Growing through the 80s loaded me up with a number of insecurities thanks to my constant passion for videogames. Perhaps you made it through the 80s unscathed, or perhaps you were born after all that silliness was done with. If that is the case, dear reader, I am quite happy for you. However, during my impressionable and formative years, video games were something I had to play quite close to the chest (get it? Play? Har). In my school’s social circles, games were just about the nerdiest, most ostracizing activity any poor sap could be caught doing. In junior high, even the kids still wearing Romper Room t-shirts got a free pass to ridicule. High school didn’t fare much better — the comic book kids, greasy nerds toting around magic cards, and wolf shirt-wearing future Furcadia enthusiasts were all in higher social castes.
You have an NES? *snort* Good luck never getting any.
Things weren’t better at home either. My father bought wholesale into the fear that video games would make me a stimulation addict — socially maladjusted and incapable of employment. Amusingly, it’s hard for me to justifiably tell him that he was wrong as I sit here writing for a gaming website while listening to music, indoors, alone. However, this is a column, not a song by Staind, so no more daddy issues. Several factors in my past have bred the idea that games are solitary, socially unacceptable, and fundamentally unsound.
Imagine my absolute joy then, when I not only learned of social gaming events, but also gaming culture.
Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t doomed to a life of ridicule and loneliness because of my passion. Here were people that loved what I did – perhaps not in the exact same way – but still enough to identify and share. And as is what happens when any group of people gather, you get a communal spirit and culture that is absolutely intoxicating. Perhaps my love of these things is simply reactionary to my fears of youth, but I think it’s more than that.
So to all the young gamers and outcast elders, here’s a BITMAPS PSA: there is a society out there for you. You can find it in a few different forms, depending on your taste. Here are some of the events in which I like to participate, and how to get started. All you need is an adventurous spirit and deodorant.
The American arcade is dying, as much as it hurts to admit. Fifteen years ago, one could find at least a crappy Tilt or something similar in a local mall, only to be nearly extinct in the present. Only specialized arcades in major urban hubs seem to find a substantive following these days. The reasons are understandable. Gamers can almost get the whole arcade experience at home thanks to broadband internet and a narrowing performance / price gap in hardware. So why drive to an arcade?
Because, what you can’t do at home is be in an arcade.
You can almost hear the buttons clicking…
Microsoft’s attempt to recreate the arcade online recreates some of an arcade’s vital elements, and I appreciate the effort. High score boards, the ability to see what friends are playing, and quick access to a variety of classically challenging games are all part of the formula. However, the physical aspect of the arcade – the smell of nerd sweat, the sounds of nerd rage, and the sterilizing glow of rows of cabinets – is something that the internet will never replicate.
On paper it sounds unpleasant, but there’s nothing better than watching two excellent Street Fighter players duke it out, cheering and gasping along with ten other spectators. Nothing on XBLA can replicate watching a new acquaintance sit down and decimate a level you’ve been stuck on for days, showing you tips and tricks as you watch slack-jawed. The conversations I’ve had, head tilted to the side, eyes unwavering from a screen of Beatmania, The Grand Master Tetris, or some god-awful ridiculous SHMUP will never be replicated with a message over XBLA.
Simply put, there’s nothing that can come close to the arcade experience short of actually being there. You owe it to yourself to be part of it at least once. If my succinct diatribe wasn’t sufficient, Alex Kierkegaard penned a very passionate essay on the topic. If you aren’t the sort that has an opinion about the use of continues in arcade games (like me), it may be out of your depth. If nothing else, it will offer a glimpse into an entire world of gaming that is obscured from most.
The real trick is finding an arcade that’s not prohibitively far away. They can be tucked away in the unlikeliest of places, so your best bet is to scour gaming message boards like NeoGAF. Ask around, gather up a party, and road trip to your closest arcade.
The LAN party is perhaps the most exposed and easily accessible gaming event in America. While these used to be PC exclusive, most now feature console tournaments and several consoles for open play. If you happen to have a PC that’s less than a decade behind the technology curve, you’ll be able to participate in PC games as well. People still play the classics from the 90s; Starcraft, CounterStrike, Quake, and more – all of which will run on pretty much any computer these days. Of course, newer games like Call of Duty 4 and Crysis can get off the ground, but they are a bit rarer.
So yeah, you can play videogames at a LAN party, no duh. You can do that just as well at home, so that’s not the real draw. As before, the real benefits come from physical presence. LAN parties become de facto nerd auto shows, with computer cases lined up (sometimes literally) glistening with modifications and lights. Love of video games often comes with an appreciation for technology, and nothing feeds that quite like seeing a man wheel a barbeque up to a table and plug his monitor into it, or see a massive pump that cycles liquid nitrogen into and out of a computer case for cooling.
I am somewhere in this picture. Squint!
Late night gaming also opens up the following scenario you won’t find anywhere else: It’s 3am and you’ve just been playing Quake for five hours. You’re humming along on adrenaline and caffeine, the nerve endings in your eyes and brains burnt to a crisp. Hungry as hell, you punch out “does anyone want to get some food” into the LAN DC chat. Four guys respond and you meet up to drive to a Denny’s. One is really annoying and talks way too loud, unshaven second chin flapping as he proclaims Quake 4 sucked in the most grating nasal tone possible. Another smells and is wearing an All Your Base t-shirt. However, the other two guys are genuinely cool, and you realize, nothing beats talking Quake with new friends at a foreign Denny’s at 3am over coffee and a short stack.
Everyone’s done it. There’s no need to be coy. You’ll be sitting there, playing a game, owning nerds left and right. Nothing you do is wrong; every movement exact, every decision flawless. You enter a higher trance of game playing where your hands move independently and your mind whirs at an impossible clip. The game finishes, naturally declaring you the victor, and you can’t help but think "Man, there really should be a stadium of girls screaming my name right now."
Luckily, this actually happens in some corners of the world. E-Sports has yet to really take root in America, perhaps due to the social biases rooted in our pop culture. Regardless, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen elsewhere. Spectating pro gaming matches has become a favorite activity of mine lately for a few reasons. First, it’s just incredible to see the things these players can accomplish. Second, it makes me feel warm inside whenever legions of shrieking girls go insane while a nebbish geek in a team jersey takes the stage amid smoke machines, strobe lights, and nu-metal. And third, there’s nothing like the affirmation that the pastime I love and enjoy can provide a sustainable income for the players, sponsors, and commentators involved.
If you’re interested in watching pro gaming, perhaps if for nothing else than the spectacle, I’d recommend starting with Starcraft. The game is essentially a national sport in South Korea, and nothing comes close to the production value of the matches and the skills of the players. GOM TV is currently in the middle of Season 2 of the Averatec Intel Classic championship, which can be viewed live (and with English commentary) every Sunday Morning at 4am Eastern. VODs are also available on the site for the current and past tournaments if you can’t stay up / wake up to see them.
This needs to happen in America. Soon. And not for Halo.
The World Cyber Games host annual tournaments for a variety of games as well, and the matches rarely disappoint. VODs of most competitions can be found on their website under WCG TV. Most of these matches have English commentary, which really enhances the viewing experience provided the commentator isn’t a complete jerk. I sometimes have trouble streaming the video consistently, so hopefully you’re closer to one of their servers than I.
To an outsider, video games can seem a very solitary activity. At a glance, all you see is one person sitting on a couch for hours on end. However, hundreds of thousands of people are doing that all across the globe, unconsciously forming an underground culture that is nothing short of magical. Do yourself a favor, get out there, see the sights, meet some new people, and expand your horizons.