On Friday, I finally took a shot at Darth Vader.
This was an event that I had imagined since I was ten years old. And now, it was finally happening.
There I was, across a chasm from the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, his breathing apparatus wheezing in my ears. I could smell the sulfurous fumes coming from the chasm, and I could feel the heat pulsing from below.
Fortunately, I had a blaster in my hands. I took careful aim at his black helmet, just like Leia did in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, a book that I guarantee you haven’t read unless you are a super Star Wars nerd like me. I squeezed the trigger.
Dude had his lightsaber on. With grace and ease, he deflected the blaster bolt right at me. It hit me on my left side. It hurt.
This really happened. Well, mostly. But in this post-truth society, what is real anymore, anyway?
Okay, let’s get a little more pragmatic. The experience I am describing here happened inside a storefront at Downtown Disney, near Disneyland. The place is called The Void, and it’s a location-based virtual reality entertainment center. I went with my family and friends to play/experience/consume/do an interactive narrative called Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire.
We arrived at The Void and checked in. With a bit of Disney cast member creativity and immersion (as in “Greetings, Rebels, are you prepared for your mission?”), we were escorted into an equipment room. There we were outfitted with heavy vests, which we just knew were loaded with electronics stuff, and a helmet with a flip-up visor.
Once we were suited up, we entered the briefing room and either, depending on how immersed we really were at this point, a) received a briefing from Captain Cassian Andor about the top secret, undercover mission we were about to undertake disguised as Imperial stormtroopers, or b) watched an intro video featuring Diego Luna, the star of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, that set up the story we were about to view/take in/experience.
After the transmission/video, we were moved into a plain, grey, small room with a plain, grey doorway on the opposite side. The cast member asked us to flip down our visors…
The plain, grey, small room was now a loading bay on an Imperial shuttle. The plain, grey door was now an electronics-ridden hatchway. And we were stormtroopers. (Well, Rebel spies undercover as stormtroopers.)
I stuck out my hand. I saw my gloved, armored stormtrooper hand right where it should be. I said “High Five!” to Jackson, and he high fived me. I did the same to Sherri (who, by the way, was SERIOUSLY a little short for a stormtrooper, and you could see her short little stormtrooper armor), and this time I saw her hand hit mine a little after I felt it. It’s not quite perfect yet.
The door opened up, and we walked through. I’m not saying that we moved a game controller to change our view. We literally walked through the door. I put my hand on the door jamb to feel it, and sure enough, I could feel the edge of the doorway right where I could see it.
We were now we were in the cargo bay of the shuttle, and K-2SO was right there. (If you don’t remember him, he’s the reprogrammed Imperial security droid from Rogue One.) He pointed to a bench and told us to sat down. We sat down, with a little trepidation… was there really a bench there? There was. I shoved Jackson over to make some more room for me.
K-2SO gave us a little briefing. We went into hyperspace and we saw the stars streaking by us through the window.
We were in a galaxy far, far away.
I’m not going to go into any more details, because I don’t want to spoil it for any of you. But here are just a few highlights of the experience:
- We wound up on a lava planet. When we stepped out onto the catwalk above the molten surface, we could feel the metallic rattling of the catwalk under our feet. And it was hot. And we could smell the sulfur.
- When we took a lift down to an island in the middle of the lava, we felt it getting hotter.
- When we got shot by blaster bolts, we could feel it. It wasn’t like PAIN pain, but it was enough of a jolt you wanted to avoid it. Of course, I was able to blast my sons. That was fun.
- We found something very cool, which to my understanding is now part of Star Wars canon.
- Darth Vader is much scarier in real life, especially when he has his lightsaber on, and is wielding it like he did at the end of Rogue One.
- When an R2 unit rolled up to us and started showing us a hologram, I reached out and patted his dome. I could feel it. It was really, actually there. (A cast member told us afterwards that we should have felt K-2SO, too. Next time.)
This experience is going to rattle my cage for a bit. Because it was the most realistic simulation I have ever experienced. We didn’t play a game. We. Were. There.
What impact will this type of experience have on learning? What if the simulation was set a little closer to home, and we were a rapid response team dealing with a disaster? What if it was set in a boardroom, and we were making a pitch to clients?
Let me tell you this… it would be nigh impossible not to engage in the experience, and not to get full, 100% directly applicable practice. Because it’s that good.
There’s the part of me that tells me that I was just playing a game; just going through a simulation. But there is also the part of me now that has memories of being part of this Star Wars mission.
When I compare the memories of this experience to the memories of pretending to be stormtroopers running around my backyard in fifth grade, there’s a distinct difference. That felt like pretending. This feels like it was real.
And when I compare the memories of this experience to the memories of, say, climbing through the Great Pyramid of Cheops like I did in 2007… I really don’t feel a difference.
My brain tells me I really did this.
I can’t wait to go back. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.