Making connections 

Montana LANers take computer gaming to the bank

The sound of violence inside First Interstate Bank is unrelenting—the patter of machine guns, the echo of rocket launchers, the cock and blast of shotguns. It was every man for himself on a recent Saturday afternoon at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street, and in this case that meant seven dudes bunkered inside one of the bank’s basement rooms trying to blow the living hell out of each other—and a chicken—all in the name of fun and gaming. The game of choice is Quake, a popular computer shooting game usually played in online communities, and the occasion is the first of what organizers hope will be a new wave of local area network (LAN) parties.

“Who’s invisible?” shouts Dead Tom, aka 29-year-old computer networker Alan Seelye, during a modified version of Quake III in which players chase and attempt to kill whomever has acquired a clucking chicken.

A player with the screen name Deathdread responds: “I can hear the chicken, but I can’t see it.”

“I think it’s the chicken guy who’s invisible,” says another player.

“Ah, that’s great,” says Dead Tom, frantically searching virtual rooms for the chicken. “Well, somebody find him.”

The party’s setup is as impressive as Quake’s detailed graphics: each gamer has brought his (no hers here) own computer, including one souped-up model that glows neon blue. Situated in the center of the room is a dedicated game server and network hub capable of accommodating up to 50 players; a white board on one wall lists instructions on how to connect through the server and link to the game. A website (www.mtlaners.org) was established weeks ago to help promote the event and lay out everything from equipment specifications to food options. And just to gain entrance to the locked building, Dead Tom, who works with First Interstate and asked the bank president for permission to use the space, rigged a walkie-talkie to a door inside the parking garage—marked with posters of the Quake logo—for gamers and, inevitably, the pizza delivery guy. The party is scheduled to last 12 straight hours, noon to midnight.

“A couple of years ago LANing was big enough where we were having parties once a week,” explains Ripspinner, aka Troy Curless. “That was almost too much, but it just goes to show you how popular it is around Missoula.”

“This was a regular thing, with 10, 20, 30 people showing up every time,” adds Reader, who’s requested anonymity beyond his screen name. (Players refer to each other exclusively by their screen names during the party and, in some cases, even outside the bank.)

But as high-speed Internet access became more available throughout the area, the need for LAN parties waned. Gamers preferred to play in virtual communities from the comfort and solitude of home instead of gathering regularly at friends’ apartments or donated office spaces. While the availability of faster Internet connections helped increase the popularity of games such as Quake, Dead Tom and Ripspinner, the two organizers of this event, believe the communal dynamics of the multi-player competition got lost in the process. They point out that the event is called a party for a reason—dedicated fans who spend countless hours playing in a virtual world are always looking for ways to interact and celebrate their passion with like-minded, real-life brethren. “For me, that’s what makes this so much fun,” says Dead Tom. “You’re face-to-face with the people you’re playing with, and you can talk smack directly to them.”

“And if I don’t like what he says,” adds Reader, “I can just walk over and smack him upside the head. It’s much more satisfying than trying to type a response to him online.”

In addition to the camaraderie, an advantage to playing in the same room is that everyone is playing on the same network, making for smoother game play and limiting the chance of technical difficulties. At least, that’s the theory. For the better part of an hour Dead Tom troubleshot connection errors experienced by players with lesser computers or without the latest software updates.

“That’s part of the reason we play for so long,” says Ripspinner, who arrived an hour before start time to help set up the room. “There are always technical issues and you just factor that into the day.”

During the down time, players discuss the nuances of the gaming community—everything from reviewing the recent movie Doom (“They had to change the storyline a lot from the game, but it’s probably the best job they’ve done transitioning a game into a movie,” concludes Dead Tom) to discussing the merits of non-Quake titles.

“I play Counter-Strike at home online all the time, but it’s totally fan-biased” says Reader, whose 13-year-old son, he proudly adds, has his own LAN name. “In my house I have three computers, and we have an XBox and a GameCube. My son prefers the consoles [such as XBox], and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I prefer computer gaming because you can control the action more—instead of a joystick I have a mouse and an entire keyboard.”

The only reason Reader’s son hasn’t joined this LAN party—minors, according to the group’s website, must have permission from a parent or guardian before playing—is because their other gaming computer is broken. “He wanted to come,” says Reader, “but with just one computer it’d be, ‘My turn, my turn, my turn’ all day long.”

Once the game starts up again, all seven players enter Quake’s virtual environment and resume their search for the player with the chicken. Reader’s screen shows flashes of other player’s characters, sprinting across the screen, as well as a likeness of Dead Tom himself—he had a friend graphically map his face and upload it to his computer so his character looks frighteningly realistic.

“Where’s the chicken?” someone yells from across the room.

“Over there,” responds another player.

“That doesn’t help me!”

“He’s by the quad! Now, by the pillars, up on top,” says Ripspinner. “I’ve got him.”

During the course of the day Ripspinner anticipates the group will play all four versions of Quake, including Quake IV, just released in mid-October, and maybe Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, and Serious Sam: The Second Encounter. They’ll start to clean up at midnight and get home sometime early Sunday morning. The schedule raises a question: Do any of these 20- to 40-somethings have social lives beyond the LAN community?

“My ex-wife had a huge problem with it,” Dead Tom admits. “But my current girlfriend doesn’t mind at all. She gets to do her own thing today, and it gets me out of the house. I’m lucky now. I’ve had girlfriends in the past who hated that I played computer games. One even said I had to make a choice between the games and her, and, well, obviously I’m still gaming.”

Dead Tom shifts his attention back to his computer. He’s wearing a Quake T-shirt. Two cans of Pepsi and a half-eaten bag of Doritos are situated within reach. “All right,” he says, “you guys ready to play again?”

Montana LANers plan to host LAN parties at least once a month. The events are free, but there are software and hardware requirements. For more information on the next gathering, visit www.mtlaners.org.

arts@missoulanews.com

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