Before broadband and the connected world of information, we found different ways to mix our social life and our games. LAN parties. Where our PCs had a big group hug and let us kill one another in peace. Michael Johnson remembers those times.
Growing up as a PC gamer in the 90's was a curious experience, the dawn of the internet age was upon us, but everything was still a little bit rough around the edges. To illustrate this - try playing the dial-up modem noise to a millennial and tell them that this sound used to accompany turning on the internet and they'll say something precocious like “You had to turn on the internet?” before laughing in your face and stealing all your pogs.
Despite that, game developers were determined to plough head-first into the online age, spurred on by the success of early trailblazers like id and Blizzard. Thus before the end of the decade we saw games release that were almost entirely designed to be played online, such as Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena, while Counter Strike followed not long after. The generation before me usually like to chip in at this point and fondly regale you with anecdotes of playing these games at university over their integrated LAN networks and shiny high-speed internet. My experience largely involved playing with dumb AI bots, struggling with high pings and connection errors.
The problem was that for many of us growing up as PC gamers, no matter how desperate we were to play these games, home internet speeds were terrible and dial-up was expensive. While broadband came to the rescue fairly quickly, at the time an alternative solution to this problem was required, it came in the slightly odd form of the LAN Party. For a short period of time every other exchange with a parent would include the sentence “You want to take the computer over to Christopher's house and plug it into other computers? Whatever for?”
The LAN party, where you and six mates cram yourself into a dining room for a weekend, hook up your PCs with a complex series of switches, routers and CAT9 cables, somehow became quite the thing. It was a rare and much anticipated event, with excitable conversation and important organisational topics to be responded to in IRC. At every LAN countless energy drinks would be consumed, junk food gorged upon, a single tube of Pringles devoured in seconds and games would be played, finally the way they were meant to be – with other people. Although, then, as now - this was a mixed blessing.
Games were often a baptism of fire at our LANs - often only one player would actually own a game, while the rest resorted to downloading dodgy No-CD cracks from garish websites. Even so, few concessions were made to the unfamiliar. To this day I will not play StarCraft in any shape or form, so traumatic was that first experience; my friends heartlessly exploiting my lack of knowledge to finish me off mere minutes into my first game in a humiliating manner. I'm not proud of the piracy by the way – we were 15 or so years old and could only afford a small proportion of the gaming delights on offer. Most of us have since made amends to the industry by spending ludicrous amounts of money on games.
Another late 90's fad came along and supported this new-found hobby – the internet cafe. Your mental image of an internet cafe may be busy professionals rushing in for a coffee and checking their e-mails in the age before wireless. My mental image merely recalls RealityX or RX - a windowless room, stocked with mid-range PC's and filled with grubby teenagers. A scant £15 there would offer you access to their 'all night' deals, eliminating much of the LAN hassle.
RX was like a LAN legitimised. Suddenly people from school we didn’t even know liked games were turning up and it became something sociable. Sadly, the internet cafe bubble burst, towns like mine were unable sustain them and it was back to trying to find the time, space and absence of parents required to host LANs. One of my friends - now a programmer - vows that one day he will open a new RX.
Despite the logistical problems of a LAN - having to to trawl pop-up ridden internet sites for cracks and the hassle of getting your parents to agree to let you host such an event - they stuck in my circle of friends for many years. In early adulthood, we could operate them free of parental constraints, as flats were rented and cars were bought or passed down. They became an easy and cheap way of spending a weekend and we started to play longer form games. Civilization has always been a game that truly shines at a LAN - something that can be a little slow when played from your respective homes takes flight when combined with proximity to your continental neighbours. Freed from the limited AI, weekends would be poured into single marathon games of Civ. Time evaporated as we traded, warred and occasionally wept when our fortunes waned.
Civilization anecdotes have taken on legendary status within my friend circle: the never-ending but incredibly trivial banana wars, the grand siege of Hedgesgrad (my friend Hedges’ weird fondness for Soviet naming conventions deserves no further explanation) and the sharp-knifed twin brothers who would betray their sibling with only the slightest hesitation. A friend was once on the cusp of space victory, only for a pre-planned, co-ordinated nuclear armageddon to strike him down on the eve of his success. Dozens of nukes descended on his superior nation, bitter underdogs allying to deny the moment of glory; his victory, 4000 years and many many hours in the making, was gone and his cities were smoking ruins.
Once we even spent a New Year’s Eve at a Civ LAN and it was wonderful, sipping champagne at midnight as our nations raced each other to build the pyramids. The spontaneous, disharmonious and mostly just very loud renditions of Baba Yetu no doubt confounded the neighbours.
Here's the thing though: some of the outside perception of LANs, from parents or more casual gamers, was that they're for people too anxious, or too socially inept to have normal 'healthy' social lives. I recall a LAN we held at a student house when an unknown post-grad stumbled into the darkened room filled with computers, wires littering the floor. He blinked several times before sneering “What’s this then? The fucking Matrix?” That outsiders thought LANs bizarre and alien was probably part of the attraction too.
You don't have to be a social pariah to enjoy a LAN though, of course. They were and are simply an alternative way to spend time with friends, indulging in a shared passion together. Obviously one aspect of this is a break with reality and shutting out the world for a couple of days, but in moderation that can be healthy too. The closest comparison I can make is going camping or to a music festival - you come home tired, happy and in desperate need of spending some quality time using various bathroom facilities.
LANs are perhaps not quite dead, though the notion of taking a desktop PC round to your mates house certainly seems less appealing to younger generations, brought up as they are with lightning fast internet and consoles that can actually do credible multi-player. For me though, LANs are over. Responsibility, parenthood and using the weekend to have a bloody good rest have all entered the equation in my circle of LAN companions (LANpanions), edging out the desire to indulge in something that takes so much planning, effort and time. I still meet up with many of my LANpanions though; we will reminisce and someone will float the idea of holding one - plans are made, schedules discussed, games are suggested and then it never happens.
The overriding sentiment seems to be “Why bother with a LAN, when we all have high-speed internet?” My answer to that is that LANs were about a little bit more than just playing games together. It may have been the nerdiest sub-culture this side of Dungeons & Dragons, but LANs were that first taste of multi-player for many of us, free of the toxicity we now find online. They were story creators, anecdote makers and they bound us together, as we weathered the bemused questions of our long-suffering parents and got down to the important business of fragging one another.