the Baltimore area in the past year suggest the "Star Wars"-inspired activity is undergoing something of a resurgence. Much of the growth, operators say, comes from a new emphasis on laser tag as a group activity.
"It used to be that the technology was new, and that was enough," says Gary Reece of LaserNation, which expanded into Edgewood earlier this year after operating in Eastpoint since 1994. "But the industry has kind of changed. In the last five years, maybe six, the industry has gone from total walk-in business, people just showing up to play, to 50 percent doing children's birthday parties, corporate team-building, fund-raisers, that sort of thing."
To many, laser tag may sound like a vestige of the '80s and '90s, a relic from the days when laser technology was still pretty newfangled and the idea of shooting somebody with a beam of light seemed the height of cool. But the numbers suggest an industry that's still pretty healthy.
Nationwide, there are some 760 facilities that offer laser tag, either exclusively or as part of a larger facility; that's up from about 560 in 2004, according to figures provided by the International Laser Tag Association. The group estimates they account for about $217 million in revenue a year in North America, based on an average of 2.75 million laser tag "experiences" every month.
"For players, laser tag is like being in a live-action video game," says Eric Gaizat , a spokesman for the association, "with adrenaline-pumping music, black lights, interactive targets, brightly lit vests and a goal of trying to achieve high scores to win the game."
But what accounts for laser tag's continued appeal? Of course there's the thrill of competition and the relative safety of imaginary blood sports: laser tag allows combatants to kill each other, then come back in just a couple minutes to start all over again. Think of it as war play without the war.
"Laser tag," says Gaizat, "is an attraction that appeals to a large audience and helps provide the 'wow' effect our industry is known for. That brings people back again and again."
Agrees LaserNation's Reece, "It's addictive. The more you play, you can get really good at it."
Don't underestimate the value of bragging rights, says Lisa Mueller of XP Laser Sport , which expanded into Reisterstown last year after 10 years in Laurel. "You can joke around with your friend, brag about how many times you killed him."
It's also a chance to get together with a gang of your best buds in a neutral setting, makes lots of noise and let someone else clean up the mess when it's all over.
But perhaps the dominant factor is that the generation that first discovered how much fun laser tag can be are parents now, and they're not only introducing the game to their kids, but playing it with them as well.
"It's something they remember doing as a kid," Mueller says. "Nowadays, you see a lot of parents playing alongside their kids."