Welcome back to Total Access. This is Travis Taft, your host, here to discuss my life as a gamer with a disability.
While thinking about what to write about this week, I happened to drop in at a comic book store to kill some time. I’m sure I’m not the only geek here whose dorkhood bleeds over from gaming into comics. As I browsed the selection of books, I noticed a number of empty tables arranged more or less in rows, but mostly just placed wherever there was room (and sometimes even where there wasn’t). At first I had no idea what they were there for – they weren’t being used for displays or anything like that. Then, slowly but surely, the tables filled up with four people each, two on each side, paired off against the person opposite them. They each pulled out a deck of cards, sometimes with dice or other tokens as well. Apparently I had been lucky enough to stumble in on game night.
As fans of this blog may remember, I am modestly familiar with Magic: The Gathering. But I was seeing cards from Magic, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and others that I didn’t even recognize. I didn’t stay and watch any particular game as I did my business about the shop, but I was delighted by the energy of it all. Well over a dozen people all gathered together and socializing, united by their various games. While it is true that there were prizes available for the winners, I got a strong sense that the people were there for the sake of being there much more than they were there for a chance at a free tee-shirt.
It reminded me of another geek phenomenon that I had tangential experience with many years ago, when groups of gamers would lug their computer consoles and screens all to one place so that they could all play together. This phenomenon was known as a LAN party, in reference to the way they would connect their computers together, which is known in the computer world as a Local Area Network. One of the games that first inspired the notion was Doom back in 1993, though the few LAN parties I have attended did not feature that particular game. By the time I was old enough to have any reason to be at a LAN party people were much more interested in Team Fortress and Counter Strike. It was always a crazy atmosphere, crackling with the raw energy of people normally considered outcasts now thriving in their natural element. Music, caffeine, and video games; all turned up to maximum. It was quite an experience, and one I wish I had attended more.
“Well if they were so awesome, why not just go to another one now?” you ask. If I were more vested in it, I probably could find one. But it wouldn't just be harder because I'm no longer in touch with those particular friends, it would also be hindered by the sad fact that the nature of the industry today just doesn't support the spirit of a LAN party like it used to.
Back in the day during the awkward teenage years of PC gaming's life - when it had begun the transition from adolescent sprite based gameplay into more mature 3D polygons, but was still suffering from a few unpleasant graphical growing pains - gaming still hadn't quite hit the mainstream like it has today. In particular, games that allowed for multiple players weren't as common. Obviously every game has at least one player, and many allowed for two. The Nintendo 64 helped popularize gaming with up to four players. Gaming with more than four players, though, was hidden deep in the realm of geekdom. Yes, you had Neverwinter Nights and Ultima Online, and a number of nongamers of the time might have even heard those names. But few would have been able to identify them on sight like a nongamer can identify World of Warcraft today. And somewhere between the relatively mainstream N64 and those mystical online worlds lay the realm of the LAN gamers.
So why have LAN parties been on the decline, if games are all the more popular and commonplace today? At the risk of oversimplification - because of piracy. It should not come as any major shock that the people on that computing fringe where these games lay we're also the type to figure out ways to share the games in ways they considered more convenient. Without going into unnecessary detail, it is suffice to say that a programming arms race took off. Publishers would come up with new ways to secure their product, and the community would find ways around those safeguards.
I'm not here to make judgment calls on the ethics of Digital Rights Management, but I will say that one tool that is becoming more common is a requirement for games to be online and in communication with the developer's server in order to run. While this does help deter game piracy, it has some unfortunate effects on legitimate gamers too. For example, even if someone has a legitimate copy of the game, if they don't have an Internet connection they can't play. And while normally LAN parties allow for great connection speeds, playing a game with your friends in the same room actually becomes SLOWER, since everyone has to connect to the main server through the same Internet connection, just to have the signal sent right back along the same connection again back to the person just a few feet away. So why bother gong over in person when connecting from your own house is both easier and has better performance?
I've written multiple times on the benefits of the Internet on disabled life today and the options it has made available that simply didn't exist ten to twenty years ago. When it is hard to function in an environment that isn't set up with your needs in mind the ability to do so much from home does immeasurable good. But I cannot stress enough the importance of gong out and doing things out in the world too, especially social functions. And it saddens me to see this example of technology taking a step back in terms of promoting social interaction around games. Unfortunately, the need to defend their intellectual property backed them into a tough corner.
That is why seeing the gathering of card players at the comic book store made me so happy. Clearly they weren't there because it was the cool thing to do. And it was far from the easiest way to get a gaming fix. They were there because that was who they were. They were gamers and this was where they came to do what they love with people who understood them.