There was once, probably, a time in our lives when we did something other than look at illuminated video screens all day, right? There must have been. What was that other thing we did?
Oh, yeah; it was play.
Playing games, playing with toys, playing with some random object and one’s own imagination. That was all anyone needed.
Before playtime was crowded out by the ever-encroaching requirements of school and work, we spent a lot of our time playing. Though we may have fond memories of it, playtime wasn’t just “fun.” In fact, the idea that playing is actually quite an important part of cognitive and social development for children is becoming commonplace.
Game designer Adam Nelson has long seen the value of play and wondered, “Why do we ever stop?” So, he started a group called Obscure Games Pittsburgh in 2010 — dedicated to creating or reviving games and sports like “Circle Rules Football,” “Tire Rugby” and “Trolley Ball,” and getting adults to play them.
Eventually, his concept of play and its value changed, and he rebranded the group as a nonprofit: City of Play.
This winter, the group is starting a bi-weekly afternoon/evening indoor game series called The Rec Room: Winter Games at Spirit in Lawrenceville. The event is being presented in conjunction with Pandemic, one of the city’s best DJ dance parties.
It will all start Jan. 24, with music by Andre Costello and the Cool Minors and DJ Miss Mungo spinning soul, funk and psychedelia from around the world.
The Rec Room will feature games like “Johann Sebastian Joust,” “Bally” and “Gaga.”
“ ‘Joust’ is musical chairs meets light sabers, basically,” Nelson explains. “It’s a dancing, dueling, fighting game played to the music of (Johann Sebastian) Bach. ‘Bally’ is Four-Square with nine squares. ‘Gaga’ is Israeli dodgeball — dodgeball in a 20-foot octagonal pit. It’s actually less violent than some dodgeball games.
“As a general rule, these games are accessible to everyone: adults, kids, people of all athletic abilities.”
The idea grew out of event promoter/DJ (Pandemic) Pete Spynda’s weekly summer Weather Permitting events at Shadyside Nursery, a rare, truly-all-ages evening concert series with live bands, food trucks, craft beer, squirt guns and hula hoops. Like Weather Permitting, The Rec Room will feature live bands and DJs, while people play games — or just drink, watch and listen.
“Play is a state of mind,” Nelson says. “Our goal is to use what we know about play to improve how people understand one another, participate in communities, how they learn about new ideas and contribute their own ideas, and how people work together. Play is the mechanism, or lens, through which we approach issues businesses and communities deal with all the time: How do we, as people, find common ground and find ways to work together?”
City of Play is two people at the moment: Nelson and Greg Manley, the “creator and Commissioner of ‘Circle Rules Football.’” Getting all sorts of people and groups to play is their mission, and it has taken a lot of shapes so far.
“We also did a board game for a procurement-services company to help them teach this rather complex process of stakeholder management,” Nelson says. “Also, we worked with the Heinz History Center to redevelop one of their exhibits to make it more interactive and playful.
“We helped start this summer camp for underprivileged teens (412 Build), which teaches making skills, entrepreneurial skills, design-thinking and team development through play. … It’s a powerful tool for people to get to know each other and get comfortable working together.”
The Rec Room: Winter Games will be held every other Sunday this winter. Check out weatherpermittingpgh.com/wintergames or cityofplay.org for updates and each week’s live music lineup.
The great Escape
Another sort of game that’s taking off — locally and nationally — is the “escape room” phenomenon.
It’s somewhere between a haunted house and a live-action video game, in which participants must solve puzzles in a room-size environment before time runs out.
Joe Deasy opened the first one in Pittsburgh (in Greenfield) last year and is expanding with another larger location in a long-abandoned bank building in Homestead — formerly PNC Bank and the Monongahela Trust Co.
“One of our rooms is going to be called ‘Carnegie’s Millions,’” Deasy says. “We were told Andrew Carnegie kept his money in there. … It was one of the banks he used. There’s this gigantic vault door.”
Greenfield’s two rooms are “Dr. Stein’s Laboratory” and “Prison Escape.”
Other than the room’s name, participants aren’t given much information to work with to make the puzzles and “escape” more challenging.
The concept was an easy sell for Deasy, who tried his first escape room while on vacation in Budapest.
“I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he says. “I booked it for an afternoon session, went again that night and did it the next day. I called my cousin in Pittsburgh, Corey. We started designing it on paper, prototype things. Eight months later, we got the Greenfield location.”
An opening date for the Homestead location hasn’t been set, but it’s getting close, Deasy says. At 7,500 square feet, it’s six times the space in Greenfield. It will fill the bottom floor, with upper floors planned as event space.
The Homestead location’s first theme room is called “Tomb Explorer.”
“It’s next-level, an Egyptian tomb,” Deasy says, “a more interactive experience than in Greenfield.”
Already, there’s competition, with Daring Room Escapes in Shadyside and two other escape rooms set to open on the South Side and in Charleroi.
Escape Room sites
Escape Room Pittsburgh: 569 Greenfield Ave., Greenfield. 412-742-4645 or escaperoompgh.com
Escape Room Homestead: (under construction) 145 E. Eighth Ave., Homestead. 412-742-4645 or escaperoompgh.com
Daring Room Escapes: 5877 Commerce St., Shadyside. 480-862-0355 or daringroomescapes.com
Escape the Room: 1505 E. Carson St., second floor, South Side. 412-301-7444 or pittsburgh.escapetheroom.com
5th Street Escape Room: 434 Fallowfield Ave., Charleroi. 724-483-4618 or 5thstreetescaperoom.com