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Laser Tag, Electronic Combat Craze Zaps The Nation

January 24, 1995

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ It’s becoming the next step for teen-agers raised on video games: They are INSIDE the game, stalking an enemy with laser guns on a battlefield jumping with strobe lights and loud music.

And there’s no sticky mess, as with Paintball war games.

It’s laser tag, a craze that has swept the world linking the computer age with the ancient games of tag and capture the flag, a slightly grown-up version of the Lazer Tag home games of the late 1980s.

``Video games are dead,″ declared 19-year-old Eric Lentz. He plays nearly every day at Portland’s Ultrazone, using the pseudonym ``Apocalypse.″

``Simulated combat, but well done,″ he said. ``It’ll turn into a sport someday, where money is made.″

Two teams of players creep through a battlefield of fake rocks, mirrored walls and ramps trying to capture the opponents’ home base. They fire laser beams to trigger an opponent’s electronic vest, ``deactivating″ or ``stunning″ him, while a computer keeps score by the players’ pseudonyms.

A game lasts just 15 minutes. Fees are generally around $6, or two games for $9; prices often go up a dollar on weekends.

Laser tag came to the United States by way of Europe and Australia, where the game sprouted in the late 1980s. There now are about 110 versions of the game around the world.

One company, Q-Zar, has about 30 centers in the United States and 200 worldwide. Lazer Quest, a Canadian company, has about 100 centers around the world.

Ultrazone has 10 franchises from Honolulu to Richmond, Va., and caters mostly to the young and male.

Others bill themselves as family entertainment. Beaverton-based LaserPort, for example, offers a birthday party package that includes pizza and soft drinks after the game.

``This is a social game, one that can be played by the generations. It’s all in how you sell the game,″ said Drew Pawlak, Ultrazone vice president for marketing.

Pawlak estimates there will be nearly 1,200 laser tag centers around the world within five years. Overhead is low, profitability is high, and payback is fast.

Pawlak said a franchise at the Circus Circus Hotel in Las Vegas averages about 1,600 players per day. Lee Sturman, who invested about $400,000 to open Ultrazone in Portland, said he sees 600 players on a good day.

It’s not just for teen-agers. The reigning high scorer at LaserPort is 40-year-old Perry ``Gramps″ Boyer, a father of 12 children ages 13 to 20.

``They’ve all been here and they love it,″ said Boyer. ``It teaches them to participate as a group, to cooperate with each other.″

There can be another benefit, too. Boyer said the roughly 700 games he has played since May helped him drop about 40 pounds.

``It’s not a kill thing,″ he said. ``It’s competition, nothing serious.″

That is not the philosophy across town at Ultrazone.

``Deactivate ‘em all and let the game master sort ’em out,″ reads a chalked inscription. ``Zoneheads rule.″