This Area 51 has got game

Strange things happen in Area 51. Minotaurs hunt minions in the howling jungle; terrorist bombs explode in colonnaded streets; pixelated avatars take corporeal form and the gaming community comes to life.

Area 51 gaming lounge opened this month, giving local enthusiasts a new place to play.

Area 51 is a reference to the top-secret United States military facility, and like its mysterious namesake, the Spring Garden Road hangout draws creatures of all kinds.

“There isn’t really a place for gamers to go,” co-owner Omar Al Rayyes says. “We’re bringing all of the communities together in a home base.”

Al Rayyes, 22, and his business partner Ramy Police, 20, met as business students at Nova Scotia Community College’s Waterfront campus. Longtime gamers, they set out to create a physical venue for Halifax’s online community.

“If you’re drinking, you wouldn’t want to be drinking by yourself. You would want to go to a bar, an environment where you’re welcomed,” Police said.

“Would you rather be gaming at home by yourself, or come here, where everyone else is doing the exact same thing?”

The space is a gamer’s paradise: 16 high-resolution computers, a selection of consoles and energy drinks delivered straight to cushioned chairs. The dark rooms are washed in red-blue light, to reduce eyestrain, and it smells of freshly popped popcorn.

“Gaming is thought of as this antisocial thing,” says Al Rayyes.
“Gaming is thought of as this antisocial thing,” says Al Rayyes.

For $2.99 an hour and a one-time $9.99 sign-up fee, gamers can play PlayStation 4, Xbox or Wii, but online games are the most popular.

Massive multiplayer role-player games have surged in recent years, connecting players through the Internet in a shared virtual world.

League of Legends, one of the most popular real-time strategy games, attracted 67 million players every month in 2014, and the Halifax fan page has around 850 likes on Facebook.

In its first two weeks, Area 51 enrolled 100 members, mostly university students.

For patron Jacklyn Bule, the appeal is the other players. “Social interaction,” she said, “That’s what it comes down to.”

Al Rayyes and Police recognized this desire for in-person contact between gamers.

“We know there’s a lot of gamers in Halifax, just no one really caters to them,” Al Rayyes said. “Gaming is thought of as this antisocial thing.”

When Police’s father agreed to finance the project, he knew what he wanted to do.

Growing up in Kuwait, Police says lounges similar to Area 51 were essential to developing his gaming skills and his social life. He and his friends would camp out at their stations with pillows and blankets, sleeping in shifts for three-day-long tournaments.

League of Legends player Husain Al Shawaf said that after a long day of gaming, he feels like the whole day is wasted. When he comes to Area 51, though, he is in the bustling South End; there is always something to do. He meets other gamers who are both worthy opponents and good company.

“I’ve seen a bunch of people here that make friends and come back later and just hang out,” said Kristen Doyle, another patron. “I guess it would kind of be the same concept as girls meeting each other at hair salons.”

While gaming is often considered to be a testosterone-dominated pastime, Al Rayyes says the gender balance at Area 51 is not as skewed as one might expect.

“Especially for a female gamer … you’ve got a place where people just like you are playing the game, so you’re starting to meet people just like you,” he said.

Stephen Liter, a computer science student at Dalhousie University, plays at Area 51 for eight hours a week with a small group of friends.

“If this place weren’t here, we probably wouldn’t be playing this video game, because I can’t afford a new computer,” he said.

Liter says gaming is central to computer science social life. “A lot of kids like to keep to themselves, but this helps them find a way to meet people,” he said. “This is how they party.”

Even while trying to get start-up off the ground, Police still finds time to play Counter-strike: Global Offensive six hours a day.

He still uses his gaming rig at home, but he says it is not the same. He wants to trash talk his friends in person when he beats them.