From Joysticks to Gamepods 

The evolution of Boise's virtual playground

It was a Friday like any other ... except for the fact that The Pirate had filled most of his six-foot-six-inch frame with five shots of tequila, three pints of dark beer and a few slices of pickle from an uneaten chicken sandwich--all before 1 p.m. Staring into our sodas, El Camacho and I shared a moment of nervous amusement about what we might do with a drunken swab in the middle of the afternoon on a school day. We immediately thought of PoJo's.

I hadn't visited this warehouse of electronic amusement and nachos in eight years, but I had been saving small change for almost that long in the hope of one day returning to break my kill record on Area 51. You see, as a kid, my male friends hauled me along on gaming excursions so mama's trigger finger is hotter than the average girl's. Plus, if I can't beat a guy arm wrestling, I might as well wipe the floor with him at Tekken 3.

PoJo's was surprisingly busy. A woman flailed up and down to bad synthesizer pop on something called Dance Dance Revolution Extreme; two young men wearing backpacks, headphones and trench coats lurked around a plastic black hole; children racked up tickets on Skee-Ball row and the sound of bumper cars took me back to a time when I was under four-feet tall and "legal" to play in the ball pit.

We spent the next three hours shooting fully-automatic machine guns at zombies, dodging brontosaurus dung, riding disembodied crotch rockets through simulated streets and cramming our little operation into a photo booth to capture the moment forever. When we emerged into the daylight, I think we all felt reconnected to that part of the self that clings to the trappings of childhood--the need to spend money carelessly and assault the senses with sugar, neon and the smell of old quarters.

A few weeks later on a Tuesday afternoon, we decided to check out the 21st century offspring of the classic arcade. The Pirate (bone-dry this time) met El Camacho and myself at Infinity Entertainment (IE), a brand new, 5,000-square-foot gaming center on Overland Road. Twenty-six-year-old entrepreneur Jeremy Zollman and his partner Josh Robinson dreamed up IE a few years ago and had the vision and determination to make it happen. Having been a video game buff from the release of original Nintendo, Zollman explained that gaming has become much more than a breeding ground for socially awkward basement-dwellers.

"The term 'gamer' was traditionally construed as an antisocial teenager playing video games for hours on end because he didn't have any friends. But the culture is changing; communities are being built," he said. "The demographic is dramatically removed from the stereotypes. Hardcore people are not your typical nerds. They're 18-34, mostly male and into something that is now mainstream. This is a revolution in entertainment, and it is way beyond anything that's out there right now."

In keeping with the revolution, IE's décor is spare, industrial and spiked with vivid paintings of Marvel comic characters. They offer an espresso bar and swanky lounge, personal computer stations, facilities for business presentations, private theater rooms with nine-foot screens and a communal gaming room that accommodates 24. Each consul is equipped with a high-definition, flat screen monitor and a "gamepod" or glorified lounge chair with a surround-sound headrest and a seat wired to a 200-watt subwoofer. The only word to describe the experience of sitting in such a contraption is awesome (to be read in the voice of Garth from Wayne's World). If you thought Nintendo's rumble pack was cool, it's not. The gamepod takes that idea and turns it into a full-body fiesta of explosive sound and vibration rivaled only by the feeling of flying over a freeway median in a two-door Ford ...

Before The Pirate arrived, El Camacho and I were given the grand tour and a gamepod demo. It was three minutes of clips from popular combat and racing games mixed with classic action segments from movies like Top Gun, Lord of the Rings and The Matrix. A quick crank of the knob and I felt like I was in the cockpit with Iceman, fulfilling a double-whammy fantasy I've had since childhood to fly an F-14 Tomcat with Mad Martigan. When it was over, El Camacho and I looked at each other and knew we had just fallen in love for the first time--with a piece of furniture.

The Pirate rolled in just as we were about to initiate team play. IE has 24 popular games for X-Box in their arsenal and are open to people bringing their own, provided they fit into the "family friendly" category. We chose Star Wars Battle Front, and Zollman helped us get things synced. I have never wielded an X-Box controller and kept mixing up the buttons for "jump" and "grenade launcher." I nailed El Camacho with one of my wayward grenades, got blasted a few times and spent most of the game trying to figure out which perspective made me the least dizzy.

We moved on to a racing game called Burnout Revenge that was like putting sweet music, really sweet cars and really really sweet graphics in a blender and then throwing that blender out a high-rise window into a hurricane. I cranked my gamepod so loud I couldn't even hear my own maniacal cackling as I exploded into oncoming semis and bumped my opponents off the road. Pole Position is a great classic, but Burnout Revenge in a gamepod in a dark room with a giant screen is an out-of-body experience. The Pirate got so worked up that he sweated through two layers of shirts. Needless to say, we were impressed with how far things have come since Q-bert.

There will always be a special place in my heart for the one-dimensional, joystick-driven games of yore, but after experiencing Zollman and Robinson's brainchild, I don't know if I can ever go back. IE is the only place in the country that has gamepods. They are blazing a trail for entertainment that combines community-building, hand-eye coordination and a welcome dose of sensory overload. In the immortal words of The Pirate, "There was seriously something about the simulated speed and carnage that set something off in the primitive part of my brain, creating this amazing euphoric feeling of absolute invincibility that will ultimately, I'm sure, be my demise." Amen, sailor.

Pojo's Family Fun Center, 7736 Fairview Ave., 376-6981, wwwpojos.com; Infinity Entertainment, 4750 Overland Rd., 344-3407, www.playthefuture.net.

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