In its 11 years of operation, Studio Grow was a walk-in educational play space that saw a generation of Berkeley kids walk through its doors. Studio Grow has grown from its original location in Berkeley to three more in the East Bay.
“Kids who are in middle school or high school grew up in this place,” said Tim Alley, founder of Studio Grow. When Alley sold the business in 2016, the new owner closed the Berkeley site, but Alley retained the lease.
Now Alley has joined two of his childhood friends from Berkeley, James Hopkin and Eric Mittler, in transforming the former play space into an adult play center. Six years in the making, Game On is now open on a limited basis and will fully open to the public in December.
Game On is a new game concept that, according to its owners, is the first of its kind in Berkeley and possibly California. Each of the six playrooms currently in operation (and more to come) combine the critical thinking and physical dexterity of hands-on science museums like the inspirational Exploratorium and Lawrence Hall of Science, with the experience sensory of an art installation. What all games have in common: a need to cooperate. Teams of two to four players must work together to solve the challenges of the games.
“I try to instill the virtues of discovery, teamwork and courage as part of the outcome of your experience at Game On,” Hopkin said. “I mainly try to do fun things and encourage people to cooperate.”
The background of the founders seems ideal for such a company. Alley has a background in education and business. Hopkin, whom Alley called “the great visionary” behind games, is a computer scientist and puzzle expert. Mittler, “the software guy”, according to his partners, specializes in cooperative learning and psychometrics.
Each game has its own unique set of challenges, which can be mental, physical, or both. Audio instructions are played at the entrance and vary according to the number of players.
Some of the games are inspired by arcade classics, like a Whack-A-Mole variant in which players become the moles (but don’t get hit in the head). Instead, light-up roots indicate which hole the moles need to come out of while the “whacker” presses mole-shaped buttons based on their teammate’s position. Success is based on the number of times players complete such moves.
Other games require physical strength, such as the Endurance Room, where players climb on suspended ropes to avoid falling into “hot lava”.
Ball Game is a room with two different ball games. In one, which resembles a Rube Goldberg machine, a player spins an elephant to push a bar, which traps a ball in a cup, which another player must lift and roll the ball over. above the elephant, where she must be caught by a spring-loaded piston that shoots the ball into a goal.
In the Arcadia room, a banyan tree created by the set designers of Orinda’s Cal Shakes creates a spooky backdrop for a ball game, reminiscent of the arcade game where balls are thrown in concentric circles.
Still under construction at press time: an Indiana Jones-inspired escape game that mixes ancient mythology with treasure hunting.
The owners hope Game On will attract families, first dates and businesses wanting to encourage team building. Cost: $35-$40 per person for two hours of play. (Players under 13 must have a parent/guardian present at all times.) Players must book online.
“For the past two years, a lot of us have been alone and on screens,” Alley said. “At Game On, the gaming experience is real, not virtual. It’s about people going out and working together.
Game on, 1235 Tenth St. (at Gilman Street), Berkeley. Hours: being determined. Telephone: 510-616-5415.