PHOTON--A GAME FOR THE STAR WARRIOR IN ALL OF US

The infrared-light gun felt strange in my hand: The last weapon I'd held was a cap pistol, more than 20 years ago when I was a child. But Runner, the Red Squad leader, told us we'd have to move faster, and soon my best friend, Stuart, and I were running through a dimly lit maze in Fountain Valley, dodging beams of light and shooting at the enemy Green Squad.

Photon, the game we were playing, is an elaborate fantasy entertainment that adds light guns, lasers, computers and other high-tech paraphernalia to the old-fashioned game of cops and robbers. More fun than a round of Meteor Attack and as good a workout as an aerobics class, it's like being inside a video game.

Invented in 1984 by George Carter III of Dallas, Photon is rapidly increasing in popularity, and may become the next national craze. There are 18 game centers operating in the United States and Canada, with 60 to 70 more scheduled to open this year. Players in several cities have formed leagues. An action-adventure series based on the game premiered in TV syndication last fall, and scores of manufacturers are turning out Photon products that range from sportswear to party napkins to lunch boxes. On Friday, Universal Studio Tours will open a Photon Laser Gallery that will use the same light guns in a shooting-gallery setting.

With 10,000 square feet of playing space, the Fountain Valley installation is the largest in the country--and the only one in Southern California. The game area is a complex, two-story maze; neon, video screens, lasers, mirrors and fog machines contribute to the futuristic atmosphere of an imaginary planet.

Players must be at least 4-foot-6, and they have to wear 14 pounds of green or red equipment: a power-pack belt that energizes the infrared gun, a helmet that looks a bit like Boba Fett's (the bounty hunter in "The Empire Strikes Back") and a lighted chest shield. After suiting up, the two teams enter the game area.

Each player assumes a code name, like Runner (center employee Craig Peters); a computer keeps score, updating the totals on a video monitor every two seconds. Shooting an opponent's helmet or shield gets you 10 points and costs him an additional 10. Hitting one of your own teammates carries a 30-point penalty, and shooting the target in the enemy's base is good for a 200-point bonus. The game lasts six minutes and 400 is considered a good score. Between us, Stuart and I racked up 60 points in two games--not too bad for novices, but Runner's score was 700.

Photon requires agility and fast reflexes: A good player can aim, shoot and duck in a single motion. Runner darted and dodged through the maze like an X-Wing Fighter attacking the Death Star. Stuart and I followed as best we could: Neither of us could hit the broad side of a spaceship with those light guns. We managed to win the second game, but we felt more like Arthur Dent in "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" than Luke Skywalker.

Photon will undoubtedly appall the self-styled watchdog groups who believe role-playing fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons are too violent for children--or anybody else. I had qualms about shooting someone, even with a beam of infrared light, and I didn't expect to enjoy the game as much as I did.

But Photon doesn't feel violent. The rules forbid players to come within five feet of each other--and the light pistols won't fire if they do. No one gets hurt and nobody thinks about hurting anyone: The game moves too quickly to build any malice toward an opponent. It's run, duck and fire at the colored lights. Players in pickup basketball games are more hostile and aggressive.

I'd like to play Photon again, although I doubt I'll ever be very good. Meanwhile, I'm ready if George Lucas needs an experienced hand to be an Imperial Storm Trooper in the next "Star Wars" film--they never hit anything either.

The Photon Game Center is at 9380 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley. Information: (714) 968-2508.

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