Physical Games

Over the weekend I got to play laser tag for maybe the third time in my life, and now my heart is all lit up with excitement over physical games!  I guess most people would just call these “sports,” but I feel like the games I’m interested in talking about here kind of fall into a different category than, or maybe a sub-category of “sports.”  Non-traditional sports?  Physical games?  Sports with an immersive element?  I really don’t know!  But let’s talk about it anyway!

Why is laser tag so awesome?  Of course, I love the immersion and the novelty.  You get to feel like you’re in a video game.  You get to run around in the dark and shoot at people to the sounds of cinematic music from Star Wars and the James Bond movies.  You feel stealthy and cool!  The game also has that attractive element of potential improvement.  I was second-to-last in the rankings, but three of my more experienced friends made it into the top five (two of them were 1st and 2nd place).  They helped point out my weak areas and gave suggestions for improvement.  Now I want to go back and see if I can do just a little bit better.

Something new I appreciated after my last game was the fitness aspect.  The one thing everyone talks about after laser tag is how exhausted and sore they are (or at least that’s how our group felt!).  I was totally worn out, but I wanted to play again.  Not only did I want to play again, I felt compelled to get into better shape so that I wouldn’t slow down as often during the game, and so I would feel more capable of performing cool, quick maneuvers like I saw my friend doing.  I’m incredibly lazy and have a really difficult time sticking with any kind of fitness routine without getting bored.  But if cost weren’t an issue, I could see myself going and playing a ton of laser tag.

That being said, I can also imagine laser tag gets old after a while since the actual maze structure never changes (or at least ours hasn’t in the past five years).  But there are ways to make the game more compelling.  Running around shooting people is fun, but I like a bit more structure in my games.  I like having a complex goal, a role with responsibilities, and sometimes teammates.  According to the laser tag Wikipedia article, there are a lot of variations on the laser tag game, including capture the flag, protect the VIP, stealth matches (sensor lights are deactivated), and even role-playing/character class games.   I’m not sure if my local Laser Quest has the capabilities for any of these variations (there isn’t much info on the website, I had to call to even learn about the Ironman match we played on Saturday), but they definitely sound fun and show the potential of the technology.

So, since frequent laser tagging could get pretty expensive and maybe a little boring, now I’m thinking the solution is to find or design some free games that are as compelling as laser tag, and then (probably the most difficult part) organize a group of people to play them with me on a regular basis.  Free, fun fitness!

There are a number of different festivals that have popped up over the years dedicated to outdoor interactive games, so maybe I can draw some inspiration from them.  Come Out and Play Fest, The Steel City Games Fest, and igfest are the ones I know about.  There are also independent recurring games and events like zombie races (2.8 Hours Later, Zombie 5K) and Assassins (including StreetWars and Humans vs. Zombies).  A lot of this stuff falls into the category of street gaming or urban gaming, but setting isn’t really an aspect I care that much about (though I think I would prefer games in a park or country/wooded area where you don’t really risk getting in trouble).  The Mole might be another source of inspiration, with games like the Cornfield Maze, Sniper (a laser tag escort mission), Fortress (a paintball defend-the-castle type game), and Evader (a stealthy cat-and-mouse game with lookouts in a tower).

Though I said setting doesn’t matter, it might in a month or two when the weather turns cold.  Excessive heat and cold are enemies of any lazy fitness-seeker, so I’ll be on the lookout for creative solutions to that problem.

Also worth mentioning–I’ve attempted to turn to games for fitness before, including Dance Central most recently.  The immersion just isn’t there.  It feels too “I’m going to go downstairs and dance in my living room for half an hour in an attempt to exercise.”  I’m hoping that throwing strategy and other players into the mix keeps things in the realm of “fun” rather than “chore.”

Have any of you played an awesome, compelling physical game or know of any other festivals out there?  Is there something that makes the types of games I’m talking about here more compelling than normal, or is this just how normal people feel about traditional sports?

10 comments on Physical Games

  • Dan E.

    More examples:

    Pac Manhattan ( – defunct since 2004, but a really fun concept

    Zombies, Run! ( – a smartphone app that simulates being chased by zombies; you need to run to avoid them. I’ve had people tell me that it’s motivating for exercise, but I haven’t tried it.

    I built my own GPS Pac-Man once (back in like ’02). It worked surprisingly well and I always meant to revisit the concept. For BANG 28 I had teams navigate a multiplayer wifi/GPS/smartphone puzzle maze. It worked pretty well I think; I am certain that some day someone will release a kickass augmented reality GPS based game and a whole new genre will emerge.

    • clavicarius (author)

      I think I remember a podcast or something about Pac Manhattan, or something similar. Maybe the first game of this kind I ever heard of.

      I feel like we’re on the brink of this really cool explosion of stuff like this (or maybe the explosion is happening already?), especially with mobile technology becoming so ubiquitous. The thing about laser tag is it has all of this tech built-in, so you can do a lot of cool stuff that maybe might not work with something like paintball where you don’t have that automation, but you’re locked into this pre-built venue. But if every player has a smart phone, you can design games for any setting. You could set up things like checkpoints/dropoffs/”items”/etc. and make a really complex and engaging game.

      • Dan E.

        And oh, how could I forget Johann Sebastian Joust ( This review makes it sound super awesome (I’ve never had a chance to try it):

        I agree, smartphones with sensors — and apparently game consoles with motion controllers! — are really enabling technology. There are definitely limitations; GPS accuracy and update rate aren’t what you would ideally want in a game, for example, but you can design around that. (I decided my BANG 28 maze was too small, for example.)

        In a sense every Wii/Move/Kinect game matches your description, to greater or lesser degrees of immersion. But I think the limited range cuts it short of being what you really want (though J.S. Joust cleverly gets around that!).

  • Chris M. Dickson

    Very cool topic!

    The distinction between game and sport is a blurred one. There is such a thing as competitive laser tag (you can probably trace it back nearly to the first Photon centres, which opened about thirty years ago… and closed fairly quickly) but there’s no consensus even among players. There’s not even consensus about what they would like it to be.

    Most of the indoor laser tag centres tend to prohibit running (though there are outdoor centres that tend to permit it) though it’s still a game that requires the swiftness of movement that can tire you out.

    It’s possible to mix laser tag with live-action role-playing. Most of the indoor arena systems are tied to their pre-defined game formas pretty exactly, though if you can get an imaginative employee and/or book the arena out in full (not cheap!) then you can get up to some neat games. The alternative is to use your own laser game kit. I’m not an expert, but I think that at least the Laser Challenge Pro equipment is considered adequate quality and has the technical capability to be adapted into an interesting variety of scenarios. There are groups that run LARP laser tag games, but not many; a quick search reveals this, which looks very interesting… if, possibly, still-born.

    Festivals: Ludocity often has links, and the site also has loads of interesting-looking game rules. I think you might enjoy that site rather a lot. 😀

    • clavicarius (author)

      I might have to contact our Laser Quest and see if they ever do anything cool =) Laser tag definitely wears you out even though you aren’t allowed to run! Back muscles took the biggest hit from all the sneaking around and crouching (all the ramps had half-high walls, so you had to hunch over or risk getting shot). Our friends made sure to point out that though it said “No Kneeling”, you could still squat, haha, so some people had sore legs as well.

      I’ll have to look more into that Osiris Sanction thing.. see if any of the people are still around. Arlington is close!

      Thanks so much for the Ludocity link, definitely what I’m looking for!

  • Chris M. Dickson

    A phrase that your local LQ might or might not use is “members’ nights”. At university, our local centre held all-night lock-ins from time to time, which were quite fun, but trigger fingers tended to pay the price fairly quickly.

    • clavicarius (author)

      I saw they had a Power Rangers-themed lock-in the other night =) I’m not sure how long I would last!

  • Chris M. Dickson

    I don’t think a discussion of the joy of laser tag would be complete without mentioning just how neat and interesting the places it can be played can be. Sometimes they’re described as, or at least compared to, mazes, but don’t seem to me to quite have all the aspects of the maze nature that you identified in your post on the topic. At their best, they can be as interesting as folly buildings, or folly gardens, and neat to explore even without the laser game taking place through them.

    Photon, the first serious commercial venture in the mid-’80s, deliberately erred on the sport side of the sport-to-game distinction and had a number of standardised arena formats, with the theory that playing in one location should be as like playing elsewhere as possible. I can certainly see what they’re getting at, though I enjoy the variety offered by the different mazes at different centres.

    • clavicarius (author)

      I recently discovered a place north of here that does Battlefield Live, which is outdoor laser tag with a heavy military theme (lots of “If you love Halo…”) which I’m not crazy about, but outdoors sounds awesome (our local “battlefield” is 35k square feet)! The equipment they offer (4 different gun types, med packs, claymores, radios) seems to really open up a lot of possibilities for complex play as well.

      The layouts in laser tag always do seem to be called “mazes” though I agree, it’s not really the best term.

      That’s interesting about the Photon approach.. I definitely lean towards variety as well. My husband would argue that variety should be encouraged in competitive play. His main gripe in Super Smash Brothers tournaments and casual play was that people always wanted to play the same basic map with no items turned on, which made for a boring game (“pure” maybe, but boring). Better to see how players adapt to new situations and unknown variables!

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