At This Club, You Put On the Show

A Seattle night spot uses fantasy and fun to teach adults lost skills of social interaction

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SEATTLE'S latest contribution to entertainment is something decidedly unlike the ear-pummeling beat of ``grunge'' rock.

It is more like virtual reality turned upside down.

At a year-old nightclub called Entros, a woman is seated in front of a black-and-white video monitor, frantically talking into a microphone: ``Go left! OK, straight ahead.... Stop!''

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She is coaching her male friend through a series of tasks he must perform in two adjacent rooms while blindfolded. Looking at video images from a camera mounted on his head, she helps him find a hidden key, open a door into the next room, complete a simple jigsaw puzzle, and throw little beanbags through a hole several yards away.

The game, called InterFace II, uses a high-tech helmet that looks similar to those used to create the computer-generated visual experiences known as virtual reality. But this helmet leaves the operator without vision, at the mercy of instructions transmitted from his friend next door.

To Entros founders Stephen Brown and Andy Forrest, this game and the club itself are about helping people have fun through contact with other people.

``We are very concerned with how people socially interact in a modern world,'' Mr. Brown says. ``As society becomes more hyper-efficient,'' with fax machines and superstores, automated banking and at-home shopping, the result is often ``less opportunity for face-to-face social interaction.''

Brown says returning to the modes of some earlier era is not his goal, even if that were possible. But as the information superhighway expands, he sees Entros as an ``antidote.''

Many people come just to eat dinner and watch the games. Other visitors ignore the food and drink, paying only for a game-playing pass. Some will meet new people here, while many stick with the friends they came with.

Brown says the fundamental goal of what he calls ``The Intelligent Amusement Park'' is that all these people, from middle-aged professionals to hip college-age youths, have a good time.

But along the way, says Mr. Forrest, the game overseer, they may do some social learning. He tells of one woman who thanked him for a game that opened up a wonderful conversation with her husband about their marriage. (In the game, she could speak to her husband, but he couldn't speak back to her.)

At first glance, Entros's interior looks like a trendy restaurant, dimly lit with tables surrounding a central grill, and piped-in rock music. But what is the wax model of Lenin's corpse, dressed in a black suit, doing near the restrooms? Why is a television set mounted in the floor? Why are some guests disappearing through a door into something called ``The Mind Shaft''?

The answers have to do with the games, of course, which currently are based around the theme ``Spy by Night,'' harking back to the ``Mission: Impossible'' and ``Get Smart'' TV shows.

The games and props (including a shoe phone) can hardly fail to entice those who want to imagine themselves as secret agents: One event gives participants six minutes (the supposed time of a guard's bathroom break) to steal back plutonium from terrorists. Another puts three teams, each with six people, in a room, with no one knowing who is on his side. The game ends when one group successfully links up.

If players get stuck, they can ask an Entros host trained to keep the games challenging while also having compassion on frustrated participants.

The games blend the intellectual with the athletic: In one, a team of players goes through an exercise that Forrest calls ``three-dimensional Twister'' to ``disarm'' a security system.

The club changes its ``show'' of games every five months or so.

Brown says group games for adults are ``not an extrapolation of a child's play model at all, really.'' Where children are willing to let themselves get lost in a fictitious world, adults are reluctant to do so in front of their peers. Where children can be led through a game, adults want more freedom to find their own way, he says. So the games here - all copyrighted by Entros - are designed to lure people with intriguing processes and open-ended options.

While Brown runs the business side of Entros, Forrest, a theater director in college, is in charge of game development. The gamemakers (roughly 11 at present) work in small teams, with an eye to such mundane issues as crowd control and attention spans, as well as sheer creativity.

Actually, only about half the business happens in the nightclub. Entros also does custom work, designing activities used in corporate product rollouts, education, and management training.

The company hopes to have clubs in other cities, and some overseas, to act as catalysts for new business with outside clients.

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