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Another era ends

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 25, 2003
(Issue 2117, Macintosh – Getting Stronger All the Time)

It does not, admittedly, rival the end of the Cold War or the fall of the Roman Empire. Heck, for the vast majority of the world, it's not even anywhere near as important as who the new cast of "Survivor" will be.

Nevertheless, for our little social circle, the last LAN party at our friend Keith's did mark the end of a six-year social event. Keith, the most hardcore bachelor among us, has been knocked senseless and fallen utterly, helplessly in love, and they are moving to new digs that may or may not include room for the weekly LAN party.

What makes this ending interesting for anyone else is the opportunity it provides to look back at the past six years and see how far online computer gaming has come – or not come.

When we started

It was about six years ago that Keith, one of the computer techs at the newspaper where I worked as the editorial page editor, asked if I liked computer games. He knew I was into computers in general, and explained that he and some friends gathered one night a week at his house to play multiplayer games over a LAN, or local area network.

Well, that was like asking the pope if he wanted to say Mass. I'd first done LAN gaming in the late '80s, playing "Midi-Maze" on my Atari ST at the San Diego Atari Computing Enthusiasts meetings. It was primitive but addicting – the original first-person shooter, chasing up to 15 other players around a maze you were immersed in.

I explained this to Keith, and he just laughed. "Atari? You haven't seen anything."

He was at least partially right.

When I joined a few months after the start of what we now fondly call "Killing Night," "Duke Nuke'em 3D" was the game of choice. The graphics and sound blew "Midi-Maze" out of the water. But I'd played "Doom," and so wasn't exactly surprised.

What was reassuring was that the competitive fun I remembered from "Midi-Maze" – the adrenalin rush of winning, the frustration of losing – was still there.

How it's changed

In 1997 or so when we started (and again, I wasn't one of the original quintet – in fact, I was "new guy" for at least two and a half years before Jack and Johnny came along to relieve me of that burden), my Pentium 200MMX was the hottest machine in the group.

Today, some of the guys have fast P4s – although those of us with PIIIs still get by.

That's been one of the biggest changes – you no longer need to upgrade your PC every 18 months to play the latest games. The hardware finally got so powerful that it can last three or more years.

The other big changes are the growth in number of multiplayer games, and the advances in the 3-D modeling capabilities of the graphics cards. From golf to strategy games, mini-RC cars to the various "Half-Life" mods, there have been dozens of games that have been played on Killing Night – and not all of them involved anything remotely violent.

The final thing I've noticed is how gaming controllers have fallen by the wayside. We don't play many racing games, so none of us have invested in the bolt-on steering wheels or pedals, but most of us have – through the years – tried using a variety of joysticks and console-type controllers.

We've all come back to our keyboards, and mapped out our favorite combination of keys.

Did it mean anything?

We have a social grouping that is built, at least partially, around a shared interest in computers – and not necessarily hardcore geek stuff, either. Only some of us work full-time in the computer field, and only three of the regular core of eight are programmers. Paul is a locksmith, for instance. And if Sheldon does work in tech support now, that might be more of a reflection on how he's changed through this association – when we first started gaming, he worked in retail.

But the social act of group entertainment is what binds us together. It's grown beyond Killing Night to take in weekend tennis matches, golf outings, even poker nights.

Surely a sociologist could find deeper meaning here, but it does seem noteworthy that for six years, the same group of five-eight men have found friendship and entertainment nearly every week by hooking their computers up together.

Killing Night may not have the same socially acceptable cachet as poker night, but for our generation, it is replacing poker night as the preferred form of entertainment.