When I was in my late teens, early twenties, I used to go to a lot of LAN parties. I hosted a few of them (learnt first hand what happens when you plug too many computers into daisy-chained power boards … more inconvenient than bad, but still day-ruining). They were great. (I’m not going to describe what a LAN party is. If you don’t know, then you can easily find out.)
I hosted a couple of LAN parties at the church I was attending at the time and one of the people helping me advertise it to the youth group there thought it was called a ‘LAND party’ hence the title.
It was a social form of what was, in many ways, a deeply anti-social pastime: video gaming. It was a room full of geeks hopped up on caffeine and taurine (and maybe some alcohol, but that could get very nasty very quickly) valiantly turning away sleep for days at a time.
The thing people often forget is that many homes didn’t have Internet back in the 2000s and of those that did, some were still on dial-up. Playing games over the Internet is not an extremely new phenomenon, but it certainly wasn’t a major part of my early adulthood. (A year or two before I went to my first LAN party, I played a game of Red Alert using a direct line from my computer to a friend’s. It absolutely broke my heart when my mum tried to make a call and disconnected our game which I maintain that I was winning.) LAN parties were a chance for me to face real, human opponents, not poorly written computer AIs.
I played my first game of Unreal Tournament at a LAN party – I wasn’t very good and, man, could those gamers be cruel. It was an intensely competitive atmosphere but still somehow managed to be fun. A bit like a mini-convention, just a room full of (sometimes hundreds of) people coming together for the same thing: to destroy their opponents and have a laugh.
Any story about LAN parties from the early 2000s would be incomplete without a reference to file sharing. I, of course, never participated directly in illegal file sharing, nor did I condone it. But I couldn’t ignore it. Back in the days when downloading an episode of a recent TV program took hours or days, back when I had to download so many CODECs and try for hours to get Windows Media Player to play nicely with them. Back when burning a CD was still a novelty (for me at least). It was so bloody awesome to go to a LAN party and take a look at what everybody had on offer. Security? What’s that? I’ll just set up a network share and let anybody take a look. You want to drop something in my folder? Go ahead, just please don’t delete anything. And you know what? People didn’t.
(Probably the most popular people at these LAN parties were those who had downloaded or traded an enormous amount of data but who hadn’t left it in the abominable state they’d found it in, but who had meticulously organised it into logical folders. Man, they were the best.)
I’m not how much of this went on at other LAN parties, but at the ones I organised, there was always some form of table-top gaming, whether it be Warhammer, CCGs and TCGs, traditional board games, RPGs or whatever. It added a great combination of physical and social interaction to the mix and exposed a lot of gamers to types of gaming that had been around for decades and were still intensely entertaining and challenging.
The only thing I wish I’d done but didn’t was to set up a MAME cabinet or at least a computer with MAME running. It would’ve been so much fun. Missed opportunities, eh?
Just like any other geeky activity (conventions, role playing, cosplay, etc.), the atmosphere was very accepting and comfortable for those in the know, but must have seemed rather peculiar to those from outside the geek kingdom. Each of the friends I made, the things I learned, the laughs we had changed my life a little, helped me to feel less alone, helped me to gain some confidence. Without social events like these, I could easily have been lost in the far-too-common social paralysis that affects so many people just a bit too far from the norm.
I don’t know if anybody else goes to LAN parties, but I haven’t been to one in ages. I’m sure they’re still rather popular in some circles. I, unfortunately, was never a greatly enthusiastic gamer and, as the games became more and more real and complicated, I found that I just wasn’t up to the task (and didn’t have enough time to get up to scratch).
Without the motivation of testing skills I had spent hours and hours perfecting at home, without the motivation of terabytes and terabytes of great new TV shows, music, movies and software to take a look at, without the friends around me who also loved it, I just kind of gave up.
I’ll never forget the many, many hours I spent gaming with my mates, but I doubt I’ll go back.
And, finally, a shout out to Valhalla, the biggest and, arguably, best LAN parties in South Australia (sadly, not still going – http://www.valhalla.net.au/).
A couple of links that warmed my heart (or is it cockles?):