"No matter where you go, there you are," observed Dr. Emilio Lizardo, the villain of the film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. That '80s-style comic-book credo is the sort of thing espoused by devotees of Photon, an Atomic Age live-action game that's a cross between cops-and-robbers and capture-the-flag. Played in an arena with appurtenances that make it look as though it could be the summer home of Zontar (you know, the Thing from Venus), the planet Photon was first sighted in Dallas in April 1984 and has since established bases in four other cities; plans exist to invade 50 more by the end of the year.
The Photon outpost in Kenilworth, N.J. attracts about 1,500 players a week. Like their counterparts in other outposts, each adopts a code name, quite often taken from a work of science fiction: Digital Chicken, say, or Raistlin, a figure in Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's trilogy, Dragonlance Chronicles. The Photonian Raistlin, who manages a Burger King by day, plays up to 15 times a week, at $3.50 a pop.
"I like the workout, the adrenaline flow, the fact that it's sports on a videogame level of intensity," says ESO, an earnest '60s refugee whose nom de Photon is short for Extended Sensory Orientation.
"I like the feeling I get when I'm really nukin'," says Sheena, a 14-year-old heavy-metal princess jangling with braces and a silver crucifix.
"I like hunting people," says Parcival, an 18-year-old college student.
All Photon players are would-be galactic hit men who are divided equally into red and green teams and outfitted with 13 pounds of gear that includes a holster laden with batteries and a long-barreled ray gun that shoots bursts of light. Their helmets and chest pods pulse either crimson or emerald.
To begin a game, as few as two and up to 20 warriors are set loose in a strobe-lit, carpeted arena that shelters the Photonian rites. It's a giant room honeycombed with catwalks, catacombs, bunkers, foxholes and battlements. You keep expecting to see an extraterrestrial lurking like a clump of menacing asparagus.
Shrouded in a swirling mist and goaded on by an increasingly adrenal sound track, Photonians dart here and there sniping at opposing team members while ducking and dodging enemy fire. After 6½ minutes the music stops and a siren voice orders players to head for the exit for their final scores.
An elaborate system of light sensors and microprocessors keeps track of who has done what to whom and how often. Video monitors flash running scores that are displayed throughout the complex. You get 10 points for zapping an opponent and lose 10 for getting phasered, 30 for shooting a teammate. If you take a direct hit, the lights on your helmet blink yellow and a rasping hum echoes through your skull like a buzz bomb. But resurrection is a way of life on Photon: You don't die; your phaser suffers a five-second "disruption." For a quarter you can get a printout of the game at the arena's concession stand.
The game's inventor, 39-year-old George Carter, is an alumnus of the bumper-boat and motorized-surfboard world—and, incidentally, of the high school in Scottsdale, Ariz, that produced Steven Spielberg. In fact, he got the idea for Photon nine years ago after watching the laser-gun battles in Star Wars.
Photon phreaks call Carter the Creator and pretty much go along with his claim that his is the ultimate game on planet Earth. "I thought it would really be something to crawl inside a video game and get into the action," says Carter. Photon, he says, is just the first in an approaching wave of "participatory amusements." Eventually, he would like to see his players dashing in, out and around holograms, pictures in empty space that create the appearance of solid, three-dimensional objects.
Theoretically, women Photonians have an even chance with men, but it hasn't worked out that way. "Older women don't do as well because they have too much compassion," says one Mr. Spacely. "And a young woman running around in the dark with seven or eight guys after her, well, she has to be intimidated."
Mr. Spacely, a prosperous architect in his late 30s, is one of the oldest regulars at the Dallas arena and captain of a team called the Jetsons. Once he cut short a business trip to Saudi Arabia in order to get home for league night. Last year he broke 2,000 points in a single game (a strong score is 400), an occurrence as rare as a glitch-free shuttle mission. "It was one of the greatest achievements of my life," he says. "No, it was my greatest achievement."
He finds it tough, though, to compete against Photonians young enough to be his children. "Stealth and treachery are in my favor," he says, "but I just can't outrun the younger guys." Even on the planet Photon, your legs go first.
Would-be star warriors nuke it out like human blips inside a life-sized video game.