Marathon video gaming 

Turbocharged days and sleepless nights

Turbocharged days and sleepless nights
Overclocking: Stretching your technology to run at speeds beyond what the makers intended. They look like they’re camped out in the future. Dozens of video game enthusiasts at Midnight Massacre in Net Heads, perched at consoles with room for one, two, even four players at each terminal. Fantastic swirling architecture and twisted cables soar into the ceiling, with overhead speakers that can barely be heard four feet away, but bring every crash and boom in full stereo to those right below them. Dozens of gamers on the hunt all night long, hooked in, fired up and prowling head-to-head through their interactive, alternate universes. Unreal Tournament is the game of the moment, and Teh_Rage is camped out in a perfect sniper’s nest. With the lightning gun. You don’t have to hit a guy very accurately with lightning to score a kill. Close counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and divine fire from on high. He nails his buddy CodeZero in the foot and boom! Code goes flying in several directions. Close enough. Brandon Weir, 22, Seymour, Indiana: Teh_Rage, he calls himself in gaming circles. Rage because he likes Rage Against the Machine, Teh to differentiate himself from the numerous other Rages out there in the LAN gaming scene. LANs: Local Area Networks. Many computer video games, from Doom and Quake to Medal of Honor and Rogue Spear, simply aren’t meant to be played alone. You need cooperation and competition, other people to play with and against. And the Internet, for technical and social reasons, isn’t the optimum way to do that. Face to face, plugged right in, all at once. That’s the way to go. Hence the LAN party. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of computers networked together for a day, night or full caffeine-blitzed weekend, with massive competitions between the players. Pac-Man on a nuclear scale Nearly every weekend, within about an hour’s drive of Indianapolis, you can find an open LAN party, ranging from a couple of dozen guys in a gaming shop to hundreds of gamers in a hotel ballroom. Brandon Weir has a singular honor among gamers nationwide, perhaps worldwide: in June, he completed a solid run of 65 straight LAN weekends without a break, topping the previous claimed record of 52. In most cases he didn’t even have to leave central Indiana to find one. “I was halfway through it before I even realized I was doing it,” Weir says. “It made the year go by fast, that’s for sure.” Time compresses, on both macro and micro scales, over the year and over the weekend. “As long as you’re having fun, you don’t really notice. You’re inside in a room with no windows, or all the windows are blacked out. You have no concept of time,” Weir says. “As long as it keeps being fun, I’ll keep playing.” LAN gaming started in earnest in the mid-1990s with the likes of Doom and Quake, where players ran around mazes and tried to blow each other up, lather, rinse, repeat. Pac-Man on a nuclear scale. “Madness mazes!” says Ken Lawrence, former owner of Indiana’s second cybercafe, CoffeeNet, and one of the major figures in Indiana’s LAN history. “That’s what I called them, the games where you’d run around in a maze and shoot anything that moved. There was no rhyme, no reason, no skill, just reflexes.” In recent years the trend has moved towards more realistic battlefields and much more complicated scenarios, with games like Battlefield, Desert Combat, Tom Clancy’s Raven Shield, and Medal of Honor dominating the field. Since the beginning, video gaming has been an inherently social experience. The very first video game, 1961’s SpaceWar, was a two-player, head-to-head game. Pong, the first major game to hit the home market, was the same way. Computer AI is ultimately predictable. People will always surprise you. Early games from SpaceWar to initial variations on Doom were limited to two to four players. Now it continues to skyrocket, with 64 players a common sight, and the challenge factor cranking up exponentially. “The ultimate variety is to have the greatest number of people playing,” Lawrence says. And with LAN party setups, the social experience is taken to a new scale. Net Heads owner Bill Noel sponsors at least one all-night session a month, in addition to hosting a flood of gamers during regular hours at his shop at 1011 E. Westfield Blvd. Other LAN parties sponsored by groups such as IndySmash, StompFest and IndyGamers rent out conference centers, hotel ballrooms, or anyplace with enough power and space to fit in dozens or hundreds of gamers for one, two or three days at a time. And it’s becoming a spectator sport. The IndyGamers events included large projection screens so everyone could see the action. Some industry observers feel that hologram projection on a wide scale will be the next big thing. Gamers show off more than just their playing skills. Programming, networking, and computer customization are all game for bragging rights. Along one wall at Noel’s event is the Bring Your Own Computer shelf, with connecting ports for anyone who cares to use their own terminal rather than Net Heads’ setups. The rigs players bring along are definitely custom jobs: acrylic see-through panels, imprinted cases, and inner mechanics hotrodded to the fastest specs possible. High-tech bling-bling. Sean Aikins — a member of the IndyGamers co-op who goes by the handle CodeZero — is showing off his rig to Hobart Buppert. Hobie, a resident of Florida, is something of a celebrity among gamers; he invented the hypercaffeinated drink Bawls Guarana and his organization sponsors thousands of LAN events a year around the nation. Aikins is a promotions director, so he gets free parts from many different manufacturers, often with the latest-and-greatest hookups. His terminal is completely see-through, with light-up fans and acrylic parts, all hand-assembled. It’s so customized for his personal style that he could probably never sell it. “It’s like hydraulics on a car,” Aikins says. “It’s there for people to look at it and say, ‘Wow.’” Family Bill Noel, speaking at a midnight party in Net Heads, points out that many players at the events are teenagers in a safe place. “The kids who are here, a lot of times they’re 12, 13, 14 years old. We know them by name,” Noel says. “They’re here at night and a lot of times we know where they’re going after that. It’s not uncommon for a parent who knows their kids comes here to pop in and ask ‘Hey, do you know where Johnny went?’ and we can tell them. We hear all the time from parents: ‘I know what when they’re here, they’re not out wandering around getting into trouble.’” Noel scans the crowd and points out the small groups forming. Few people are actually alone at a terminal; most are grouped at the couches. He points at one after another, crowds of two to six. “Look at that. Socialization. Socialization. Socialization. That’s what’s happening here. It’s not just about gaming … Electronic entertainment is here to stay. … This stuff isn’t more popular than Hollywood for no reason,” Noel says. “You get a terrific rush from the teamwork, when someone’s got your back. And it’s as real a rush as any you get from football or basketball.” One of Noel’s major lessons in the power of gaming came early in Net Heads’ existence. “One day when we first opened, a group of IPD cops came by to take a look. The place was really empty except for these teenagers in a corner playing Rogue Spear, and they asked the cops ‘You guys wanna play?’ The cops got into a few rounds; sometimes they won, sometimes the kids won. And ten minutes later they were all best friends. That’s when I got this epiphany and realized, ‘This has nothing to do with violence. It’s all raw competition on a level playing field.’” It’s a field that brings together a wide range of ages and interests. Paul Bohall, 18, has been a dedicated LAN partier since his first StompFest when he was 15. “It seemed like fun to be able to play games with people other than my friends. There was no difference in being 18, except that I had to have a waiver. I’ve gotten a lot of my friends interested in LAN parties. We’ve got our own clan called Hybrid Fury. I’ve met more friends with LAN parties than anywhere else. Because they’re all interested in the same shit you are. That’s why I like big parties, so I can meet more people.” He often comes to LANs along with his father, whose name is also Paul Bohall. They’ve been competing against each other in video gaming since the late 1980s. “We’ve always been close,” the elder Bohall notes. Gaming often runs in the family. Weir remembers playing his parents’ arcade Ms. Pac-Man machine when he was three. Or there’s Dana Valera Brewer, 34, an employee at Net Heads, dedicated gamer and mother of an eight-year-old son. She’s been playing games of every conceivable nature since she was six, and she’s passing it on in the same way. “I’ve been gaming since Pong, and maybe Merlin handheld before that. My parents were into computers when I was growing up,” Brewer says. “I’d put my son on my lap when he was a baby and hold the mouse for him until he could move the mouse himself. He had a computer of his own in his room when he was four.” Female gamers are not unusual in video gaming — industry observers estimate that 39 percent of all gamers are women — but they’re less common in LAN settings. “I don’t know (why there aren’t more female gamers). It’s society pressures,” Brewer says. “I wouldn’t tell people I was a chick, playing Quake II, until towards the end. It’s like sports or guns. You don’t see many girls with guns or girls trying to beat each other up. It’s just not done, I guess.” For her part, Brewer fits in neatly with the trash-talking LAN culture. “I adapt to the guys. And if they got a smart mouth on ‘em, I’ll usually give it right back,” Brewer says. “And I’ll win.” If it moves, shoot it History does not record the first instance of video game trash-talking, but it can probably be traced back to the first afternoon of two guys playing SpaceWar. And it continues today. Tournaments, where people compete for prizes and bragging rights, are usually pretty quiet, but a group of people in free-form gaming will shout out a wide array of insults or exclamations: “Platinum! Quit stealing my shit! I OWN you!” “Code, you leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone!” “Ohmigod! Shit, you went FLYING!” The wackiness is half the fun. Things can get a little out of hand deeper into the longer runs. The two and three day events are nonstop, straight through, Friday until Sunday, and sometimes people will go straight through on pure adrenaline. Sleep? There’s an old LAN saying: Sleep where you fall! “If you’ve got balls, you don’t sleep at all. You go 30, 36 hours without sleep,” Aikins says. “I’ll sleep probably twice in four days,” Weir adds. Don’t lag. Don’t fall behind. The people who get into this, especially the younger ones, jump and jump in hard. Aikins has been in the LAN scene a year and a half and already he’s got a computer built from parts donated by different computer companies. Weir has been in it maybe two years. Overclocking the mind with bright screens and long marathons. Overclocking the body with caffeine infusions and little sleep. Take the specs of everything you have and press them to the limit. It’s always been about pressing the edge. In the beginning, in the early 1990s, LANs grew from technical limitations and speed that couldn’t be found over archaic Internet connections. “It would start with a couple of guys in a basement or in a garage,” says Brad Smith, the current director of Indiana’s oldest LAN party, StompFest. “You couldn’t do it online, because there wasn’t really broadband.” Plus there’s the in-your-face intensity of blowing away the guy two seats down from you. “Once people started to get their own computers together and hook them up and play together, that really opened it up,” Aikins says. “From there they got into bigger and bigger events with more and more people. It’s like ‘Fight Club.’ One guy gets into it and he tells all his friend. It’s like bowling or playing football. It’s adrenaline. It’s about bragging rights.” Bragging rights indeed. Weir and Aikins have a friendly rivalry going back some time to a serious 7-2 beating Weir gave him; sometimes Weir will taunt him with the screenshot of the final score. “Rage has not gotten a screenshot like that on me since,” Aikins says. “I don’t need it anymore! I’ve already got the one!” Weir interjects. “I advanced myself and made myself better with respect to Rage,” Aikins continues. “It’s not about being an online legend. It’s about being the best in your clan.” On the local level you have clans competing in smaller tournaments, like Bohall’s Hybrid Fury or NR (Naptown Rydaz,) headed up by David Whitfield (handle: Platinum). They compete for equipment, games and bragging rights. Much more is at stake on the higher levels, where professional sponsorship and television exposure is only the beginning. One major national tournament has a $200,000 top prize to be split among a five-man team. “This stuff is serious,” Aikins says. “One win could sustain a team for a year.” If it doesn’t, pick it up Ken Lawrence, the former owner of Indiana’s second cybercafe, Coffeenet, is credited by many with bringing the full LAN experience to Indiana, after being inspired by LanWar II in Kentucky. High-speed connections were a dream of the rich at the time, in 1996, so the best way to get complicated games going was with LAN setups. He started StompFest, one of the biggest PC gaming events in the Midwest, and ran it twice a year for several years before he handed it off to others. Like so many others, Lawrence started his LAN experience by hooking up computers with primitive setups in the garage and expanded outwards. He held the first StompFest over a long weekend in 1996 and started a new tradition for the state. “We had people bringing in sleeping bags and stuff. They’d literally crawl under the tables and get a few hours of sleep, wake up, wash their face, grab a soda and get back to playing,” Lawrence says. “You had your guys who were just in it for the fun and the camaraderie, and then there’s the guys who don’t care about anything except boosting their kill ratio, who are only there to win. I tried to keep the mentality of feeling like it was just a bunch of friends getting together … A lot of the flavor comes from whoever’s putting it on. Volunteers will just come out of the woodwork to help. You might have 40 people helping out and only 5 come from the local group.” Lawrence passed on the StompFest name after his biggest event, a 500-person session in Eastgate mall, when he realized he was burned out. “We didn’t make any money. Most of the time we broke even, if that. And the money we did make, we put that back into the equipment.” Another godfather of Indiana LAN culture is Dennis Huls — Hulsy to his friends. The roots of IndyGamers were born in Huls’ garage, back in 1996, when he and several friends who had formed an online competitive tribe began to meet for LAN gatherings. “It was a lot of fun,” Huls says. “We’d get together, bring a barbecue or something. It was a little more tight-knit group, because we all knew each other really well.” Gamers in that era started forming leagues for competition, and that led to a sea change in the tactics and strategy of gaming. “You use a lot more strategy and you count on your buddy a lot more in those leagues,” Huls says. “That’s where the sportsmanship and teamwork comes in.” Hulsy and company started getting into assembling their own PCs; buying it all at once would cost far more at most tech shops. Better to go with buying the parts separately and build them from scratch. Plus, the do-it-yourselfers would have an edge in optimizing the combination of high-spin-rate hard drives, memory, multiple network cards, and high-end video cards. The more courageous experiment with tricky stunts like overclocking processors to crank out more speed and water-cooling them to avoid a blowout, but Hulsy said that’s more of a novelty now, with base processors at lightspeed already. “There are guys who do that now with overclocking just to see how much they can get out of it, but I think that’s more of the challenge now.” All of Huls’ technical knowledge is self-taught; the same is true for many of the Indygamers group. “None of us are IT guys. We’re all tradesmen.” The do-it-yourself attitude is a large part of LAN culture, then and now. “What was cool was the exchange of information you could get into,” Lawrence says. “And not just with gaming. Ninety percent of what I know about networking came from those LAN parties. A lot of teenagers got their feet wet in networking by helping out at those parties.” Out of Context 2 a.m. at Net Heads, and a couple of guys are talking about getting duct-taped together. The guys here swear to me this sort of thing is very common. The antics take on a distinctly collegiate air. Aikins once ate cat food on a dare in return for a mouse pad; another time he ate porked pig’s feet for headphones. Midnight in the conference hall. Or maybe afternoon. Hard to tell sometimes in these long-form events, 36 hours at a time in a windowless room. With little sleep and no outside context, time ceases to have the same meaning. Brandon Weir sits before his terminal, one of dozens in a darkened room, flash-bang grenades creating a soft glow, blowing and being blown away in a long stretch of Counter-Strike. Doesn’t matter how long he’s been here. As long as it keeps being fun, he’ll keep playing.

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