I still remember when it was an accepted argument that gaming was an antisocial activity. "Go outside nerds," was the common style of refrain you'd hear on a school playground. It's the kind of argument that still gets trotted out today from people who have little to no experience of gaming, and little to no appreciation for those who actually play games.
There was always an easy counter though: local area network parties, commonly referred to as LANs. At first, it seems like the most bizarre kind of party, people lugging heavy equipment somewhere so they can stare into their CRT monitors while sitting next to other humans.
But for me, LANs were always incredibly social. It was like the gaming equivalent of a race day for motorheads, and I was reminded of that fact just this past weekend.
That was always the largest drawcard, beyond the downloading, trash talking, lightning fast networks and the copious amounts of energy drinks. It was the ability to hang out with people, talk to names and faces I often only saw online, people I would have never ordinarily met or stayed in touch with otherwise.
I was reminded of this fact this weekend past when I went to the house of an old friend, someone who used to run monthly LANs in the Southern Highlands out of the local hall.
LANs are often as much a place for tinkering and repairs as they are gaming
There wasn't a good representation of the wider gender skew in gaming, but that's always been the case with LANs. And this community event wasn't a fantastic representation of the average age of gamers either. Most were nearing 40, if not past that point.
You'd be able to tell it was an older crowd just by looking at the playlist. Call of Duty 2. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. A zombies mod for Call of Duty 4. V8 Supercars 3. Ancient titles by today's standards.
For others they're classics. Games that supported network play without having to authenticate online first.
On a regular day some people might have been playing World of Tanks. Others might have been enjoying Counter-Strike. Some might have been giving War Thunder or DayZ a run.
But brought together under the same roof, we all combined to race lawnmowers around Laguna Seca instead.
I love LANs.
The potential for damaging your equipment mid-transit isn't as great a worry as it once was, thanks to the rise of mini-ITX builds and more powerful laptops
The picture above showcases the less glamorous part of the LAN experience. Arduous unplugging, carrying, transportation, more carrying, cabling, power management. And Coke and coffee, if you're in someone's house or a town hall somewhere. If you're at a major venue, like the Rosehill Racecourse a few years back, energy drinks.
And that's not to mention the work beforehand. If you're going to a small event where the internet connection is minimal or non-existent, you have to allow for time the night beforehand to install and patch any games you think you might want to play. Older games not running through Steam? You'll probably have to download the game, install the updates, as well as any extra mods.
Because, trust me, you don't want to be doing that on the day. There's nothing worse than having to ask — or be asked — if someone's got a copy of That Game That Still Isn't Being Sold On Steam For Some Reason to share over the network.
"What are we playing," someone asked on the weekend. "We're playing The Game Where You Install The Game," the host shouted.
It's a comment that could apply to any LAN. If you're not attending for a specific competition, getting everyone into the same server can be an exercise in frustration.
And then, as often happens with gamers, there are those conversations about new games that devolve into disappointment. "What have you been playing lately," someone might ask. Oh, I've got such-and-such game, it's great fun and we should play it together, I'll suggest.
And then I'll go to load the game up, forgetting that it needs a consistent online connection to authenticate. Which forces me to tether my computer to my phone. Except mobile reception is dodgy depending on where you're sitting. Or Steam Offline mode doesn't work properly because you forgot to go offline when you were connected to the internet the night before.
I tried to show one of my oldest friends, a mate from primary school, the Jackbox games the other day. I thought they'd be great — people didn't have to install anything on their own computers. They could use their phones as a controller. And everyone attending had a wicked, dark sense of humour.
I fired up the game and got to the loading screen of Fibbage XL. And then I looked at my phone: no mobile reception.
I hate LANs.
LAN's are often a great place to discover indies and other titles you would have never played
But the fury will never replace the many, many memories I have of LANs. And they'll never replace the great conversations.
The local LAN not far from where I lived used to be like that. It was a monthly affair, but I remember month after month just spending hours talking to people, not playing anything. It was more of a reunion than a gaming event.
I still remember one Sydney Gamers League (SGL) event because of a conversation. It happened on IRC, about a week before the event. It was one with one of the older veterans of the Sydney Counter-Strike scene, someone who was known for being a bit hot-headed.
If I showed my face at SGL, I was going to get my head caved in. He was pretty emphatic about that.
My friends and I laughed it off. Nobody had been actually bashed at SGL for years. There was an urban legend about someone's tyres being slashed, but that supposedly happened well outside the venue. We were safe.
So safe that we sat down next to the abusive bloke and his four teammates. We actually ran into them in the lower bracket, and — hilariously, at their request — drafted a vertical banner into service to prevent any screencheating.
It wouldn't have mattered: we flogged them 16-5. For good measure, the player who abused me then stood with others and watched our progress to the lower bracket final where we eventually ran out of steam.
"Well played," he told me later, as I chuckled inside thinking about the text conversation a week prior.
I love LANs.
It's late at night, almost 11:00 PM. The last of the older folk are gathering their bits and bobs, packing up their cases after several laps of Bathurst, Laguna Seca and various other courses I can't remember.
Other times it's destruction derby-style tournaments in FlatOut 2, or exhaustive battles in Call of Duty 4. Sometimes it's just people sitting around watching movies while they finish off the rest of their pizza.
There are so many games left unplayed. So much time spent with computers sitting there, drawing power. So many memories still to catch up on. So many things left to discover.
But walking down the street with an old friend or catching up with a face I haven't seen, I realise it doesn't matter. Dealing with the arseholes who went to SGL and started downloading torrents. That guy who thinks it's funny to kick out a power cord mid-tournament when he's losing. That one person who feels it's OK to scream across a hall playing free-for-all Counter-Strike.
They don't matter. And the frustrations don't matter.
"Next LAN in April," the host in the weekend asked to everyone present. "Sure thing," I said immediately. Because I love LANs.