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17 August 2016

Knee deep in the dead: a night and an early morning at America’s biggest LAN Party

At QuakeCon’s Bring Your Own Computer party, there are only four rules: “No sleeping. No glass containers. No vaping. No loud music.”

By nathan ditum

Have you ever stayed up all night playing a video game? There are, in my experience, two main ways that this happens. The first is entirely unintentional – you’re simply playing something so good, or so compelling, that the inevitability of tomorrow is suppressed and each extra hour is rationalised as the last, even as the clock spins round to morning. I remember once coming downstairs from bed to find my mum on the sofa playing Lemmings, embarrassed and a little confused as to what spell had held her there through a sleepless night. I have since found myself on the same metaphorical sofa many times.

The second way I’m pretty sure my mum has never tried – the organised and deliberate all-nighter. This is the conscious removal of the boundaries that normally limit gaming, the creation of a space dedicated to revelling in kinetic and compulsive delights. It’s a suspension of normal rules that govern our lives, and it’s the principle that drives people to organise LAN or local area network parties, where computers or consoles are connected for multiplayer sessions.

The BYOC – or Bring Your Own Computer – is touted as the largest LAN party in North America. It’s also the centrepiece of QuakeCon, a video game convention founded 20 years ago to celebrate the pioneering first-person shooters of software-punk studio id Software – Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake.

These days QuakeCon is a more general showcase for id’s corporate parent, Bethesda Softworks, which is how it’s possible for me to arrive at the convention without ever having heard of it. I’m here to see two upcoming Bethesda games not made by id – Prey and Dishonored 2 – although I’m more excited than usual because, having grown up on the dash and destruction of Doom in particular, I feel in a way like I’m coming home, curious to see what’s become of this fanbase which I’d once considered myself a part of.

QuakeCon takes place at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. The hotel itself is made from the sort of giant interconnected indoor spaces I imagine are only possible in a place which has so much of itself to spare, like Texas. In the lobby, there’s a monitor with a 3D schematic of the building which looks like a map from one of id’s own games, and in the atrium next to the lobby, hovering over fans walking between panels and activities, is an intricate, quivering model made of hundreds of bicycle reflectors suspended on and connected by steel wires. It’s called Nebula, and at first glance it looks like a Klingon Bird Of Prey de-cloaking in the vast air-conditioned emptiness.

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It’s while I’m exploring the hotel that I come across a long line of people carrying bits of computers – PC towers pushed on trolleys, keyboards and headsets in backpacks and plastic bags, a winding procession with a hovering air of anticipation. It looks like the queue for a music festival with the sleeping bags swapped for thousand-dollar boxes of tech. A friend explains that these people are in line to set up in the BYOC hall. By this point, I’ve heard the event’s name a few times and I’m beginning to understand how big it must be. There are hundreds of people in this line, and at the front there’s a checkpoint guarding the entrance to the hall, with a sign listing four key BYOC rules: “No sleeping. No glass containers. No vaping. No loud music.”

I first visit the BYOC itself just before midnight on the first day of the convention. The place is full now, with somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 computers glowing in the massive dark cavern of the Anatole’s events hall. The lines from earlier in the day have organised themselves into row upon row of PC towers and monitors, hundreds of people bathed in gloomy screen light as far as it’s possible to make out. There’s a hum of chat punctuated by occasional shouts of frustration and triumph. There are energy drinks everywhere.

I’m intrigued by the BYOC, partly because I feel a connection with where it came from. The early QuakeCons were an extension of the LAN scene prompted by the success of Doom’s deathmatch mode. Without a reliable internet to connect them, players would bring their machines together to make local area networks. In the mid-Nineties, after my family got its first computer, I’d regularly spend all night at weekends and school holidays tearing through Doom’s hellish corridors and guzzling giant bottles of Coke until blue morning light from the window would announce that I’d already spent the next day on the wired rush of the night I’d just extended. The few times my friends and I managed to heave our gear to the same spot to play multiplayer felt miraculous, as if we’d conjured the internet like a genie for a few magical hours.

The modern-day BYOC has some of that feeling but, in an age when it’s easy to play online, it also has something else. It doesn’t feel like the internet has been fleetingly summoned here, it feels like it has become manifest. The place is alive with memes and viral imagery, a petri dish of various internet subcultures. Walking through the hall I see a printed banner memorialising the gorilla Harambe, complete with an impromptu altar where other visitors have left gorilla-themed cereal and candles. A few rows down there’s a bedsheet hung over a row of PCs featuring a stencilled combat knife bearing the word “FAP”. At the very far end of the hall, next to a series of ominously unmanned screens playing K-pop music videos to a vast brick wall, is a flag made from a pair of girl’s cotton underwear.

There are desktop images of Donald Trump, of Blue Lives Matter wallpapers, and, the conservative streak running into self-parody, one of Abraham Lincoln riding a bear and holding an automatic rifle while brandishing the American bill of rights. I see people watching Pokemon, a few on YouTube. A lot of people are browsing Reddit. One guy is repeatedly watching a gif of a robot satisfyingly opening a jar with millimeter precision. Another is watching a video about unexplained lights over St Louis. Everything feels slightly unreal, a mix of the obvious, the ironic and the unintentional.

QuakeCon isn’t the only convention happening at the Hilton Anatole, which this weekend has become a mix of special interest groups and frequently confused-looking regular people. Earlier in the day I’d shared an elevator with a woman, her two small children, and an older boy, about 12 or 13, dressed as a character from Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic RPG, Fallout. He was bravely trying to explain, in the time it took to descend five floors, what QuakeCon is all about, what cosplay means, and why, specifically, he was dressed like a desert-dwelling survivor of a civilisation-ending nuclear event. “Well,” the woman had beamed, “I think you look spiffy.” I’d felt like an insider then, enjoying the friendliness of their unlikely coming together, but heading back up the elevator after my BYOC visit I felt different, on the periphery of something both very familiar and very strange.

Jetlag wakes me up just before six, and I decide to take the 15-minute walk back to the BYOC to see what’s going on. It’s quiet in the hotel, that familiar blue early morning light creeping through the atrium, and it’s also quiet in the BYOC, though the light in here is exactly the same, dark and glowing at the same time. At the QuakeCon keynote one of the Bethesda executives had described the BYOC as the “Vegas of gaming” and the hall has that dead-of-night Vegas feel, one of perpetual day, of the spark of transgression tempered by the touch of exhaustion.

The place is almost empty now, maybe 40 people hunkered among the unblinking lights of unattended machines. I decide, during this lull, to speak to some of them in order to understand why they’re here. This is how I meet Jon, who is sitting alone and playing World of Warcraft when I introduce myself. This is Jon’s first QuakeCon, he says. He got a BYOC ticket late and carpooled from Indiana to make the weekend. He shows me the route on Google Maps, a ragged 13-hour scar across the cheek of the American Midwest, and explains how he’d been awake for 36 hours when he arrived. His friends were all sleeping, he said. When they got up he was looking forward to playing Mario Party. “The drinking version. We drink every time we lose.”

This is also how I meet Charlie and Pedro, who are the only members still awake from the group which erected the Harambe banner. Pedro helped design it, a pictogram of a cockerel standing next to the fallen gorrilla, a visual spelling out of the “Dicks out for Harambe” meme. They tell me they all met on reddit, and used to play Counter-Strike together online. Getting to the convention was a big deal for these guys – this year they queued for tickets together, connected over Skype, everyone with multiple browsers open and hitting F5, cheering when one of them finally got through. Charlie is wrapped in a blanket because the BYOC, despite the thousands of machines running and hum of electricity, is kept cold by resilient air conditioning. “He’s waiting for a bed,” explains Pedro. “When the others get up he’ll get some sleep.”

At this time of night the hall is in a kind of flux, filled with a mix of flagging all-night gamers and early risers. Elizabeth is an early riser, the first of her group out of bed. Her friends have been coming to QuakeCon for a decade, she says, having met as undergraduates in a nearby university. Now QuakeCon is like an annual reunion – she travelled six hours with her husband to be here, and will fit in boardgames and a visit to the in-laws as part of the weekend.

As I meet everyone I ask what they’re here to play. Overwatch, the Blizzard shooter released earlier this year, features prominently, but I’m surprised by the variety. People mention Borderlands, Dark Souls, Left 4 Dead, Rocket League. The crowds meet here under the banner of id’s games, but come to play whatever they want. And the most interesting people I find during my dawn crawl through the BYOC, a pair of cousins from Oklahoma, are playing something I’ve never seen before, a one-on-one combat game with simple graphics. “It’s called ‘Gunner Guys’” says one of the cousins, explaining that I don’t recognise it because he made it himself.

This cousin’s name is Gillson, and he’s 18. Kaegan is 16, and neither of them are tired. I ask Gillson how he ended up making his own games, and he explains that at one time his parents banned him, along with his brothers and sisters, from playing anything that they hadn’t made themselves. “They’re programmers?” I guess, and I’m right – this was their way of teaching their children to code. Both Gillson and Kaegan are from big families – Gillson has 9 siblings, Kaegan 6 – and they’re both homeschooled. They are in several obvious ways completely different to anyone else I’ve spoken to at QuakeCon, but they, too, have been brought here by games, and the urge to play them together. Games even run through the unusualness of their upbringing – Gillson shows me another game he made to help his family teach arithmetic. It’s called “Super Mario Math Drills”, and it features a SNES-era Mario walking across the screen towards enemies with simple maths problems over their heads. Type in the right answer and the enemies disappear. Get it wrong and Mario shrinks, then dies. I ask Gillson if he thinks he’ll make games for a living when he’s older. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I like games, but I’d like to do something more useful to people.”

I’m impressed by Gillson and Kaegan. They are polite, smart, and obliging in an old-fashioned way that leaves me with an urge to compliment their parents. They’re also having the kind of wholesome fun that, before this second visit, I did not expect to find in the BYOC hall, with its endless irony and disaffected posturing. But then again, pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to is having wholesome fun. They might be doing it next to a cut-out of a dead gorilla, or a giant sack of free sweets temptingly placed under a picture of Pedobear, but past this surface of cultural positioning the people here are doing what people at LAN parties have always done – coming together to connect and play.

The internet has changed what a gathering like this means, but not in the way I initially thought. What’s really different to my early Doom get-togethers is that the people here don’t need to meet, in order to play, but there’s still something magical about dragging your box to a room to be with other people and their boxes, even if that room is halfway across the country. That’s why Jon and I looked at each other and laughed, after he’d told me about his 13-hour journey to QuakeCon, when I asked him what he’d be doing if he hadn’t come. “This,” he said. “At home.”