Immersion is the experience of completely surrendering reality, mentally and viscerally, to an alternate one. Laser tag is an exciting, high energy immersive experience, as our team found from exploring both Strike Laser Tag at Melbourne Central and Dark Zone Box Hill. Rather than using subtlety in the design of its game flow, laser tag incorporates forthright design of its experience aurally and physically. The overall experience that is gained from laser tag leaves players physically worked out and mentally as well, having to move through the space of the game to find and also avoid other players in order to win. How the game immerses participants is comparable to how digital video games are immersive, because both laser tag and video games are able to make a player surrender their awareness of reality in favour of the game they play. Laser tag is an experience that has little intuitive variance for players; as a result, it is an experience that is either completely immersive for participants, or not very immersive and enjoyable at all.
To begin with, the design of audio/visual stimuli in lasertag is unsubtle. The intention of laser tag is to immerse players into the game and keep a high level of perceptive and cognitive arousal at all times, therefore the design of the aesthetics and sound in the space is heavily stylised to immerse participants quickly and consistently. At both Strike Laser Tag and at Dark Zone Box Hill, the environments built for Laser Tag shared similar audio/visual designs. Both spaces were dark, mostly unlit except for LED lights scattered around the interiors. Some minimal fluorescent paint also lines the obstacles, walls and ramps. Aurally, both centres used similar sound design for the player vests and phasers. Zaps, beeps and digitised explosions sound through speakers on this equipment to let players know when they had defeated another player or had been hit. A notable difference between the two centres, was their individual use of sound, particularly the soundtrack used as a backing for the experience. Dark Zone Box Hill mainly has techo-based remixes of popular rock and mixed genre music. At Strike Melbourne Central, electronic and techno music is played that feels more like a filmic action soundtrack than a party playlist.
A key difference between the venues is the management of the game itself. For example, after our team first went to Strike, we learned that there was a storyline for the game absent from a prior briefing. On the website, it says:
“The story is set in 2050 – where the theme was first established in Sydney in 2008. The story is based around Australia during global warming and is occupied by an evil Corporation at war with the citizens, and the people fight back in the form of “The Resistance”. Each city has a different theme / story and goes a long way to assisting players suspend reality and get into the game.”
Interestingly, the as mentioned in this extract from Strike’s website, the intention of the backstory is to encourage immersion through ‘[suspending] reality,’ however our team found ourselves immersed without need for it. The immersive experience, without knowledge that there is intended to be a story behind it, simply becomes playful competition. In hindsight, the management of this story in relation to the game was not well founded and we likely would have forgotten about it during gameplay.
Conversely, at Dark Zone, the objective is given to the players in a thorough briefing beforehand: defeat other players and destroy their Base. This ‘story’ is much more simplistic than that dictated by Strike in their website. While playing laser tag, at both venues, what makes the spaces and experience immersive come down to what is happening physically, aurally and visually. In Dark Zone, the space has four separate storeys to move through. This allows for dynamic gameplay, since players are made to consider where others that could defeat them could be and where they might be able to attack from. There is little time for players to think about anything else, and their reality is suspended in the sense that all they can think about is finding other players, not getting hit and defeating the others. Strike, however, has a very simple and crude course layout with only two barely separated floor sections and a much smaller space to move around in. This shifts how participants are immersed because there is less space to explore, and as a result players felt more restricted or penned in.
The reward based objective of the game encourages this immersion on a deeper level as everyone in the game is driven to win. The higher the score a player achieves at the end of the game, the more rewarded they feel. This is similar to the reward based game flow of videogaming, and how it immerses players in their experience. Game flow is what encourages cohesive movement through a game without inhibiting immersion. Whether players are captivated by agame comes down to whether the participant loses awareness of their reality. This includes their immediate physical surroundings, sense of time, every-day concerns, and also how viscerally or emotionally invested the player finds themselves in the game. Much like in how videogames are immersive in this manner, so is laser tag. Over the course of multiple games both at Strike and Dark Zone, players became increasingly engrossed in the game. At several points, someone kept shrieking out of fright because they forgot that they were playing a game and were frightened by other players sneaking around the corners to get them.
Physical activity is what primarily sets laser tag apart from video gaming, since instead of using a console and observing through an avatar on a screen, the player is their own avatar actively moving around the environment. Much like in virtual and digital video gaming, the game is designed to encourage a sense of self-presence for players in the experience. Self-presence is defined as the degree to which the player feels that their game avatar were their real self. This definition is based on how a player is immersed in a game through a screen, however when the screen is replaced with presence in a physical environment and the nature of the competitive game is still in play, the level of immersion increases dramatically.
Not much space is left for subjective variability in laser tag. Players that enter the game are intended to receive similar experiences out of it, and therefore it is assumed that most if not all players that enter the game have similar expectations and goals about the game. Laser tag at both venues is tailored to elicit a specific response from players. It was found, over 2 games at Strike and 4 games at Dark Zone, that players left the arena physically worn out from moving around actively and feeling a sense of elation and enjoyment from the competitive experience played with friends. A problem with this construct of the experience is that players can be left out when not entering laser tag with the same enthusiasm or excitement as others. In our experiences, after several ten-minute games of laser tag, some players got more exhausted quickly than others. Therefore, their concentration waned and they became less immersed in the game and did not enjoy themselves as much.
The ways in which relationships between audio, visual and physical relationships are managed are done so through rules and regulations imposed by the venues. At both venues, there were rules such as no running, no physically violence and no abusive language. What differentiates the two venues is that at Dark Zone, the expected target audience age is younger than at Strike; Strike Melbourne Central hosts a bar in their centre, whereas Dark Zone is an all-ages space. This affects the immersiveness of the experience because at Strike, participants are more likely to be legal adults, and may be intoxicated during a game. The significance of this immersively is that players at Strike are less likely to take the game seriously, and therefore are less immersed in the experience than at Dark Zone. Furthermore, Dark Zone’s multi-storey game space forces players to be more active thinkers when looking for a vantage point or avoiding other players. Contrariwise, Strike Melbourne Central had a contrastingly simple course for laser tag that is mainly two floors separated by shallow ramps.
As an immersive experience, laser tag is deeply engaging when entered with an appropriate mindset or assumption of the game. This means that when players enter laser tag, as long as they expect to enjoy themselves and the game, then the extent to which they are captivated and forget their own self-awareness will be greater. This creates a rift between those who enter a game with excitement and players who enter reluctantly or with a negative mindset. The way in which a laser tag space is designed and managed can also affect the level of immersion. At Strike, players were more likely to take the game less seriously partly due to the likelihood of having ingested alcohol beforehand and the simplistic design of the laser tag course. In contrast, Dark Zone Box Hill had a much larger multi-level course and prohibits alcohol in the venue, which meant that players were more likely to be alert and engaged in trying to outwit other players. Overall, laser tag is an experience that is either completely immersive or not, and varies on a space’s management, physical and audio/visual design choices
Dark Zone and Strike both unlit interiors, scattered LED lights around the wall. Fluorescent/glow in the dark paint lining walls, floors, ramps and walkways
Phasers and vests at both venues used sound effects to indicate game progress. Includes: digitised zaps, beeps, explosions, dialogue recordings of ‘you’ve been hit!’
Dark Zone audio soundtrack in the space included techno and electronic remixes of pop and rock music
Strike Melbourne Central played heavy techno, electronic and synth music as an ambience, like it was a film soundtrack for a science-fiction or action film
Strike Melbourne Central had a smaller, more tightly designed space for the laser tag course, less room to move around in and only two levels barely separated by shallow ramps
Dark Zone Box Hill had a bigger and taller space. Four storeys to move around in as opposed to two shallow levels. Phasers and vests also had more functions than at Strike, with little computer screens on the phasers at Dark Zone showing your score and telling players their progress
More children at Dark Zone Box Hill than there were at Strike. Strike also had a bowling section and a bar, therefore more people likely to have been partying or drinking than at Dark Zone
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