Get Inside a Video Game at Albuquerque’s Electric Playhouse
Down to dodge space debris?
The first task is innocent enough: Enter through a fantastical hallway arched with blue and purple neon lights. But before you do this, there’s a list of rules. The first rule: Just Be Cool.
Because at the other end of the hallway, there’s pure mayhem. Hundreds of digital squares line the floor, lighting up in patterns that flit across the room. Following the squares are people, zig-zagging this way and that, crossing paths and almost colliding in their pursuit. You instinctively know your assignment—pick your color and stomp on its squares. Battle it out against strangers for supremacy in this futuristic whack-a-mole.
This is Electric Playhouse: 25,000 square feet of fun in an Albuquerque strip mall, a template for what digital entertainment and immersive gaming could look like in the future. It’s social, active, and, as a benefit of the medium, transitory and infinite: play a game in one room and return 30 minutes later to find it fully transformed.
“It’s a new idea of what a family entertainment center can be,” says CEO (Chief Experience Officer) John-Mark Collins, who co-founded the concept with CEO (the other kind) Brandon Garrett, architect and creative technologist. “A kind of interchangeable, always-engaging community center for the 21st century."
The night I’m there it’s almost all adults, which is striking: groups of friends, couples on dates, all acting like total fools—and loving it—as they try to dodge space debris, play full-body air hockey with a digital puck, or destroy dodgy asteroids with the aid of rubber balls. When it’s time to take a break, there’s a vibrant café and bar with a full menu, plus cocktails, like the vodka-and-blue-curaçao Electric Lemonade ($9) that looks especially cool under the bar’s psychedelic glow.
Later that night, I’ll attend one of the playhouse’s immersive four-course dinners, this one called Winter in Technicolor. Responsive images reminiscent of the season are projection mapped on the walls and the long communal tables. Wave your hand above your plate, and the image on the table ripples. And here, too, there are games: At one point, a digital spool of ribbon rolls by my plate, sent there by a diner at the other end of the table. I jerk my hand over it to get it to move, and it just barely budges. To get it to go any distance I have to wave my arms, dancing as my salmon tamale gets cold.
I eventually give up and drink my glass of wine.
Opening in February 2020, promptly closing due to Covid-19, and reopening again in June 2021, the mantra of Electric Playhouse is right there on the staff’s T-shirts: Play More. In the 16 interactive areas are rotating games, pulled from an ever-expanding library of 40, and art installations, of which they have 60 in the also-rapidly-growing archives. Images bend to your silhouette, mirrored rooms are turned into endless tunnels, digital paint splatters around you. There are DJ nights, a natural partner to the responsive digital projections, and those experiential dinners, the genesis of the whole shebang.
Under the name StoryLab, Collins specialized in immersive dining. After he met Garrett the two conceived of the gaming component. Now, they’re constantly looking to raise the bar when it comes to blending food and tech: At their Halloween dinner last year, they actually projected on the food. “In one of the courses, you were in a witch’s cottage,” says Garrett. “We had a white parsnip soup and mapped on top of the soup. When you stirred, a potion appeared on the food.”
That it's all digital, from the games to that potion, is key: room designs can flip on a whim. (You could also show up tomorrow and find the walls totally blank—helpful if hiding from the FBI.) The projection capabilities mean they can transport you anywhere at a moment’s notice, which they see as especially beneficial for educational outings, or senior-center trips. “We can take them to Paris, we can take them to the Amazon rainforest if we need to. We can build those experiences to step out of the norm and into our space.”
And they’ve already started implementing this travel-in-place philosophy in private events. Want to transform your wedding into the Met Gala? That’s been done. “The first wedding we did was a local couple who met here and traveled to New York soon after they met,” says Collins. “So they wanted to relive that travel experience to New York, especially the Met. We did a bunch of interactive art pieces, there was a photo booth, they did karaoke in one of the private rooms. It was completely immersive, but personal.” (Also very useful in a pandemic.)
But for all its sense of fantasy and transformation, Electric Playhouse has a deep sense of place. Beginning with the actual space: Collins and Garrett looked to enrich communities and the economy by bringing traffic back into empty storefronts, eventually expanding to all major markets within ten years (next up: Houston). “We had all these developers come to us with all these empty big-box spaces, trying to figure out what to do when their major anchor is gone,” says Garrett. “By being digital, we can actually transform and bring back a much wider audience than any anchor did before, to really capture these 24,000-plus-square-foot facilities and be a catalyst for those areas to bring back that foot traffic.”
Rather than be a copy-and-paste franchise, each future iteration will have elements informed by its locality. The artists tapped, perhaps, or dining elements, like the salmon tamale at my dinner. For last year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta—the largest ballooning festival of its kind in the United States—they threw a “‘Burque Brunch,” traveling through the city via its New Mexican food. In the future you might see a full hot-air balloon experience, as ballooning is famously weather-dependent. “When it’s windy, events typically get canceled,” says Garrett. “Say the glowdeo at night gets canceled, we could be the virtual glowdeo; still giving them the opportunity to see what it’s like.”
Maybe it’s the wide-open spaces or all the trippy geological formations inspiring prolific art since the early Indigenous peoples, but New Mexico has become somewhat of a creative hotspot. The high desert has called to productions from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul to Clint Eastwood’s latest, Cry Macho. Last summer, NBC Universal opened up a production studio in the city, joining Netflix, who recently invested $1 billion more in their existing studio there. Immersive juggernauts Meow Wolf got their start just down the street in Santa Fe. With room to think and nature to capture the imagination, innovation thrives on a large-scale level.
“I’ve talked with artists philosophically about that point, about New Mexico being this broad landscape,” says Collins. “People kind of come to New Mexico to find themselves, right? It’s the Southwest, it’s sunny, it’s beautiful, people are going to come and explore the mountains, and that kind of coalesces into this really creative power I think.”
And then there’s the layer of tech that the state is known for, home to Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos, one of the largest science and tech research institutions anywhere (and… nuclear-bomb creator). The two make a powerful combination. “We end up with this hybrid of software technologists and creative,” says Garrett. New Mexico artists are also now thriving in the NFT sphere, with new media artists like the Albuquerque-based Adrian Pijoan using them for works combining his interest in folklore and the Southwest landscape. Also aliens.
And future plans for Electric Playhouse see them getting more into the interactive art side of things. But unlike the fifteen immersive Van Gogh experiences across the country, the works will be responsive, and exclusive. “We’re looking at doing a full immersive art experience that takes the Van Gogh to the next level where we’re actually interactive; it’s not a passive experience,” says Collins. They’re starting with the Albuquerque-based Lea Anderson, known for biomorphic installations, one of which is already in the Playhouse. And then they’re going bigger.
“Van Gogh has blown up because all the work is in the public domain: it’s so old that anybody can grab it and do their own interpretation of it,” says Collins. “What I think is missing [in interactive art] is partnering with established museums of artists of the 20th century that are years, if not decades away from the public domain—people like Salvador Dalí.” It’s just another thing they have in the works, to be unveiled this summer. Stay tuned.