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The Spirit Within

Ocean Resort offers a unique approach to getting away—and finding yourself.

Decked out in camouflage army fatigues and grinning ear to ear, Andy Cowan looks every bit the kid-at-heart. Before moving to Canada two and a half years ago with his wife and three daughters (his wife’s idea—he’d wanted to move to New Zealand for the rugby), Cowan ran a string of Domino’s Pizza joints in the UK, and he only got involved in the laser tag racket because he wanted something that would get him outdoors. He’s the most unassuming fellow you could ever hope to meet, and by all appearances he’s much more Average Joe than G.I. Joe.

In 1978, however, when he was just 16 years old, Cowan enlisted in the British Army and was a soldier for more than five years. The instantly likeable bloke who today makes his livelihood playing war games with children was once a trained soldier who served in Germany, Northern Ireland and even the Falklands.

While Cowan doesn’t appear eager to discuss his time in the army, he does admit that he draws from his military experience when he puts on his “drill sergeant” act for kids at North Island Battlefield.

“It’s all part of the game,” he says. “When I go to schools for fundraisers they just love it. They bring down the kids and I yell at them. It’s all tongue and cheek, like ‘You’re in the army now, do as you’re told!’ It’s all good fun.”

Because Cowan is able to transport the guns, helmets and sensors anywhere he has permission to play, his battles are quite regularly held as fundraisers for schools and other community organizations. He recently held a midnight game at a church for a Christian Life group, and Cowan’s face lights up as he relives the event.

“I was the Terminator and everyone had to run from me. They could kill me eventually, they just had to work hard. I had a better weapon and I just walked around the building and killed them all. They were running and screaming; they had a good time.”

Naturally, there are some parents who cringe at the idea of simulated gunplay with their children, particularly, perhaps, when those same children are ostensibly at church to grow in their faith. In response, Cowan points out that the weapons they use, while intimidating, don’t really resemble real guns, and that most parents come around after they see how much fun it is.

While young boys, typically around 11 years old, make up the bulk of local laser tag enthusiasts, North Island Battlefield’s clientele touches virtually every demographic. Cowan’s battlefield has seen frenetic firefights between young children, sniper fire from old ladies, strategic missions orchestrated by corporate coworkers and deadly warfare between members of stag parties.

“You can get the whole family out,” says Cowan. “We’ve had four- and five-year-olds play and we’ve had grannies play. I’ve had kids in wheelchairs play and we even had a blind girl here one day. She could see the shapes of the bunkers and the bushes and stuff but she couldn’t see any details. I just held her elbow and led her around the field, and every time she saw something move she shot at it. She had a great time!

“We’ve even had mom’s groups come out and play, although I think they spent more time discussing where they bought their camo pants from than actually playing laser tag.”

Unlike paintball, says Cowan, laser tag attracts a surprising number of female participants since there is absolutely no pain involved.

“It’s funny, boys play completely differently than girls. Girls will hunker down and not move, whereas with boys, I blow the whistle and they’re off running. And of course the girls are picking them off like nobody’s business. Then the girls get a bit more adventurous and the boys calm down a bit, and it sort of evens out.

“Girls like it because they can beat boys. It’s not about being stronger or faster or bigger, as most sports are, it’s about thinking and communicating and being a team.”

With the sweat still moist on my forehead and the adrenaline still surging from the excitement of our simulated battle, I find myself already looking forward to our next session. Fortunately my comrades, while sitting in the “graveyard” awaiting the victor of our final death match, had already begun formulating plans to get a larger group out for another round of laser warfare. This sort of enthusiasm, says Cowan, is not uncommon.

“We see the same faces coming back time and time again. I can’t think of anyone who’s not enjoyed it. Most people go off the field with big grins.”

Eager to tap Cowan’s surely vast laser tag expertise before our next battle, I ask him for some tips on the most effective strategies. He talks a bit about angles and about getting out to the flanks, and then offers what could be the golden rule of laser tag, the one maxim that must never be forgotten.

“You have to pick your moment to move,” he says. “You can’t outrun a beam of light.”

To book a session with North Island Battlefield or for more information, call 250-202-3484 or visit the North Island Battlefield web site
“It just makes you into a kid again,” says North Island Battlefield’s Andy Cowan, kneeling at right.  Writer Ryan Parton, top left, agrees.  “It’s awesome,” says Parton, who enjoyed a recent game with friends (from left) Daniel Scherr, Andrew Brown and Aaron Heppell (kneeling).

My heart pounding, I crouch anxiously behind the bunker—the only thing protecting me from a sure barrage of enemy fire. A bead of sweat trickles down the bridge of my nose. The cold steel of my automatic weapon, which I’ve just used to dispatch two enemy fighters, feels reassuring in my clenched hands. Only now I don’t know which way to point it. Somewhere out there in this barren field, hiding behind a bunker just as I am, is one last enemy.

Cautiously, I poke my helmeted head around the bunker and scan the battlefield. I feel exposed. Vulnerable. The dusty monochrome field, littered with tires, plywood bunkers and no shortage of hiding spots, blends seamlessly with the grey sky above. He could be anywhere.

Suddenly, I see movement. He’s behind a bunker about 50 metres ahead. I’ve got him. I rise to my feet, fix my sight on the bunker and slowly advance. My finger flexes against the trigger. Adrenaline courses through my veins. A helmeted head pokes above the bunker. I pull the trigger.

“Aaaggghh…!” The metallic, computerized death scream that emanates from the enemy’s weapon tells me that he’s dead. I’ve won. Sure, if this were a real battle I would have been dead myself a few times over, as the display on the back of my weapon tells me that I was hit seven times over the course of the frenzied 10-minute firefight. But this isn’t a real battle. It’s North Island Battlefield. It’s laser tag, and it’s awesome!

Forget everything you think you know about laser tag. As Vancouver Island’s only outdoor laser tag operation, North Island Battlefield isn’t about the flashing lights, smoke machines and other faux-futuristic kitsch that I’d experienced with indoor laser tag as a teenager. It’s about realistic missions and combat scenarios that offer all the excitement of real battle without any of the nastiness that accompanies actually being shot. Above all else, however, it’s about good, clean fun.

“People don’t realize how much fun it is until they come and give it a go,” says Andy Cowan, the amiable British ex-pat who founded North Island Battlefield just over two years ago. “Everybody who goes up (to our battlefield) turns into a nine-year-old. It doesn’t matter how old they are or whatever, they get up there and after the first game they’re all giggling and sniggering. It just makes you into a kid again.”

During the spring and summer, North Island Battlefield is open daily for public games, with each game accommodating up to 40 players. Groups of 10 or more can also book private sessions whenever they want, day or night and year-round, either at Cowan’s four-acre battlefield near Black Creek or at any location that the group has permission to use.

Although hugely popular in Australia and gaining momentum in the US, laser tag remains relatively obscure in British Columbia. In fact, North Island Battlefield is one of only a small handful of outdoor laser tag facilities in the entire province. Nonetheless, Cowan feels that the tide is slowly turning as people begin to realize that laser tag can deliver all the excitement of other combat simulations, like paintball, without any of the pain.

“With paintball, a lot of people say they’ve done it once,” says Cowan. “They do it once and they don’t like the bruises and welts that they get.

“With this, there’s no real danger,” he continues, adding that several paintball fields in the US have started converting to laser tag as insurance rates for paintball climb steadily higher. “With paintball you can lose eyes and all sorts of stuff. This is harmless fun. It’s a bit like when we were kids before all this technology, and we’d go out at night and play torch tag, with what you call a flashlight. It’s like paintball without the pain.”

Laser tag, a gimmicky name that belies the game’s intensity (and the fact that most laser tag weapons are more similar to your TV’s remote control than to an actual laser) was born back in 1979 with the release of Star Trek’s original Electronic Phaser toy. Since then, it has evolved into a massive industry, with both indoor and outdoor venues offering leagues, tournaments and public games. Despite its relative obscurity in British Columbia, national laser tag championships are held annually in both the United States and Australia, and every July players from around the world compete for international supremacy in a four-day tournament known as Armageddon.

A simple game at North Island Battlefield plays out as follows: Cowan divides the group into two teams and kits each player out with a “Scorpion” sub-machine gun and a helmet rigged with three sensors. After explaining the rules and loading each soldier with a pre-determined number of “lives,” he blows a whistle and the players disperse on the battlefield. A second whistle signals that the battle has begun. The first team to “kill” all of the opposing players wins. Sound simple? It doesn’t have to be.

“It’s a different game depending on whichever group is playing,” explains Cowan. If we have a lot of little kids it’s really just a run around shoot ’em up sort of game. If we have bigger people then we try to change it so there’s more of an objective to it rather than just shooting the other team.”

Possible scenarios include “capture the flag” games and missions to a particular bunker by a certain time limit.

“If we go out in a really big area,” says Cowan, “we can do things like escorting a VIP from point A to point B. So one team will be trying to escort somebody and the other team will be trying to pick him off.”

When I was invited out for a game with a small group of mercenary friends, Cowan led us through another popular scenario. Donning the role of enemy sniper, Cowan hid amongst the trees at the far end of the battlefield and began picking us off as we scrambled from cover to cover trying to locate him and take him out.

It was absolutely nerve-racking. The short dashes between bunkers seemed like marathons. Occasionally our guns would issue a surprised “Ow!” indicating that we’d been hit. We didn’t know where the sniper was and we didn’t know where it was safe to take cover. While I’d never want to be put in that situation for real, on the North Island Battlefield, it was a tremendous rush.

“You don’t realize how hard it is for real,” says Cowan after we’d finally tracked him down and dispatched him. “If you’re running around with 50 pounds of kit and body armour and a proper Kevlar helmet, not a plastic one, it’s hard work.” I assumed he was talking from speculation rather than from any personal experience. I was wrong.