Erica Koenig is amped. Armed with a high-tech phaser, she's about to make her first foray into battle. Her code name: "Barbie."
Sirens blare. Copious machine-generated fog descends. The theme from "Mission: Impossible" cranks at mega decibels. Whooping and giggling comrades-in-arms - Barbie's coworkers - disperse from their home base into the misty darkness. Barbie darts around the huge black pylons that make up the intricate maze of the battlefield. She crouches low, preparing to nail the enemy.
"Zing! Zap!" Barbie hears shots being fired nearby, but she can't spot a human target. Then, just as she's about to step boldly into enemy territory, someone approaches her from behind.
Barbie and another warrior collide. She's been accidentally bulldozered by Ed Commander, her boss and teammate (code name: "Barbarella"). As they try to regroup, a thin stream of red light strikes Barbie's vest. She's being iced - electronically.
The mystery assassin, bunkered behind a wall, aims with brutal precision through a hole in the structure. Barbie jams off a few shots in vain and sprints to her team's home base. She's a moving target, but with her back turned, she's defenseless. Her opponent gives chase, racking up points by pinging the exposed back of her vest: She's losing "lives" at a frightening pace.
Corporate Warriors Run Amok
By day, Erica Koenig, an assistant account executive for the international colossus Grey Advertising, works on the 28th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. But tonight she will morph into Barbie, a phaser-toting predator. She and 13 of her Grey colleagues will descend into Lazer Park, a laser-tag arena near Times Square, and embark on a high-tech hunt. Their prey: each other.
Laser-tag fever is spreading at a pandemic rate. There are almost 500 laser-tag emporiums in the United States alone; six years ago, there were 80. At Lazer Park, people from such blue-chip companies as GE Capital, the Gap, Lucent Technologies, Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, and Morgan Stanley regularly take over the arena to chill out by icing their coworkers.
But laser tag is more than an adrenaline-charged antidote to the relentless round of make-or-break deadlines. Laser tag lets people abandon their work roles and take on new, playfully competitive ones. Amid the chaos of battle, bosses become followers and subordinates become chief strategists - even heroes. Laser tag helps people bond by making their company's org chart irrelevant.
For five fast-forward minutes per game, the crew from Grey Advertising will swap their boring professional titles for such ominous handles as "Corporal Punishment," "Skywalker," "Pestilence," and "The Cleaner." Before playing, the crew will divide into two teams: "account side" people, who spend their days mediating all aspects of the client-company relationship, and "creatives," who design the actual campaigns. It's the classic confrontation between button-down corporate types and let-your-hair-down "talent." Which will win the day - the planning and strategy of the account side or the ingenuity of the creatives?
Where PIBs Rule
As they descend a staircase that leads from Times Square into Lazer Park, the people from Grey are greeted by a surreal depiction of an astral plain. Neon images of stars and planets loom overhead as the crew sinks into an interior that's part high-tech, part honky-tonk. Humble skee-ball games share the noisy arcade with the latest in virtual-reality combat games. The main attraction is the 5,000-square-foot laser-tag arena, where instead of simply playing a game, you become part of it.
The first stop is the observation deck. The people from Grey peer down upon the symmetrical maze in which they will soon hunt one another. A game is in full swing.
In the black light of a battlefield, players dodge and feint and fire their phasers, which shoot streams of blazing red light. The motto "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" holds literal truth here. Teeth and eyes - any color except black - glow in the eerie luminescence. PIBs (people in black) have a distinct advantage. Anyone clad in a white oxford might as well be wearing a sign that says, "Kill me now."
The novices from Grey quickly clue into the basic idea: Two teams protect their bases from each other. The immediate goal is to zap your opponents (25 points per hit). Real high scoring requires getting to the opposing team's side of the field and blasting its three bases (100, 150, and 200 points per hit) - without getting done in along the way.
Fortunately, on this battleground, there is life after death. You can always return to your own side of the field, walk under a recharger, and be digitally reborn. Players are judged by individual performance, but victory goes to the highest-scoring team. So what's good for your own bragging rights might not be good for your group.
One for All, or One for One?
The trash talking begins even before the crew has left the observation deck. Curiously, teammates lob barbs at one another instead of at their opponents. "I'm going to use you as a human shield!" chides A. A. El-Kammass (code name: "Zapper"), while slapping fellow art director Michael Castagnetti ("The Cleaner") on the shoulder. "I can't believe I wound up on this team!" kids Chris Young ("Corporal Punishment"), an account-group assistant, while sizing up his somewhat physically underwhelming teammates. So much for esprit de corps.
The group descends to the "briefing room," where rows of neon-colored vests and freaky phasers line the walls. No one thinks to glance at the maps of the playing field or to devise a battle plan. Everyone is consumed with striking a menacing pose in this flashy new gear.
Lazer Park's staffers, who are dubbed "marshals," explain the rules and give out pointers. At the beginning of every "mission," each player starts out with 40 shots and 10 lives, explains marshal Paul Silverman ("Stealth"). If you're shot, you lose five points - and a life. Hold down the trigger for rapid fire. And no running!
Shootout at Lazer Park
The ad men and women are in a state of quasi-confusion when they rumble onto the battlefield. Neither team has thought much about strategy. Everyone wants to blow someone else away. At least the account-side team keeps a few people back on defense to guard its three bases. But the creatives hurtle pell-mell into the arena, leaving their bases unprotected.
The Cleaner, one of the highest-scoring players on the creatives' team, barrels into enemy territory. He ends up locked in a full-throttle death match with Barbarella (who by day is a mild-mannered account supervisor) and zaps him 43 times. But Barbarella has the advantage, since he's on his home turf and he can recharge quickly. The Cleaner, caught with no ammunition far from his own recharging station, gets his clock cleaned over and over again.
When the buzzer signals the end of the game, both sides retreat to the briefing room to work on strategy. The creatives are on the losing end, with 10,305 points - less than half the account-side team's score of 27,065. The rough consensus: Their total lack of defense is killing them.
The creatives resolve to make the next game go their way. They concoct an elaborate strategy: Two phalanxes of players will rush up either side of the arena. When the lead shooters run out of ammo, they'll retreat to recharge, and the players behind them will fend off the rush of opponents. If the tactic works, no one on the team will be caught without a backup.
Over in the account side's strategy session, players discuss what they did right. There was a lot of communication among team members: People shouted warnings to one another; retreating players told advancing ones where to look for attackers. Even the offense played good defense. And with a player guarding each account-side base throughout the game, the creatives couldn't break through for a big score.
But now a minor mutiny is under way. Barbie, who spent most of the game on defense, is annoyed. She barely had a chance to blast someone. And she's tired. The equipment is heavy, and it doesn't fit right. Was it made just for guys? In the next game, says Barbie, she'll take the offensive.
Barbie Breaks Through
Barbie's phaser blurts at her in a metallic, macho voice, over and over again: "Great shot!" At point-blank range, she's clobbering the 200-point base on the opposing side. The creative team's relay assault has broken down, and no one is guarding its bases. When a buzzer signals the end of the game, Barbie has blasted through most of her ammunition - and has emerged as the highest scorer of the two-game series.
This account-side warrior, who just moments ago was a battle-fatigue victim, has become a glowering tower of power, waving her score sheet in triumph. Posthaste, she and an entourage of coworkers retire to "44," the restaurant at the snooty Royalton Hotel, to celebrate their victory with a toast of gin-and-tonics. On this night, at least, the creatives are roadkill.
Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer at Fast Company firstname.lastname@example.org .
A version of this article appeared in the August 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.