by Max Stainkamph | @maxstainkamph
I creep ‘round the bush, gun pressed to my cheek. Panting heavily – I’m very unfit – the battalion has just sprinted to the first room trying to arrive before the enemy. They’ve won the first two rounds so it’s do or die.
Judging from our first two rounds? Definitely die.
I push my head over the embankment and see the inflatable building that is ‘the room’. At three minutes in, whoever controls the room gets the point. This is repeated three times, with three minutes in between. Each team has only five respawns.
I’m surrounded by scrub. My feet are slipping on the loose dirt of the embankment. I watch one of them stick their head around the corner. I fire. Kill confirmed, my gun tells me, and I get an adrenaline kick. It feels good.
“One down, one to go,” I yell. My senses are heightened; my eyes are twitching and looking for the next target. I sense Sam moving down the hill behind me, breathing deeply. To my left, Cam steps on a twig.
I hear a click, similar to a gun’s trigger noise and I spin, seeing Harrison’s camera shutter snap closed. Fuck me, I think, breathing out. I sound like I’m in a movie. Still no movement, but I know they’re near.
Standing beside me, Cam asks if I see any more. I scour the battlefield. “No, I can’t see shit.”
I eat dirt as I take two hits, leaving me with only one life. The teenage kids with unicorn shirts–who have consistently annihilated us since we started–pour around the corner, sending our plans and our hopes up in flames.
I’m in The Basin, a small suburb at the foot of Mt Dandenong. What I’m doing is Laser Strike. I’m not sure if you call it a sport, an activity or a pastime. It’s a relatively small operation where groups of friends, workplaces and sporting teams get handed laser guns and run around shooting each other.
However, I’m here on a Sunday afternoon. The big dogs have come out to play. It’s Laser Strike’s competitive Clan Wars competition, where teams of five face off in two 20-minute games.
You get points for each game you win, plus bonus points for more than twenty kills. At the end of the season – this one goes for 13 weeks – the finals begin. Those who get into finals get to go higher up, competing with other clans around Victoria, before going on to nationals.
Laser Strike is run by a man named Weapon. His real name is Stuart Rainbow, but real names don’t get a huge amount of airtime at Clan Wars. Players adopt military call signs, because given the choice, why wouldn’t you?
He says Clan Wars is a bit of a laugh It’s enjoyable and great for team-building exercises, with the Neighbours cast and the Melbourne Stars among those who have played.
“A lot of people just want to come out to shoot their friends and have some fun,” he tells me. Where are the angry 13-year olds from Call of Duty then? “The ones who scream and throw the controller?” he laughs. “We don’t see too many people like that out here.”
Watching the game before ours, two of the best teams in the league are going at it: tactics are clinical; communication precise. I speak to one of the players from eventual winners, the Mysterious Soldiers. Known by the glorious name of Mad Dog – he’s been playing for years.
‘Mysterious’ won the national competition four years in a row. He says much of the allure is mental.
“Every year it changes. Today we had to fend off five of them coming round one side; we’ve never seen that before. You’re always thinking, always adapting.”
He also likes that it caters to many levels. “You don’t need to be all that fit to do it. I’ve got a bung hip at the moment, and while I can’t play, say, soccer, I can still walk around here shooting people.”
Weapon says a “variety” of ages play, from kids younger than ten “through to 70-year olds”. He tells me he gets “a few of the more… protective mothers” interrogating him about the violent premise of the sport, but he brushes it off.
“There’s no contact, it’s not dangerous,” he says. “If you see someone on the ground, ask ‘are you okay?’ Sometimes they’re just putting on a show, but you always have to ask. Injuries do happen here,” the man in full armour with a massive sword yells at us.
“Right, so without any further ado, let’s get into some of the weapons you’re going to get hit with out there…”
I’ve missed the first part of the introduction for “noobs,” or new players, at Swordcraft due to lines. But with the first blast I hear I almost want to go back. I can see a lot of the people around me have widened their eyes.
I’m in Carlton Gardens, about to partake in a terrifying contact sport that I haven’t played in years. Unfortunately, I’m not talking about football.
Footballers don’t wear full steel armour and scream as they run at you. Footballers don’t use bows either. Even with the big, squishy ball on the end of the arrows, the archers are nonetheless confusing, disorientating and scary. The aim of football is getting to the ball. In Swordcraft, the aim is getting to you. Killing you, specifically.
Swordcraft is what is known as a Live Action Role Play game, or LARP, and is the biggest in Victoria. It’s been going pretty much every Friday night for nearly five years and organisers say it attracts up to 400 people a night–most kitted out with shields, armour and big-arse weapons.
Like Laser Strike, three hits and you’re dead. Unlike Laser Strike, you don’t respawn until a healer makes their way around. You can also get more hit points by buying armour, which incrementally increases the amount of hits you can take until you get to 15.
Our instructor quickly allays a lot of our fears. The head is a no-go zone. People pull their blows, and the archers’ bows are very low powered. The daggers people throw around are made of plastic.
With this, I get more excited. I’ve always been a nerd. I am very excited to have a sword in my hand.
I love the prospect of going out valiantly into battle. We partner up to practice, and it’s here I remember my swordplay knowledge doesn’t extend past “stick ‘em with the pointy end”. My co-ordination is also pretty shit.
But I have tried this before and my sparring partner hasn’t. When we get called back in, I’m feeling a lot better about myself. This will be my downfall in a minute when we enter the real thing.
My first contact with the enemy is with a guy in chainmail and war paint, screaming incomprehensible gibberish as he sprints at me and swings his massive sword. All my confidence and exuberance vanishes and I panic, trying to not get hit. I get hit anyway. Hitting him twice, I get hit again and again, and then die only 20 seconds into combat. He stops screaming, grins at me, says “well done”, and runs off into the fray.
I meet up with Ziggy, who has been playing it for two and half years. I ask him what the allure is for him. “It’s a unique environment. Even as a LARPer, it’s the only battle game exclusively focused on fighting. It’s just something really nice thing to do on a Friday night. It’s cheaper than a movie ticket and more fun.”
He briefly tells me about war-bands, the different groups who play in different styles. He is from the North, who play with hit and run tactics similar to the Vikings. The Brettons are heavily armoured knights in true Ye Olde Paladin style. Elves have bows.
The man I met on the field was an orc, generally soiling the pants of the unitiated. Ziggy says that’s as far as the role-play goes on nights like this, but “all the clans have their own nights, where everyone is really in character”.
He is surprised at how much his character developed. “I didn’t really expect it to go anywhere, but now he has a kingdom and all this backstory and it’s incredible.”
While we are warned about people who don’t count their hits, Ziggy says “the community generally respects the rules, on a whole”.
I find that to be true. I don’t notice anyone miscount their hits, and several times people would stop and say ‘well done’ or just say hi. As I’m speaking to Ziggy, I meet Hawk. Or Cowpants. Or Keghammer. I don’t know which name he uses more.
He has full armour, a massive big sword and a spiky shield except the spikes are foam. “I’m Brett in the normal world but no-one cares about that here,” he says.
“The fighting is a massive part. While you can sit there and play video games, it’s awesome, but at Swordcraft you’re effectively living it. You can walk onto the field and be a totally different person”.
I’m not particularly violent. Yet when I step onto a field with a sword or gun in hand there’s this buzz.
Swordcraft and Laser Strike takes gameplay to another level. As Ziggy says, “you get to live the adventure”. There is a tangible sense of real-ness to it, because you’re there, not looking at a screen. You rarely get that buzz playing video games. And Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t quite cut it when you’re face down in the dirt, hiding from guns.
Pictures by Harrison Moss