Exhibit / July 11, 2017
In 1984, an entertainment center was opened in the Dallas suburb of Garland that aimed to bring the futuristic imagery and technological thrills of space opera warfare into the real world: it was called Photon, a laser tag game in which two teams fought one another in a bloodless, computer-controlled simulation set in a large, multi-level arena filled with dry ice and lit by strobe lights. The video above was designed to prepare players for what they were about to experience in the “dark, mysterious world of mazes, tunnels, ribs, open areas and hiding places where you will stalk your opponents.” Over an atmospheric soundscape, a multi-species group of Photon warrior cadets is prepared for “strategic maneuvers.” Present in holographic form, they listen as their instructor—clad in aerobic lycra, her brow bedecked with alien ornament, her hair vast and glittering—runs them through the equipment and the gameplay. The mood is tense and, despite the hokey nature of language like “zapping,” incongruous, given the earnest military-academy tone. The video clearly aims to create an atmosphere of “otherness” between opponents before they enter the arena.
The idea of Photon had come to Texan businessman and inventor George Carter III—his other inventions included bumper boats and a powered surfboard—while he sat watching Star Wars seven years earlier. The concept had begun to coalesce in the zeitgeist at roughly the same time: in 1978, the US Army started using a system utilizing infrared light to simulate combat (the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES) to train soldiers, and, in 1979, toy company Milton Bradley released a set of Star Trek Electronic Phaser Guns. The two guns could “send” and “receive… infrared bursts,” and hits registered with an “explosion sound.”
The August after the first Photon arena opened, Dallas hosted the Republican National Convention, and Carter organized a Photon match for a group of journalists, generating a great deal of publicity. A Newsweek on Air section from July of that year reported that the game was making $15,000 to $20,000 per week without advertising, and asked whether the game desensitized players to real-life violence, an accusation Carter denied, claiming paradoxically that the fantasy context of Photon meant other players barely registered as “lifeforms.” Photon players gave similar answers when John Stossel asked them the same question in a 1985 segment for ABC’s 20/20, and though 20/20 anchor Hugh Downs commented that he had “mixed feelings about aiming a weapon at somebody and pulling the trigger,” he concluded that Photon might conceivably be a “proper outlet for aggressive feelings.” (The following month, while recording a section for 20/20 on another commercial combat simulation—professional wrestling—Stossel was assaulted by then-WWF wrestler David Schultz after questioning the authenticity of the “sport“).
Through his previous ownership of a dirt-track racing course, Carter had made the acquaintance of members of rock band Fleetwood Mac, and for the Photon arena soundtrack, he turned to Ken Caillat, one of the group’s producers and engineers. The tracks were timed to coincide with gameplay, each running at six and a half minutes long. Together with friend and collaborator Gary Chang, Caillat assembled the music, including a female voice providing game cues, very similar to what Suzanne Ciani included as part of her score for pinball game Xenon (1980).
Initially, the average Photon player was in her or his mid-20s, but after a best-selling home version of Photon marketed by toy gun producer Entertech (Photon: The Ultimate Game on Planet Earth) was released in late 1986, the age of competitors fell sharply. World of Wonder’s Lazer Tag was released at the same time, and a short arms race played out during the Christmas season. Irked by the presence of so many younger people and children—Photon had no age restrictions, only requiring that players to be over 4 feet 6 inches tall—many older players began to abandon the game. In 1987, with 70 franchise licenses sold and 45 arenas in operation, Photon went public, but the stock market crash known as Black Monday later the same year initiated the demise of the company, which closed its doors in 1989.