Life’s Funny

Virtually There

Mother and son game the system

 

By Maria Johnson

They just kept coming, those ugly-as-sin, violence-prone Barbarians called Orcs. We’d chop down one wave of them, and before you knew it, here’d come another line, rushing our peaceful, law-abiding, walled-off village on a hill.

Then we — meaning my 22-year-old son and I, who were posted on towers — would rain arrows down on them while they hurled axes at us.

It was all in good fun until one of their axes came helicoptering, thwap-thwap-thwap, for my head.

I hit the dirt. Hard. Right onto the padded floor of my booth at Dimensional Drop, a virtual reality arcade that opened in Greensboro earlier this year.

Co-owner Christine Werner rushed over to help me up. She adjusted the headset that fed me the sights and sounds of the game Elven Assassin, and untangled me from the wired controller in each hand.

“Did they get me?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m afraid so.”

“Am I dead?”

“Yeah.”

“Dammit. Can I play again?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s go,” I said, brushing off an aching right hip.

The next onslaught of Orcs didn’t stand a chance.

“Whoa,” said my son through the headset. “You shredded them.”

“Mama don’t play,” I said.

Actually, I was playing because, as I learned years ago, when your kid asks you to join him in a game, you do it. Even if he dunks on you then accuses you of flagrantly fouling him, which, of course you did. Even if he aces you with the serve you taught him. Cold. Even if he knocks your block off in boxing. More on that later.

My son already had tried virtual reality gaming with friends, and they’d had a blast. Plus, he said sweetly, VR gaming was easier than console gaming, a not-so-veiled reference to my long-ago, wreckage-strewn experiment with the Grand Theft Auto. Too many buttons, not enough neurons.

So off we went to Dimensional Drop, the brainchild of 34-year-old Brian Doyle, his wife Christine Werner, and Doyle’s childhood friend Marc Colaco, a urologist who figured there weren’t enough ways to scare the pee out of people.

Just a guess.

Actually, the trio figured that technology had finally caught up to VR gaming, an immersive experience that puts you inside the game as a character.

Brian remembers going into a virtual gaming pod at Disneyland’s Epcot Center in the early 1990s. “It was glitchy, and there was a delay in the feedback,” he says. “If you tilted your head, it took a second for the picture to follow you. It made you nauseous.”

Today, computer processors are a bajillion times stronger, which means that when you move your head in a virtual reality game, the scenery moves with you smoothly. “Graphics cards only recently became capable of this kind of brute-force power,” says Brian, adding that VR parlors are mushrooming nationwide.

Dimensional Drop, which opened in February, was Greensboro’s second virtual reality arcade. A third, VR Dimensions, opened shortly afterward. The pioneer shop, Shift, was open for three years before closing recently.

To shore up its chances of survival, Dimensional Drop aims for a wide swath of customers, not just the young men that dominate console gaming.

Christine, a digital project manager for Bassett Furniture, built a user-friendly website that explains the 65 games customers can chose from.

She also called most of the design shots in the open-concept arcade, where playing booths are separated by fabric dividers, cutting down on possibility of injuries and drywall repairs.

The team built the dividers themselves. “We MacGyvered the whole place,” says Brian, referring to the TV character who used resourceful fixes to carry out government missions.

Brian says most of their customers are young couples looking for a fun date night. Kids’ birthday parties are starting to fill up the weekends, though the arcade waves off children younger than 6 years old.

“We feel like under 6 has a hard enough time with reality anyhow,” says the website (dimensionaldrop.com).

The best VR players tend to be hard-core console gamers and, because the games reward intuitive movement, people with no experience, Brian says.

He recalls a family who came in recently: a grandfather, his son and two grandchildren. Pops, who’d held nary a controller but who’d been an archer in his younger days, outplayed everyone in Elven Assassin.

Full disclosure: I’m that mom who loathes violent video games, especially shooter games. Training your mind to kill, even if it’s pretend, is still training your mind to kill.

That’s what I always said, anyway, until my son and I moved onto Arizona Sunshine, which put us in an abandoned mine shaft with zombies that I promptly riddled with bullets.

Like I’m going to stand there and be devoured by walkers.

Finally, we played the boxing game Creed, based on the Rocky movies. We donned our virtual gloves. The kid was Creed. I was Mr. T. because I pity the fool who hits his mama.

And yet, that’s what he did.

I fought back furiously.

“Mom,” my son said calmly through his headset.

“What?” I said, panting.

“Kicking doesn’t work in this game,” he said.

OK, fine. I went toddler on him, both fists churning like paddle wheelers.

For some reason, he won.

That’s OK. It was a good time.

I’m virtually sure I’d go back.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can be reached at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

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