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P2: The Proximity of Play


There was a time when being an online gamer meant work. It meant a crash course in motherboards and video cards. You had to learn how to put a computer together from the ground up. It took troubleshooting network issues and hunting down driver files. The truly involved learned the ins and outs of game files and doing some light coding work. It was strapping your monitor into the seatbelt of the passenger seat of your mom’s sedan. It was drinking so many energy drinks in a single sitting that you could hear your dentist whimper somewhere in the distance.

My first LAN party was in high school, in a basement, and I’d have it no other way. Forget the fact that said location was actually part of a particularly fancy mansion-house, with plenty of other locations for setting up a network of homebuilt PCs. We chose the basement. Something about LANing demanded secluding ourselves. Not out of shame, but to completely immerse the group into decadent nerdery.

My first homebuilt computer, complete with glow-in-the-dark band stickers, was set up on a plywood board propped up by two chairs. We played every LAN-enabled game on the docket. Early Team Fortress. Counterstrike, Command & Conquer. We traded difficult-to-find punk albums and early ripped movies, which were of devastatingly poor quality. But it didn’t matter, because the real joy was not in watching them, but the subtle act of trading in something we shouldn’t have.

It took over ten games of Starcraft for me to understand the full Terran tech tree, but only one to understand that I was bad at it. It didn’t matter. LAN parties were never about competition beyond the friendly type. You never get mad or frustrated with loss. It was all about banter and the good friends were never above showing you the ropes about spawn order or bunker placement. It’s like playing poker with a table of close friends. You may lose your last paycheck to some crummy bluffs, but you do it all while making obscene jokes and insinuating the promiscuity of everyone’s collective sisters.

LAN parties are a dying concept and it makes me sad. They were always weekend getaways, decadent engagement in all things gaming. But there was a time in my life where it became more than a shoddily organized all-nighter. My junior year of college, I lived in a sleepy Midwestern city, where the downtown was vacant and boring, but the cost of living was downright criminally low. My circle of friends took advantage of the latter and landed ourselves an entire three-story house. Eleven of us moved in and it was nothing but gigantic parties, movie nights, great friends, and utter glory.

Because of limited personal space (My room, for instance, was technically listed as a closet on the rental form) most of the computers were set up in the large, high-ceilinged study. This was done purely out of space concerns, but with this many video game enthusiasts in one place, it quickly became the greatest, Guinness Book length LAN party of all time. Our desks were in a semi-circle around the outer walls, with space in the middle of the room or in the adjacent living room for the laptop folks. This fixed proximity meant we could all leap to battlestations at the same time with the very mention of a video game title.

This set-up created the best atmosphere for nearly every multiplayer game you could imagine. Our team cohesion in Battlefield 2 was unparalleled. We flanked and covered. We repaired vehicles and sprang upon downed teammates with defibrillator paddles at a single shout. If someone secured the Commander role, there were supply drops on a moments notice and artillery would decimate enemies with pinpoint precision. We competed for top leaderboard spot, turning our teamwork into friendly competition. We unlocked gear and coordinated classes so that every game was a tidal wave of success and wins.

Games like Civilization IV turned into a massive rivalry of vocal strategy and bargaining. Give me that resource of horses for my wealth of gold. Trade me some musketman so I can destroy that jackass Montezuma. Don’t take my southern city and I’ll go fetch you a coke. We were a tiny United Nations, except our major forum table was a stack of pizza boxes and our negotiations were punctuated with thrown objects. Rebuttals to an unprovoked invasion were usually handled with a respectful, disagreeing desk chair tackle. It was the perfect environment for quick-witted adverbial combat and, even more so, the absolute ideal atmosphere for cooperation. In fact, it was thanks to this inescapable air of teamwork that we found our entire house forming the greatest team of superheroes the world of video games has ever seen.

Now, I’m not really an MMO player. I’ve dabbled infrequently in a motley assortment of these games, but I’ve never really committed to the experience. But a little darling of an MMO called City of Heroes that came out in 2004 was different. Albeit an imperfect game, the world of superpowers and villains that Cryptic Studios had built was the perfect vehicle for our friend-powered teamwork machine. It may have been struggling a bit at the time with the release of the newly released World of Warcraft, but we fell in love with the universe and built our flashy team of superheroes with pride.

We rejected the idea of lazy names and we would have none of that numbers for letters nonsense. We weren’t 13 and picking our Instant Messenger screen names. We were creative folks, so our names were all original and catchy creations. Atlas Star, Riot Shield, Estha, Mistress Façade, Captain Caliber, Scarlet Sparrow. We were a mix of personalities, genders, and with a variety of wildly different color palate choices. We took pride in our costumes and character creation was an all-afternoon process. No mis-matched askew character shoulder pads or strange tie-dye color choices. Our heroes could have easily fallen in line with legends of the Golden Age of Comics.

Even more diverse was our past experience with MMOs and, well, with games in general. Many of the team had never played any online games of any sort and some had played none at all. Some, like myself, were avid comic nerds, who could go at length Mall Rats-style about any superhero you could name. Others had scarcely ever opened a Marvel or DC issue in their life. But there was something so compelling about the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with friends in brightly colored spandex and hurl about the city, jumping from rooftops or teleporting across the city skyline. This is what made our time in Paragon City so unique. It was appealing to everyone not just because the gameplay leant itself to inexperienced players, but because the cooperative element was so damned strong.

City of Heroes was still a somewhat new game at the time and the game’s content was constantly changing. It was also somewhat player-isolated, with very little overt communication between players who weren’t already playing together. What this meant was that we often had no idea what was in store with each mission. No one ranted in broadcast chat about instances or bosses. When massive Clockwork behemoth robots assaulted us, it was genuine panic. When we beat a battle that came at us out of the blue - with a notable villain appearing from thin air or discovering a death-weapon being constructed inside a volcano - it was all completely new to us. We broke exciting new ground every time we strapped in for a play session.

All it took was a word, or even a knowing smirk, for the call to action to happen. The roommates milled about the living room or study, reading books or chatting or cooking dinner for each other and it would all start with someone declaring “To Paragon City!” For the next few hours, we’d ignore adult responsibilities and pummel henchmen into dust.

We composed fake character dialog, mocked each other in the friendliest sense, and even created our own phrases. When Mistress Façade inflicted her blind power on an enemy, my roommate would shout, “They’ve been blound!” This being a word he had decided was the past tense of ‘to blind.’ It stuck and never ceased to get a laugh. Gaining aggro was simply called making friends and our tank character was certainly a popular guy. We made our own sound effects and mocked terribly designed heroes that whizzed past. We wandered about Atlas Park and interacted with other heroes, emoting and engaging in repartee with complete strangers.

Our sprawling headquarters was meticulously designed with trophies of our victories. We didn’t power through instances or sit alone at our desks, grimly leveling our characters in the dark, in crippling silence. We bragged and jeered and did absolutely everything as a team. We shouted tactical advice and demanded heals and revives. If you walked into a session of the Protectorate Unlimited knee-deep in vigilante crime-fighting, you wouldn’t understand a moment of what was happening, but the jovial atmosphere would be indisputably apparent.

Since those days at the three-story house up on the sloped street, across from the dingy laundromat, I’ve never been able to return to MMOs in the same way. In fact, multiplayer gaming as a whole has never quite had the same feeling as it did for that year-long LAN party. Online gaming has taken massive strides with things like Xbox Live, PSN, and Steam making the act of playing with friends the easiest thing ever. But no more are the days of phoning your friend to read off an IP address or pack up your duct taped PC into someone’s basement or guest room.

In a way, this is something to be lauded. LAN parties were complicated and inconvenient, sure, but the experience is irreplaceable. Multiplayer, whether it’s competitive or cooperative, can happen spontaneously now, with a button press and a notification pop-up. But, with it, we have to say goodbye to the days where players would disappear from reality for a weekend to shout at each other and fall asleep at their desks. The days were playing online games with your friends looked more like a party than a lonely endeavor, albeit an often predominately gender imbalanced party. The modern inventions of Ventrillo and party chat are incredible advancements for social gaming. But nothing can quite replace that perfect storm of friendly jeers, vocal teamwork, and utter chaos that was the LAN party.
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About AwesomeExMachinaone of us since 6:13 PM on 07.28.2009

Twenty four years ago I was adorable. Now I'm inquisitive and hilarious.

I have a plastic tooth to replace one lost in a mosh pit during my more ridiculous high school years. I speak shitty German and I ride a bike. My Xbox gets so much use, I'm sometimes embarassed. But I'm unemployed, so my time is spent writing blogs on the internet, reading good literary fiction, and playing video games.

In the grand scale of things, I'm a late-bloomer. My parents banned all consoles from my house as a kid. See what you've done? Now I game constantly to make up for years of lost time.

I won't list my favorites, because you've probably seen ten lists like it before me.

There's a life-sized Boba Fett standee in my living room.

No Clip Series:
Grand Theft Auto IV
Fallout New Vegas
Red Dead Redemption

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Chicago Night Fights: Marvel vs Capcom 3
Inventing the Paint: An Interview with Author Tom Bissell
Top 10 Greatest Tiny Video Game Characters

Front-Paged Monthly Musings:
Groundhog Day: The Liberty to Pursue
Teh Bias: Critical Errors at Surface Level
Alternate Reality:Time for a new job
Something About E3: Imaginings from 20 Years Ago
The Great Escape: Tiny plastic guitars and wiimotes
My Expertise: Latent Racial Bonus
The Future: Overdoing the Over-the-Top
Love/Hate: A Gentleman's Baffling Love for Collecting Furniture
Nothing is Sacred: Games Taking Themselves Too Seriously

Worth reading:
We Are Destructoid
Writing on the Wall: How Graffiti Builds Universes
Combating Lawlessness in the Wild West of Red Dead Redemption
Being a Coward on Purpose
What Bringing About the Fictional Zombie Apocalypse Taught Me About Game Design
Why Video Game Designers Need to Watch the Road Warrior
The Needless Shit We Gamers Do

Xbox LIVE:The Disco Pony
PSN ID:The Disco Pony


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