Zap! Pow! Splat!

Laser tag and paintball can enhance teamwork, communications, and planning

Why just daydream about demolishing your competitors? You may find more satisfaction in rubbing out rivals for sport--at one of the increasingly popular places where you can wage war games for a modest fee.

More and more business managers and employees are acting out their aggression these days at the country's 500 laser-tag arenas, where opponents in sci-fi-style gear shoot at each other with laser guns. Or at the 1,000 or so paintball fields, where combatants do battle with air pistols that fire paint pellets. (When you're daubed you're dead.) While the regulars still run largely to rambunctious teenagers and outdoorsy types, proprietors estimate that business folk now make up about 15% of the clientele--and they say it's growing. It's a way "to get employees away from work, but with the people they work with," says Gary Harshfield, owner of the 11-employee Siler Printing in Denver.

SKILLS TRAINING. Not that most of these payroll paladins are just out there enjoying themselves, of course. They insist they're not only reducing their stress levels but also improving skills in communication, teamwork, and strategic planning. "We decided that it would be better to have battles on the court than in the boardroom," says Deborah Iafrate, client-services director at the Eagle Group USA Inc., an eight-person automotive-consulting firm in Troy, Mich., which recently topped off a grueling, daylong planning meeting with an hour of fierce laser tag.

Each form of mock warfare has its own appeal. Besides toting laser guns, laser-tag warriors get to wear high-tech body sensors and helmets that produce video-game noises whenever an opponent gets hit. Players wander a dimly lit, multilevel maze, trying to deactivate their foes and knock out their base camp--a small, heavily guarded, electronic target. According to S. Erik Guthrie, executive director of the International Laser Tag Assn., participants learn to "get your base points early and then defend your own base." This message, he swears, has commercial significance, too: "For a small business, this is the same as learning you should guarantee your market share and then go after your competitor's lunch."

Paintball tends to be more down and dirty. These militarized versions of capture-the-flag are staged outdoors. Players suit up in camouflage jumpsuits, goggles, and face masks, plot elaborate tactics, and race around simulating raids and retreats. "At work we're real relaxed, but you could see how this got everyone motivated and pumped up," says Ian Barnes, who visited a San Diego paintball park with 14 colleagues from Berwick Productions Inc., a company that trains exotic birds for films, TV commercials, and wildlife parks.

SPOTTING LEADERS. Some bosses keep serious score, quietly noting how staffers perform to gauge leadership potential. At day's end, says Vern Wallace, who runs Paintball Adventures in Tulsa, "they'll ask why employees gravitated to a certain person or why someone didn't command authority."

Not everyone thrills to the make-believe battle, to be sure. Some employees may find the exercises too violent, macho, or slightly ridiculous. When his team took to the field, Barnes recounts, "At first, only the guys were up to it, and the women were leery. But they ended up playing, and we still talk about it to this day."

The cost of all this camaraderie? For paintball, figure on spending $35 to $50 per person, depending on how much ammunition you'll need (always more than you expect), and $5 to $7 a head for 10 to 12 minutes of laser tag. You can save money, however, by renting a whole laser arena, which usually goes for $300 to $400 per hour, and corporate discounts are widely available.

At those prices, don't expect to produce fully-trained soldiers or keep the cool clothes. But by the time you get back to the office, your team should be ready to take on the world--or at least your competition.

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