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"I had a dream about square pixels": a collection of photos depicting the unusual, intense, and social beginnings of gaming.
Culture Games

“I had a dream about square pixels”: a collection of photos depicting the unusual, intense, and social beginnings of gaming.

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Currently, playing games with friends over the internet using a computer, games console, or phone is effortless. However, in the past when high-speed internet was not widely accessible, the process was more complex.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, video games started featuring increasingly intricate 3D graphics. However, due to the slow network speeds at the time, these games were difficult to play online compared to slower-paced strategy games with less demanding graphics. To address this issue, the Lan (local area network) party emerged as a solution, bridging the gap between technological advancements in graphics and communication.

“The phrase evokes vivid sensory recollections for those who experienced it – crowded and hot bodies in a basement or convention hall, struggling to set up heavy computer monitors. To outsiders, these may have seemed confusing or worthy of mockery. However, for participants, the Lan party was a significant social event in the early 21st century. It marked the end of the isolated gamer stereotype and ushered in an era where gaming became a popular and interconnected activity.”

A hall in a convention centre with rows and rows of desks with computers on and people sitting at some of them

Attendees brought their computers and related equipment to a central spot, where they would arrange their devices and link them together using a network switch. This local connection allowed for significantly faster speeds than what was typically available to internet users, resulting in uninterrupted gaming experiences and speedy file sharing. Lan parties varied in size, from small, exclusive meetings to large, multi-day gatherings with thousands of people. As digital photography became more accessible during this era, these events were extensively captured on camera, possibly due to the high likelihood of computer enthusiasts owning such gadgets.

What is the subject matter of these images? They showcase young individuals, mostly males, engaging in leisurely activities and playing games. However, they also provide a glimpse into the technology and culture of the time, with various objects and artifacts representing popular trends and interests that are now obsolete. One photo that stands out (shown below) features a Windows XP error message, a beige Microsoft keyboard, a disposable film camera, wraparound headphones that were popular in the early 2000s, and a stack of burned CD-Rs. The collection also includes numerous junk food and caffeinated beverage items, with the energy drink Bawls Guarana being a recurring presence.

A desk with computers, CD-Rs, a digital camera, headphones and a keyboard with someone's hand on the mouse
Two young men standing in a dark space holding boxes saying Lan Party
Young people sitting at a table, with drinks and laptops on it

The popular culture of today, such as anime, gaming, and comic books, was once considered unconventional in the early 2000s. This time also marked the emergence of meme culture. Memes originating from the internet, such as “Mr T ate my balls”, “All your base are belong to us”, and 1337 or leet speak, became popular on forums and created a sense of camaraderie among young internet users. With the rise of social networks like Facebook among college students and the increasing number of people using the internet, meme culture eventually became mainstream.

At Lan parties, attendees would bring their computers to unconventional spaces such as garages, basements, and living rooms. They would set up their computers on any available surface, ranging from dining tables to kitchen counters. The participants’ enthusiasm was apparent through the extreme measures they took to join these events – squeezing computer towers between cushions in the back of a van to transport them safely, laying cables across the floor to connect machines, and precariously balancing CRT monitors around the room.

A row of young people sitting at computers
A room in a convention centre of hotel with rows of tables with large computers on and young people sitting at them

When viewing these images, one gets the feeling that these individuals were on the verge of something significant, even if they were not consciously aware of it at the moment.

Organizing a Lan party required physical exertion, technical expertise, and a willingness to improvise. For those of us who grew up during the 1990s and 2000s, it can seem like the thrilling era of the internet and technology has come to an end. Images of Lan parties symbolize the earlier time when the internet was a destination, rather than an integrated aspect of our reality. Since then, we have witnessed the once mysterious, captivating, and potentially dangerous internet become increasingly restricted, monetized, and controlled by a handful of large corporations.

Merritt K is a professional who designs, develops, and preserves video games.

I eventually joined the rest of the group who were constantly playing Doom at a Lan party.

I last possessed a Mac in 1994, the Quadra 660AV, which I brought with me to college. During my first semester, I would stay up late to play Marathon, a suspenseful and eerie first-person shooter game filled with rebellious artificial intelligence and creepy aliens with clicking mouths that frightened me.

In principle, I had the option to join my friends in playing Marathon online. However, as the only student in my dorm with a Mac, I was at a disadvantage. The rest of my peers were engaged in a constant Lan party playing Doom, with all their computers connected to the dorm’s ethernet. Eventually, I decided to join them.

A group of young people, mostly boys, gathered round some computers in a space that looks like a garage, with cables everywhere and fizzy drinks and snacks on a table

My neighbor had his workstation and computer set up near the front door, almost in the hallway. He would often ask me to take over for him in a high-intensity video game while he went to grab a snack or buy some inexpensive marijuana. Suddenly, I found myself immersed in a chaotic frenzy of movement that differed greatly from the slower pace of other games. Along with three other children from my floor, I was transported into a tiny world where our characters were represented by lines and shapes, rather than words. We jumped off balconies, competed for powerful weapons, and engaged in intense battles, constantly respawning after being defeated.

Without realizing it, I had improved my shooting skills against opponents. My roommate returned with his meal and drugs, but then asked me to leave three hours later when he wanted to rest. The following day, I returned and inquired if they were playing Doom once more. As expected, it was a daily occurrence. If someone was busy with class, another student with a computer would be recruited to join in.

I didn’t have much interest in playing in my own room, which was located at the end of the hallway. My roommate, who was randomly assigned, slept there for most of the day and was always covered in a blue bedsheet. They looked like a body lying on a morgue slab. I preferred playing in other people’s rooms along the hallway, but I often stayed for too long and overstayed my welcome.

One girl sitting on another’s lap in front of two computers
Three people sitting at computers in a space that could be a garage

We often left our doors open, coming and going freely. The majority of the fans of Doom were males, but not all of them. Some were college sports players, and even those who weren’t had dorm rooms that had a scent of sweat or Old Spice.

I was not concerned. Perhaps I connected the continuous activity of playing, running, picking up weapons, and getting defeated with the scent of socks and male perspiration. I had found a new, energetic aspect of gaming that drew me away from the clever storylines of first-person adventure games and fragmented computer data. I envisioned chunky pixels rushing past in a whirl as I spun around and around.
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Naomi Clark, located in Brooklyn, works as a game designer on her own. She instructs game design at NYU Game Center.

I had spent approximately 10 months mowing lawns and saving money in order to purchase a gaming console.

My most cherished high school memories revolve around playing Halo and chasing after girls. When console games started offering online multiplayer, it was rare to find someone with fast enough internet to support Xbox Live. Only a couple of kids out of the hundreds at my school had access to it. However, one of my friends, David, had a connection through his mother who was the principal at a nearby elementary school. One day, he borrowed a high-quality router and ethernet cables from the school’s library. I presume they were never returned. We set up the router in the ceiling of his basement and ran cables under the floorboards to connect it to the living room, Dave’s bedroom, and his brother’s room. For years, his house became the go-to spot for playing Halo.

Three boys at computers with their backs to the camera, in front of a wall covered in posters

After school, our routine was always the same. The 3pm bell would ring and we would all gather into someone’s car to go to David’s house. We would split up into pairs, with two of us playing on one Xbox, sometimes using four consoles, and we would play games like Damnation, Headlong, Lockout, and Foundation. We would come up with creative game modes based on our individual strengths and weaknesses, thinking that Shotty Snipers and Rocket Sword were our own inventions. As we played Halo, we would listen to bands like Van Halen or Breaking Benjamin until Dave’s parents returned from work at 5pm. They would greet us and then jokingly tell us to leave their house. And the next day, we would repeat the same routine all over again.

I have a lot of memories of reckless behavior fueled by testosterone. The sound of controllers being broken. During my first year of college, on Halloween night, we stayed up late playing Halo on split screen in Dave’s basement. I fell asleep first and when I woke up the next morning, I found a piece of chocolate had been thrown at me while I slept. It was now melted and smeared on my arm. I groaned a word that we coined in that moment, which I won’t say here. However, we joked about it at Dave’s wedding ten years later.

A boy sitting in front of a computer surrounded by cans of drink, and with other computers and paraphernalia on the desk next to him
A boy with headphones on asleep in a sleeping bag under a desk with computers on it and in front of it

In February of 2005, on a cold afternoon, I carried my Xbox in a backpack and slipped on the ice while heading to the car. Upon arriving at Dave’s house, the console could not read the disc for Halo 2. From that point on, the Xbox was unable to read any discs. This was devastating news as I had worked hard for 10 months to save enough money from mowing lawns to purchase the console in 2002.

Fortunately, my parents were kind enough to replace it. They recognized how much happiness it brought me.

David got a job delivering pizzas, but for about two precious years our summers belonged to us. And we spent them golfing, swimming and playing Halo. When beautiful girls started hanging around, our routine didn’t change all that much. Dave dated a girl named Kelly, a total sweetheart, and she would come over and sit on the couch and watch us play. She seemed wholly supportive of our obsession.

He broke up with her because he preferred to hang out with his friends. I heard she started her own hair salon somewhere. I hope she found someone who had more exciting experiences during their youth instead of just playing video games. But I wouldn’t give up those days for anything.
Alex James Kane is a games journalist and a senior editor at USA Today’s Reviewed

During the week leading up to Christmas break, I received an invitation to a Lan party at a male acquaintance’s residence.

On December 13, 2003, I attended my first Lan party in Minety, a small village located in between Malmesbury and Swindon in the south-west of England. It was also the day that US joint operations Task Force 121 discovered Saddam Hussein in a hole in Adwar, Iraq, after searching Wolverine sites One and Two.

I heard the announcement on BBC Radio 1 while my mom was driving me along the country road from Malmesbury to Minety. Our PC was in the back of our blue two-door Mitsubishi, which we had purchased for likely under £400.

Six teenage boys standing behind the open boot of a large car and pointing at computer hard drives and keyboards on the ground in front of them

My father was employed by Lockheed Martin stationed at Dobbins Air Force Base in Atlanta, Georgia. He worked as a technician for the C-130J Super Hercules, a four-engine cargo plane utilized in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts to transport equipment and soldiers. At the age of 13, I was not fully aware of the gravity of his job and as he was more of a hangar worker than a consultant, his salary from the military contractor was not significant.

Following the events of September 11th, he transitioned to supporting foreign armed forces by utilizing the onboard aeronautics computers of the Hercules aircraft. Soon after, it was announced that he would be deployed to England for a period of two years. My mother made the decision for us to accompany him on this assignment.

I attended a public school in Malmesbury. One thing that stood out to me was the absence of cliques, unlike in the US. There were only two social groups: tough working-class boys who listened to happy hardcore on MiniDisc players, and everyone else. It seemed like everyone was friends with each other. Another observation was that the boys in the main group would play pranks and roughhouse with each other without much adult supervision. Punishments were not common.

I grew up playing Nintendo consoles, starting with the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System), and was not very into playing games on a PC. However, I did enjoy titles such as The Sims, Quake, and StarCraft, even though I was not very skilled at them. Just before the Christmas break, I received an invitation to an all-night Lan party at a friend’s house.

Young men sitting at computers in sun loungers in what looks like a conservatory
A boy sitting in the back of a car with computer hard drives beside him padded out with a pink fluffy cushion and a leopard print cushion
A room with bits of computers, games consoles, cables, magazines and CDs all over the floor

When we found out that Hussein had been caught, my mom turned off the radio in the car. It seemed like she could sense my growing independence and decided to have a serious conversation with me. She talked to me first about marijuana, then about sex and the importance of abstinence. Our family was religious, so we had never discussed these topics before. She didn’t go into much detail, but warned me about the potential consequences of unexpected pregnancy and the sin of premarital sex. I laughed and reassured her that our plans for a Lan party did not involve drugs or sex. The computer in the back seat seemed to support my argument.

I shared with the boys the details of our discussion, adopting a playful tone of “Hey guys, listen to this!” They immediately burst into laughter. One of them then took out a large bong, something I had never seen before. They appeared at ease with it and promptly set us straight on how we were supposed to act cool.

A warning from Mom came partially true when a group of boys gathered around one boy’s computer to view his collection of downloaded porn in 480-pixel resolution. It was quite a show, with mostly laughter and grimaces from the group. Eventually, the leader played a big clip that was more funny than arousing, and they replayed it multiple times. While I found it amusing, I couldn’t openly express it. I was struck by how easily the boys navigated their budding sexuality, realizing that this experience was not for me. Witnessing this moment of male bonding and the transition from innocent prepubescence to explosive teenage sexuality was both intriguing and frightening.

In the early hours of the day, we ventured to a small body of water where our host had constructed a tiny boat using two-liter Coke bottles and square planks. With my camera in hand, he persuaded me to board the raft. As soon as I was a bit further away, they quickly moved to the opposite side of the pond. It then dawned on me what was going on.

A group of young people, some sitting at computers, others lounging on sofas in the background

The raft was barely afloat. With a rope tied to a nearby tree, I found my balance and tried to avoid the stones being thrown at me. However, I eventually lost my footing and fell into the muddy water of December, up to my hips. After the boy stopped recording and everyone stopped laughing, he kindly offered his arm to help me out. When my mom came to pick me up, she could smell bong water spilled on another boy who we were giving a ride home. She didn’t mention it.

In 2005, after leaving the United Kingdom, my friend created a video using footage from a rafting trip. The video was edited with American-themed songs and playfully referred to me as a patriotic hero. This display of affection was typical of teenage boys. The video was uploaded to YouTube in 2011 and remains online today, almost two decades after it was filmed. Upon viewing it, I am reminded of the cultural contrasts between our countries, despite their overall similarities. I also see a young girl trying to find her place among the boys, even the ones with similar interests.

Kaye Loggins is a musician and record producer from New York who goes by the alias Time Wharp.

Source: theguardian.com