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PHOCON 2019: Celebrating Photon and the 35th Anniversary of Laser Tag

35 years after the first laser tag, Photon, opened in Dallas, Texas players are still loving and remembering the game. For the most loyal fans of the original laser tag an annual celebration called Phocon allows them a chance to revisit their memories of laser tag’s early days and once again play using original Photon pods and equipment on a modified Alpha field just like they remember. This event has been hosted several times ever since the game’s 30th anniversary in 2014 at XP Laser Sport in Laurel, Maryland and the 2019 Phocon celebration once again brought players back to be part of the fun and to party like it was 1984!

This year’s three-day Phocon weekend stretched from August 23rd-25th, 2019 and drew players who originally played at Photon locations in Austin, TX, Baltimore, MD, Chicago, IL, Kenilworth and Wildwood, NJ, Louisville, KY, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, OK and more.

When players arrive at XP Laser Sport for the Phocon weekend they are provided with an official passport to track their codename (mine is Tivia) to be able to start logging into games right away.

If you purchased a commemorative t-shirt you receive that when you arrive. This year’s shirt is being sported by the owner of XP Laser Sport, Marc Mueller, and features an iconic image of Photon inventor George Carter III from back when it all started.

When you are ready to join a game the pods in the vesting room are ready to go with the chest packs, helmets and phasers all hanging ready for action.

However, Randall Meding (aka Bhodi Li) who originally played at the Baltimore Photon will be quick to remind you to put the hair cover on to keep the sharing of helmets as sanitary as possible.

Next you’ll connect your power pack (or battery belt) by holding the shorter end in your left hand and connecting it around your waist.

You put the control pod on by lifting the loop strap over your head and wrapping the waist strap around to the snap buckle. Now you can put on the helmet and remove the phaser from the rack.

And when you’re all suited up you’ll be wearing about 13 pounds of Photon equipment before scanning your passport at the phaser station to sign in for the game.

Now it’s time to enter the arena.

When you first step foot onto the Alpha field there is a sense that you are walking into a completely different atmosphere. From the ramps to the brightly lit alien towers there is a unique design to this arena that is intended to be both athletic and immersive. Jeremy (aka Tenser) from the Harvey/Chicago Photon commented about the arena design saying that “It’s amazing. It almost makes you feel like you’re on a different planet.”

There’s also something about the sensory experience that takes you back according to Jason Helton (aka Maestro) of the Baltimore and Ocean City Photon sites. “35 years later there’s something absolutely blissful about being able to be kind of a kid again. Walking in, smelling the fog and seeing the old equipment kind of makes me feel like I’m eight or ten again. It’s really amazing.”

When the game is ready to begin an etherial female computer-like voice greets you by saying “Welcome Photon Warriors. Commence strategic maneuvers at audible command signal. Five…four…three...two…one…begin.”

Red and green teams will have the corresponding color lights flashing on their helmet during the game. You’ll get 10 points for zapping an opponent to deactivate them for five seconds, but the base has significantly more value at 200 points.

Six minutes fly by when you’re in the game exploring all the various points of the arena. At XP Laser Sport some of the areas are named after significant Photon players.

And just about everyone I spoke to agreed that the players and the people are what really made Photon the memorable experience it was that gave attendees enough reason to return to the game during the Phocon weekend. That sentiment was expressed by Jeremy (aka Tenser) who said “It used to be originally all about the game. You were young and you wanted to be ‘the best’…but it’s more than that now. We hang out with people, I know people’s names, I get to know them on a personal basis so it makes it that much better of a time.” He attended with friends from the Chicago site including Terry (aka Blackhawk) who agreed, adding that “Almost every one of my friends I have in this current day stems from Photon.”

The social element of Photon seems to have been as significant to the players today as it was back in the eighties, if not more so. Virginia Beach player Darrell Griffin (aka VA Bhodi) shared “I miss it. It was a great part of my life. A lot of us were alpha types, highly competitive, big egos and yet when we were done playing and duking it out with everything we had we’d go party and have a great time. You realize later it was about the people, not the game itself. The irony is that in the moment back then not many of us really got that because we were busy competing.”

The players who came out for Phocon all shared a great love and appreciation for the game. One such player, Jim Strother (aka Opus) who originally played at the Tulsa, OK Photon, loved it so much that some years back he opened his own site in Broken Arrow, OK where he was able to relive the memories. He recalled one night at his own arena “We had a bunch of Photon folks show up one night, and we played until pretty late, closed it down and then sat down in one of the corners of the arena and just exchanged memories and talked.”

So many of the players look back fondly on their Photon memories. Randall Meding (aka Bhodi Li) has a memento on display at XP Laser Sport that reminds him of a particularly special event.

“That is my Ninth Platoon jersey. When we originally opened the facility here in Laurel, Maryland we held a tournament and that particular jersey was from a team that I coached. The story is all based on the Photon book series where I got my name. That tournament I coached an up and coming team and we went all the way to second place in the tournament with a bunch of people who really hadn’t played before. So that is the Bhodi Li jersey from the Ninth Platoon.”

He went on to share his memories of a pinnacle moment…his first Photon experience, saying “In 1987 the facility opened in Ocean City, Maryland. People say that there are pivotal moments in their life where you just KNOW without a doubt that this is something pivotal. I’ve never had more clarity in my life than the day my friend invited me and said ‘they’ve got a new facility, an indoor laser tag, let’s go play.’ We were out on the boardwalk because the line was so long. I didn’t know what I was getting into, I had no idea. But the second I reached the top of the steps, I hadn’t even played yet, and I said out loud ‘I will be doing this the rest of my life.’ That was 1987 and it’s 2019 now.”

And today the experience has turned into more than just memories for some. It’s turned into opportunities for bonding as some players brought their kids out to experience Photon.

David Barron (aka Starshadow) came to Phocon this year with his son Nicholas (aka Red) from Houston, TX. Nicholas noted “It’s different from other laser tags. Less kids, so more competition.” And David observed “I was wondering if it would live up to the memories and I think it did.”

Jason Helton (aka Maestro) was glad to play alongside his children as well. “Being able to bring them here for an event like Phocon, seeing my daughter strap on the equipment and run around the same kind of arena that I did when I was her age, it just sort of feels like it’s gone full circle and I won’t forget this. I think Photon reminds me of a time where things were a lot simpler, where things were a lot more innocent. It reminds me of my youth…of pure, blissful, unadulterated childhood.”

He went on to comment that “Hopefully for at least a little longer the light shines.” And that sentiment appears to be echoed by all who attended the fifth Phocon event at XP Laser Sport in Laurel, MD.

Many thanks and appreciation go out to all the staff and volunteers who helped to make Phocon 2019 a memorable event and allow players to play the original laser tag game once again. In the words of Joel (aka Slappy) from Harvey/Chicago Photon “It’s Photon. It was the first and the best!” And 35 years later the light indeed still shines.

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