Checking out Portland’s new virtual reality experience

Okay, so let’s get this out of the way first. The owners of the new VR Café at the Washington Square Mall in Beaverton clearly intended to open an interactive gaming emporium where kids could play all kinds of immersive video games while their parents made themselves comfortable on the long, low couches that are placed strategically in front of each gaming station, and sipped lattes or smoothies.

Now, I like smoothies, lattes, and getting a few minutes to chill out while my kids are happily occupied as much as the next keep-it-real parent. But! When you get there and see how much fun your kids are having, you’re going to want to play, too.

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At least, that’s what happened to me on a recent rainy Saturday when I took my gaming-obsessed son, Ben, and his buddy Soren to try it out. (A word on screen time — my husband and I have decided that resistance is somewhat futile, as the more we tried to keep Ben away from screens and video game culture, the more desperate he grew to participate. We do draw firm lines — hard time limits; playing only in common spaces, never behind closed doors; no shooting games; no sexist depictions of women, and definitely no chatting with strangers on servers.)

The VR Café, which has been open for about five months now, takes gaming to a whole new level. For $15 for 15 minutes, $25 for 30 minutes or $45 for 60 minutes (plus a free, interactive and pretty hilarious five-minute tutorial guided by a bot with a British accent who bears a strong resemblance to BB-8 of Star Wars fame), you get your own station and your choice from a bewilderingly huge menu of games. We didn’t have advance reservations, but when we came in at around noon on a Saturday, there were plenty of available stations. I also spotted a long table at the back of the room, and made a mental note for future birthday parties.

I was a little surprised that there wasn’t much of a chance for the kids to be in the same virtual world at the same time, but this might have been because I asked the friendly, proudly feminist owner and her employee sons to recommend games that didn’t feature heavy artillery. (I didn’t have to worry about games that objectified women; “We don’t do that” the owner told me.) The kids didn’t care that it would be an individual experience — they were too busy getting carefully fitted into VR goggles and getting controllers strapped around their wrists, and learning how to manipulate between games and screens. All the stations are equipped with large overhead screens so you can see what players are seeing from their goggles, which is useful if you’re making sure that your 9-year-old isn’t trying to sneak into a shooting game.

I cracked up watching Ben and Soren’s herky-jerky movements as they wielded virtual lasers and ping-pong paddles, clambered aboard hot-air balloons in mid-air and dodged aliens in outer space. Ben was especially expressive — my favorite was his oh-so-slangy declaration in the middle of Beat Saber (kind of like Fruit Ninja, but with lasers and swerving/crouching down to avoid flying obstacles) “EPIC — this music is SICK.”

When their 30 minutes were up, they were hot, sweaty and exhilarated, and I was jealous. So I got them each another 15 minutes, at a reduced “extension” rate, and booked a 15 minute session for myself. It wasn’t as immediately intuitive for me as it was for the boys (surprise, surprise) and figuring out which button to hit on my controller took some doing. Still, it was massively fun to have the real, problematic world fall away for a quarter of an hour, to do nothing but be a virtual ninja. At the end, I am extremely proud to say that I got a high score on Beat Saber. (Okay, third highest score. Of that particular day. On the easiest level. But still!).

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The kids loved it and are already talking about when we can go back. After all, we all need a break from reality sometimes, and as parents, it’s fun to peek into a world that will no doubt be all too familiar for this generation of kids.

The VR Café9949 SW Washington Square Rd., Tigard (next door to JC Penney). Monday-Saturday, 10 am-9 pm, Sunday 10 am-7 pm.

Julia Silverman
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