The smashing success of rage rooms
I watch the person with a dented baseball bat swagger on the CCTV. They are taking long strides within a small square room, their face obscured by a mask, the baseball bat waving loosely behind them. They lean back on their right heel and … Smack. The crashing of a plate echoes tinnily on the CCTV feed but reverberates violently in the reception room where I am waiting. I jump. Just a wall separates us.
I am booked in for 11.30 here at Smash Brothers, Sydney’s first commercial rage room. Rage rooms – also known as smash or break rooms – are well established in the United States. They are spaces in which people pay a fee to enter a large booth and break things for a set period of time. Smash Brothers opened in Kogarah, south Sydney, last month joining Melbourne’s The Break Room and The Smash Pit on the Sunshine Coast in the Australian market. For $40 you get 10 minutes in Smash Brothers.
On its opening weekend, I wait my turn. I’m not angry. I have no rage. Usually I’m disappointed when I break something. But, I wonder, once released of the normal rules of behaviour, am I secretly full of violent fury?
I’m up. I step into dark coveralls and get a yellow hard hat with a visor and a pair of demolition gloves. I’m handed a bat and told not to pass the black and yellow tape on the floor, where all the previous broken shards have been swept. Otherwise, this room is a place of inverted rules.
The door shuts and I’m left in the room with my allocation of breakables; each session at Smash Brothers is given a milk crate of 20 to 25 items. Mine has crockery, a wine bottle and a few empty bottles of Tsingtao. Towards a wall is the carcass of what probably was a printer. One of the staff gives a thumbs up through a viewing window. And for some reason, almost immediately I start making small talk with myself. All right. Okay. Let’s go for a teacup then. There we go. Okay. Right.
The teacup is easy enough to hook over the T-ball post in the centre of the room. I pull back the bat, close my eyes, and thwack. It crumbles, tinkling as it smashes against the bat and wall. A flash of electricity whips through me. I laugh. Shuffling around the shards, I return to the crate. Carefully I choose a plate, tee it up and crack. The plate is less satisfying than the teacup. It breaks into only a few pieces. A large piece lies on the floor and I feel an obligation to break it again, but I can’t bring myself to assault the injured. I gently slide it to the pile with my foot. The Spice Girls’ lyrics “If you wanna be my lover” are playing overhead. This is weird.
I move to the printer carcass. I can’t break it. Nothing moves. I am keenly aware of my ineptitude and overwhelmed by the pointlessness of my efforts. I work on loosening the ink cartridge until, like a death gasp, black powder starts puffing out. Best to stop now, I decide.
Everything has been smashed by the time the staffer comes to the window to indicate two minutes left. I end up hitting the printer until my time is up.
When it’s over I have the residue of adrenaline and almost relieved awkwardness about me. There’s a minor pleasure in breaking things on purpose. It is fun, but so transactional. Leaving the room, I feel sorry about the cups.
The Smash Brothers crew have an air of cool boy racers about them. They’re friendly, slightly awkward and decked out in T-shirts and baseball caps, except for co-founder Russell Dunn, 33, who wears a black grandpa shirt and pants. His business partner Johnny Li, 31, arrives with an order of McDonald’s for the team’s lunch. He smiles a lot, as if at a joke only he has heard. But he, a digital marketer in his day job, is not in it for giggles. Even before their launch weekend, he has sketched out loose plans for franchising the brand in future.
When Li came up with the idea of Smash Brothers, he had never even been to a rage room. He pitched it to Dunn, a web developer, during their lunchbreak at a marketing company in Surry Hills and the pair worked to get the business up and running within three months – “just in case someone else did it first”. On its first weekend, there’s a steady trickle of twenty- and thirtysomethings through the warehouse.
“Right now, it’s going crazy on social media. There’s that fear of missing out,” says Li.
The business is made for social media. The team film all the sessions and upload them on YouTube and Facebook so that participants can share their videos. Each room’s viewing window is occupied by a friend taking their own videos and photos of their plate-crashing mate.
The website cheekily bills Smash Brothers as “alternative stress relief”, but Li reckons the primary audience is 20- to 40-year-olds simply out for something quirky to post online.
“For many people who come in, they will just do it once and put it on Instagram. Then you have a very niche market for people who are really stressed and feel they have to come here every week.”
But Associate Professor Thomas Denson, of the University of New South Wales’s School of Psychology, says the premise that one needs to cathartically release stress and anger is a discredited one.
“What [rage rooms] are appealing to is people who believe in this old Freudian hydraulic model; that we have to ‘blow off some steam’, that we have to release the anger. In fact, you don’t have to. Nothing bad happens to people who just do nothing,” he says.
Denson, a psychologist with a particular interest in anger-driven aggression, says that human beings will naturally return to a normal emotional, physiological state about 10 to 15 minutes after an intense emotional experience, such as anger. Doing nothing or distracting oneself will result in this return to normalcy. On the other hand, he warns, if the source of the anger is ruminated upon during an activity such as breaking things or sparring a punching bag, that intense state of physiological excitement can be prolonged.
While probably all just a bit of fun, Denson says rage rooms could have negative outcomes if used by people who focus on their negativity during a session. “If they are really thinking about someone they dislike, that could actually make them more hostile towards that person in real life,” he says.
Li and Dunn have refused requests for punters to bring in pictures of people to attach to break room objects. They don’t want to be encouraging that sort of thing.
As Li coolly watches his customers on the TV in the reception area, I ask if he has used his own rage room.
“I had a go at the beginning,” he says, pausing and laughing and shaking his head. “I’m not much of a rager. Especially when it’s your own things.” He has been driving across Sydney picking up boxes of old crockery after work. He used to think a good score was 20 plates.
“Now, 20 plates is nothing,” Li says. “We need thousands.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "Breaking points". Subscribe here.