Drinking in a battlefield

Matthew Valentine samples the delights of a new bar where the clientele pit their wit and dexterity against each other in a bout of computer gaming.

It must have been tempting to call The Playing Fields Рa new venture mixing a licensed bar and caf̩ with a network of games-packed computers РThe Killing Fields instead.

The bar offers punters the chance to play computer games against one another with, theoretically, the only limit on the number of players involved being the number of PC stations available. There are over 20 units in the bar, with a selection of games ranging from Formula One racing games to heavily armed bloodbaths.

With a mostly male contingent of visitors to last week’s press launch, the shoot-em-ups proved to be the most popular, providing the spectacle of mild-mannered young men baying for blood and more weapons. Quake II, in which players roam mazes collecting larger and larger weapons with which to kill other players, was the most popular.

At one point around a dozen players were hooked up, in a frenzied shoot out involving pistols, shotguns, Gatling guns and missile launchers. This produced a remarkably jolly atmosphere, because, despite hysterical reports from the Mary Whitehouses of the world, it’s all just a game.

Perhaps the biggest strength of the bar is that players can, and shamelessly do, interact both on and off-screen. At one point a player joyously informed us, “I’ve just found the most awesome gun.” While co-founder Edward Watson remarked: “That had to hurt,” after reducing my character to lumps of flesh with a well-aimed rocket. All this on top of the gunshots and agonised screams relayed to players via headsets.

This interaction will be promoted heavily when The Playing Fields starts offering itself as a venue for corporate entertainment and team-building exercises. And some of the games on offer, such as Duke Nukem, allow specially tailored stages to be developed. Problems which can only be solved with the use of coordinated teamwork can then be introduced, adding a practical element to the fun.

The bar will be open to the public too, with discounts and other incentives, such as e-mail addresses, for those who take up membership. “We want people to come and know there will always be somebody to play against,” says Watson, adding: “If there isn’t anybody else, we’ll play with them.” Not many bar proprietors would make such an offer. Or at least not in the same context.

The Playing Fields is not intended to be a techie paradise, and the fact that computer games are now a mainstream leisure pursuit is highlighted by the lack of warm and sensible weatherproof jackets on display. Neither staff nor players at the launch came in anoraks. This is important for those of us who don’t have the vast PC experience necessary to actually load a piece of software – there is no intimidating techno-speak to hinder the fun.

The environment too, is reassuringly non-technical, painted in warm colours and with cosy booths available so couples can fight or race in private. Previously a nightclub, it has been mellowed by architect Patrick Ingles and designer Oliver Price and given a logo by Silverleaf Photographics.

Although open now The Playing Fields will not officially launch for another month, after the gremlins unleashed when 20 computers are linked together have been completely banished. More experienced PC game players at the press night were pretty impressed with the speed of the systems anyway, but they did occasionally freeze.

At some point after the official launch we’ll know if people are prepared to pay to shoot their friends and colleagues. As if we needed to ask.

The Playing Fields is at 139-143 Whitfield Street, London W1. Telephone: 0171-388 0004.

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