My friend, Rich, was taking his twelve year old nephew to laserquest. There were a few complications, someone pulled out and he ended up with a spare place so asked me if I wanted to come along. OK, I said – I’d never been laserquesting before. Only as the three of us pulled into the car-park did it occur to me that I may be a little old to start now.
The reception area doubled up as a viewing gallery and café. On the walls were film posters – Saving Private Ryan; Enemy At The Gates; Full Metal Jacket – and I noticed that the food they were selling was suspiciously child orientated as it mainly involved crisps and various types of brightly coloured pop. My worries were soon confirmed when what seemed like a hundred kids turned up whooping and yelling, obviously wild with enthusiasm at the thought of being able to shoot each other with realistic looking weapons.
Rich was signing us in and I tugged at his sleeve to tell him that I’d made a horrible mistake but it was too late, he grinned at me and slid the sheet round for me to sign. The other laserquesters were listed by name and age: Darren, 10; Dean, 10; Troy, 11; Kyle, 12 – there were about fifteen of them and at the bottom was my name with the number 36 next to it.
‘You cheeky bastard, I’m 35,’ I said, as if that mattered when I was already twenty-three years older than my nearest contemporary. Of course, Rich was in the same situation as me but he was less conspicuous as he’s really small. By the time we’d got all the gear on he looked like a pudgy child with health problems whereas I towered over everyone by at least a foot. My combat jacket was so small that I couldn’t fasten it; the lead that led to my gun was too short and my head wouldn’t fit into the baseball cap so I had to balance it on top of my head like a girl at a finishing school who’s trying to correct her posture.
We were split into two teams: black and green, and just before we went out into the ‘combat arena’ we were joined by an older kid of perhaps fifteen. At least he was a bit taller and wasn’t part of the mass group of younger children. In fact, he was there alone. He’s probably there alone every Saturday morning as he clearly took the whole thing very seriously indeed. He was wearing wrap-around glasses, camouflage trousers, dog-tags and a black T-shirt that said ‘KILL ‘EM ALL’ written on it above a picture of a skull and two crossed rifles. He’d brought his own baseball cap too and I think he had his own gun – he’d probably even given it a name; Bessie or Old Sally or The Deadener or something. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a photo of his face on a news report in a few years followed by a shocked witness describing him as a ‘dangerous loner’.
Thankfully, he was put on the other team. I could imagine him being a nightmare to be alongside; barking out orders and tactics and generally spoiling the fun for everyone.
After a debriefing we were ushered out into the combat arena. It was an old warehouse that was partitioned off into sections using plasterboard. It was difficult to keep track of where you were as all the roomed places had several different entrances and there were lots of nooks and crannies you could shoot through. The black team – my team – had a base that was in the far corner and the green’s was a two-floored tower covered in camouflage netting with a German flag draped across the front. I guess that made us the goodies.
To shoot someone, you had to aim at the sensor on their baseball cap. After 5 hits you were out of the game and had to get back to your base where a member of staff would set your counter back to zero. They called this ‘re-spawning’ which I presume is a term used in gaming that the children are familiar with – it also enables them to avoid talking too much about death and killing.
There were various games: one where we had to steal their flag; one where they had to steal ours; one where we each had to storm the other’s base; one where both sides had a VIP we had to protect and a couple of others that were pretty much a free-for-all.
It felt awkward at first. I was concerned about what the parents in the viewing gallery must be thinking to see a fat, bearded man lumbering awkwardly around a warehouse taking pot-shots at their children. I also tried to take advantage of my age, falling into what I imagined was a teacherly role by giving my team instructions and tactical advice. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no natural authority whatsoever and the kids didn’t even pretend to listen, they just scattered instantly and carried on darting around all over the place.
I gave up trying to organise them and pretty soon we all bonded. After each game I’d kneel down to give them high-fives and complicated rapper-style handshakes. However, I kept quiet when they told each other how many hits they’d got and compared statistics from the readout on their guns. I kept quiet because it was immediately apparent that I wasn’t anywhere near as good at this as they were. They were a lot smaller and had more energy than me which made them incredibly difficult to aim at. Plus, I had a tendency to shoot them in the face rather than the hat.
It’s not like paintballing where there’s an incentive not to get shot because getting shot really fucking hurts, instead you might as well take a few risks as it doesn’t matter how many times you’re killed. Therefore, I spent the first couple of games going on daring suicide raids which ended up in me dying instantly. I became a bit of a joke among the staff as I appeared every 30 seconds or so for re-spawning.
I had to stop that pretty quickly though. I was absolutely exhausted and sweating so much that I became worried that I might short out the electronics in my baseball cap. From then on, I focused on a sneakier, more defensive role. I’d hang back, find a good position and shoot at anything that came near. Unfortunately, this included members of my own team who I wasn’t quick enough to recognise when they ran across my field of vision. This confirmed what I’d previously suspected – that I wouldn’t be any good at all in a war. I haven’t got the right sort of brain for it and my spatial awareness is appalling. Halfway through I was hidden behind a stack of packing crates happily sniping at anyone who wandered into my eyeline when I suddenly got shot. Then I got shot again, and again, and again. I couldn’t see anyone at all and it was only when there was a shout behind me that I turned to see a line of three kids all casually firing into the back of my head.
I’m pretty sure the fifteen year-old rampage-waiting-to-happen, wasn’t one of them. I was thankful for this because every time he got me he’d run up to me and tell me so. He’d tell me what a great shot it had been and how good he was. ‘Well done’, I’d say through gritted teeth, then I’d call him a little shit as I trudged off to get re-spawned. I shot him a few times too though – but it was difficult to tell how many as all the kids looked the same in hats and combat jackets. When I saw it was him I just smiled, pleased that I’d resisted the urge to sneak up behind him, club him with the butt of my gun and stamp on his glasses.
The hour was over very quickly – and I’d enjoyed it in a strange kind of way. I handed my sweat-drenched jacket and baseball cap back shame-facedly, wondering how they were going to clean them and went back up to the café area. I briefly talked with some of the black team about the films featured in the posters on the wall – none of which the children should have seen as they weren’t old enough. I realised that all the films were anti-war in tone but the laserquesters were more concerned with the action sequences and how realistic they were. After more high-fives and odd handshakes, Rich, his nephew and me left.
At the bottom of the stairs, rampage-in-waiting was waiting for us. ‘Shot you’ he said to Rich with a smug look on his face. Rich ignored him.
‘Shot you’ he said to Rich’s nephew, pointing his fingers at him like a gun. Rich’s nephew ignored him.
‘Shot you,’ he said to me with a broad grin. I didn’t ignore him.
‘In all fairness, I shot you as well,’
‘Yeah, but I got you brilliantly. You never saw it coming.’
He had me there.
‘Why don’t you get yourself a girlfriend?’ I said and walked off without waiting for a reaction.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have resorted to Alan Partridge quotes, I should have just reminded him that my team won and his team lost. Actually, I shouldn’t have said anything at all – but that’s what war does to you; it strips away your civilised ways and turns you into a savage animal, spoiling for a fight and never backing down.
I just hope that when that kid does eventually flip – and he will flip – that he doesn’t remember me. I’ve heard that psychopaths can hold quite a grudge and I’m not very good at armed combat.