On the front lines of the Escapist Expo, laser-gun in hand

I have often strolled, of an autumn evening, across the lawn next to the glass cliff of the Durham Performing Arts Center. Usually I am waistcoated and necktied, on my way to enjoy the performing arts.

Last Saturday afternoon was no such occasion.

With the sun pressing down, I crouched behind a camouflage tent, sweating profusely and breathing fast. Around my head, I wore what looked like a gym sock with a bicycle reflector clipped to it. In my hands, I cradled a hefty sub-machine gun, codenamed Eagle, outfitted with an audio speaker and a scarlet “Reload” button. Fifteen other males were similarly arranged across the field, armed with machine pistols and assault rifles, lying prone behind cover or poised to run. Orange tape symbolically traced a containing wall. The quiet was broken only by tinny bursts of gunfire and the clink of invisible shell casings on the grass.

This was Chest-High Walls, the laser tag simulation of cover-based first-person shooters in which four-foot-high places to hide are mysteriously ubiquitous. It was part of the first ever Escapist Expo—a video and tabletop gaming convention organized by the North Carolina-based website best known for Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s breathlessly bitchy video review column, Zero Punctuation.

The Expo occupied one long corridor in the Marriot Convention Center, with tabletop gaming spaces spilling over into the historic Carolina Theatre. As I first arrived, I wandered into a bland, spacious chamber dedicated to tournaments of the card game Magic: The Gathering – which was much more prevalent here than videogames. There was a sold-out “Magic as Therapy” panel in Hyrule Hall, and some people were selling what appeared to be oil paintings of Magic cards. Several players had summoned “Fast Food Smell” into the room, and so I made an exit.

A central showroom included more booths as well as classic arcade cabinets and banks of competitive computer gaming stations. Everywhere, people dealt Magic cards and posed for photos with cosplayers. A tall, shirtless, body-painted guy in an impressively heavy-looking Pyramid Head mask (from the horror series Silent Hill) complained that he was going to need a neck brace. With the panels at capacity and the tabletop gamers radiating a daunting expertise, I went outside and fell into conversation with a slightly dejected but still friendly Magic player who’d had a rough day at cards.

The crestfallen player explained the intricacies of the game in fascinating stochastic terms, and I was awed to learn that the most valuable Magic card costs ten-thousand dollars. But we both got distracted when, behind us, a photographer and a particularly eye-catching cosplayer in a fur bikini vanished into the deep green foliage nested between the jutting steps and exterior wall of the building. Through the trees, we could only glimpse the curve of a white umbrella as the cat lady reclined into the thick kudzu.

I headed over to laser tag. The Expo directly adjoined CenterFest, one of those municipal day festivals where bluegrass bands play on temporary stages and vendors hawk local arts and crafts. In fact, it was held between the Marriott and the laser-tag field, and migrating gamers could easily be spotted among the crowds of local families. Passing through CenterFest, I saw a cosplayer dressed all in yellow—something obscure and Japanese—posing for a photo with a Native American in full traditional regalia. The composite reality of a laser tag match simulating a video game was already bewilderingly abstract, but it was the sight of the otaku and the chief—these two simulacrums, crashing together—that made me feel most keenly the sensation of virtual reality stealing over the real world.

I had to wait under a blue canopy for 45 minutes to play Chest-High Walls, and as I idled I watched several men in military formation close in on a tiny boy in a bright orange shirt. Finally, it was time to play. While my red team was an impromptu assembly, our nemeses in blue were a seasoned band of brothers. With the blend of articulate pedantry and sputtering enthusiasm peculiar to teenaged video game diehards, they had loudly worked out anti-bunkering and flanking strategies—as well as which Halo or Gears of War characters they would portray—prior to the match. I scanned the horizon for flashes of overconfident blue. One of my comrades, a pubescent lad with ‘70s hair, slid into cover beside me as a shot pinged off my headband. We commiserated about how the barriers seemed a little permeable. 

Peering downfield through my sights, emptying clips at any movement, I had no idea if I was hitting anyone. Incoming fire of unknown origin registered on my gun until a speaker in it cried “Medic! Medic!” and I jogged back to home base to respawn. Embedded again in my rearguard position, I noticed a pair of amused passers-by taking phone pictures from the sidewalk just beyond the orange tape. With a flash of self-consciousness that made me realize how absorbed in the game I had become, I imagined someone walking by and thinking, “Oh look, there’s Brian Howe, playing laser tag with some kids outside of DPAC.” Click.

As I finally broke from cover to sprint for the next barricade, my battle cry rang out only in my mind.