Is "Wanna Play?" the Next "How You Doin'?"

By Juanita Cousins
|  Sunday, Jul 12, 2009  |  Updated 11:08 AM CDT
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Is "Wanna Play?" the Next "How You Doin'?"

PlayDate

I wanna play!

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Connect Four, Hungry Hungry Hippos and Twister are the new alternatives to speed dating, nightclubs and staying home alone.

PlayDate, a monthly social event held in more than 20 cities, is catching on among adults weary of the usual nightlife. They play old-school board games, Double Dutch and hold dance-off contests in a throwback to youth. And some pick up a few phone numbers along the way.

"The idea was to get together games that are familiar and nostalgic," PlayDate pioneer Imari Harvard said. "They see things that they are accustomed to and reach back to childhood and indulge."

The game nights began in 2005 in Harvard's Atlanta living room. PlayDate has since grown from 80 friends to more than 500 strangers who regularly attend monthly events in Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities.

In Dallas, the next event is scheduled for May 16.

The music isn't too loud. The lights aren't too dim. The disc jockey isn't too trendy. And PlayDate -- at $10 admission -- keeps amusement affordable in a recession.

Everyone wears PlayDate Signature Mood Tags that read "Hello my name is..." The name tags are used as ice breakers. Many fill in the blank with an alter ego that prompts questions right away -- aliases like "Clark Kent," "Beyonce Wanna Be" and "Gold Digger."

There are no lines and no sign-up sheets. Just grab an empty seat and play at dozens of booths and tables where the board games await.

In one corner, women stack a giant Jenga tower before it tumbles. Others huddle around a screen showing a Nintendo Wii bowling game. Out on the dance floor, a disc jockey calls out commands to others contorting themselves on Twister tarps.

As the night advances, traditional school yard games take over the dance floor -- but with an adult twist. Simon Says break dance. Musical chairs with women sashaying around men and sitting on their laps -- not chairs. Virtual double Dutch has players choreographing routines with imaginary jump ropes.

And there's little wiggle room for wall flowers. Staff in "Wanna Play?" T-shirts nudge onlookers into the fray.

"This is so much better than going to a club," said Ed Hardy, 29, who played Snakes and Ladders with a friend and two women they just met. "You are in an atmosphere where you can't help it but have fun."

PlayDate targets professionals 25 to 55, singles, couples and "people who typically don't go out to party," Harvard said. It is held only once a month in most cities "to keep its novelty."

Nashville hosted the largest PlayDate debut in February with some 750 players, said Eric Holt, managing partner of Lovenoise, the marketing company that helped launch PlayDate in Tennessee and Alabama.

Men have played barroom darts and billiards for centuries, but PlayDate creates an inviting atmosphere for women because it is "not confrontational and there is very little to lose," said University of Pennsylvania sociology professor David Grazian, who studies urban nightlife.

"Playing chess makes one feel less desperate than one on a night out on the town trying to snag a husband," said Grazian, author of "On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife."

"When strangers play games, the games mediate uncomfortable silence and make personal interaction almost immediate -- without need of intimacy."

Robert Jackson, 26, dealt cards for a game of Spades with his uncle, cousin and brother and talked about his reluctance to hit the clubs.

"I feel like I am too old for what's going on in night venues," Jackson said. "I came here because it's something to do. Not to meet any women, just trying to have fun."

In 2007, Harvard and friend Ryan Hill created Timeless Entertainment Concepts to redefine American nightlife. They are managing a burgeoning operation that is testing other nightlife concepts such as an interactive paint gallery and an improv comedy theater using cell phones for audience interaction. They've also created an online social network, "Meet me at the Playground."

At PlayDate, cocktails range from $5 to $10 and some offer modestly priced chicken and finger food buffets.

First-time player Brenda Russell was eager to try PlayDate.

"My co-workers were talking about it for weeks," said Russell, who is 57, single and looking for fun. "It really inspired me to come early."

In March, she brought her 61-year-old sister, Beverly Bernett, and niece Shawn Cheatham, 31, before doors opened.

"Oh, yes, I am going to meet some men from right here playing Scattergories and having fun," Bernett said. "And they better be ready to play."

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