GRAZING AT THE SERVER FARM
Vaginal Love Beads, The Loser Rack, and a Shirt That Chicks Dig: A Three-Day LAN Party is Much, Much More than 4,320 Continuous Minutes of Quake. FEATURE by Dennis Cass. PHOTOS by Jeff Minton. SPIN Magazine, July 1999
SEVENTEEN YEAR-OLD TIFFANY BLECHA (A.K.A. MASCOT) doesn’t play Quake 2 or Half-Life, so the organizers of the Big Bangg, a three-day computer-gaming bacchanal in Santa Clara, California, have given her the job of “door ho.” Mascot, who dates “network pimp” Chris Johnson (a.k.a Ozy), seems bored, but she is making her own fun by pushing handfuls of square, etallic stickers on guests as they register. Each sticker features a cartoon drawing of a penguin— a logo for Linux, the underground computer operating system. Mascot insists they go on everything from monitors to soda cans to one guy’s crutches. Seeing a disposable party camera sitting on the registration table, Mascot snatches it up and affixes a sticker. “Right then,” she says, affecting a slight British accent. “Now it’s powered by Linux.”
As door ho, Mascot has been signing people in to the Great America Ballroom of the Santa Clara Convention Center since 12 o’clock this afternoon. For $10 per day ($15 at the door). Big Bangg’s promise to its guests is simple: a few Quake 2 tournaments and a powerful all- switch local area network (LAN) that will let them electronically bloody each other without the annoying lag of the Internet. Everything else— beer, tortilla chips, computer, amusing mouse pad— is strictly bring-your-own.
About the size of a small high-school gym, the Great America Ballroom is open and raw, with fluorescent lights and carpeting the color of brown algae. Rows of conference tables are set up in three sections, like seats on an airplane. The first 30 guests are shuttling in and out of the room, some taking as many as three trips to haul in their computers and related gear. “I’m glad we got good weather,” says one gamer, who, as if going to a Softball game, also brought a cooler and a plastic storage bin filled with snacks. “I hate it when it’s raining and I have to keep my computer dry when I bring it in from the car.”
As people hook up to the network, inserting their complimentary cat-5 cable into the closest hub, there is little talking and no music. The mood is professional. With all these computers on conference room tables, it looks like they’re setting up to raise money for public television. Bay Area Network Gaming Group (BANGG) founder Tim Smith (a.k.a. Union Carbide), however, is already enjoying himself. Carbide, 29, is a dispatcher for a San Francisco newspaper, but he also runs the data- base for LANparry.com, a Web site gamers worldwide use to learn about LAN parties. “I’ve been doing this since anyone thought to do this,” says Carbide. But instead of playing Quake, or anything else on the network, he has recruited three friends to play Mario Party on the Nintendo 64 that’s set up across from Mascot.
A small crowd, their arms folded, watches the four players, who sit hunched over their game controllers as Carbide loudly jokes about what will happen to their asses when he defeats them. Nearby, 19-year-old “sponsor pimp” Blair Reynolds (a.k.a. Houston) watches, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a bullhorn with a who’s got bawls? sticker on its side. Houston, who’s been drinking Jaegermeister since noon, is restless. His dream is to throw LAN parties for a living, and he seems a little irritated that Carbide isn’t helping to welcome guests.
But Houston is a funny guy. He starts taunting the console players with the bullhorn. “Here we see the wild loser in its natural habitat,” he says, mocking the smooth patter of a nature show announcer. “Here we see them forming in a loser pack, also known as a geek pack.” Even though Houston is standing right behind the television, no one, not even the spectators, takes their eyes off the screen. The players start furiously jerking their controllers in a circle. From the waist up it looks like they’re masturbating. Just then, a mother and her two teenage sons walk in, followed by a bellhop pulling a brass luggage cart stacked with computer gear.
A gamer setting up near the registration desk looks up as the family passes the spasmulating Mario party. “That can’t look good,” he says.
AT THE SERVER FARM-A CIRCLE OF TABLES IN THE center of the room— Ozy examines the heart of the network, a black Linux box the size of a briefcase. Sur- rounding him is a tangle of thin gray cords, which pile like spaghetti on the tables and spill onto the floor. Life down on the server farm is good. Because it’s an all-switch network, every guests’ computer receives only essential information. Unlike the Internet, where your packets swim with everyone else’s, the data Ozy delivers is pure.
“We don’t make money doing this,” says Ozy. “We do it for the sake of gaming and because it brings people who are like us together.” Like Ozy, fellow friendly server guys Andreas Tyrosvoutis (a.k.a. FatGreek) and Ryan Otis (a.k.a. Funky) know so much about computers they modify them without fear. Ozy has overclocked his Celeron 300a to perform at 464 mHz, which makes it run hot To keep his motherboard from frying, he leaves his case open, exposing its delicate innards. A white plastic desk fan blows on the machine’s green circuit boards and ribbed connectors, to cool them down. Funky keeps his case on, but has extra fans inside. “It’s under room temperature in there,” he says with pride. “Always.”
As Ozy labors to fine-tune the network, about 75 people enjoy the fruit. A typical row of gamers has five or six players crammed in like air traffic controllers, each intently tapping keys and frigging the mouse. Most wear headphones, even though there are no noise restrictions at Big Bangg, as there are at some tournaments. This is how the ma|ority of the quests will spend the next 36 hours. If there were cubical walls, this would look a lot like work, except at work most people have more space and no one concentrates this hard.
The bodies come in two flavors here, angular and vague, but each computer looks different. Everyone decorates. Stacked on top of Union Carbide’s first monitor is a second monitor adorned with a purple-tentacled monster taking a female Quake action figure from behind. Stickers cover everything. One computer has a sticker that simply reads insanity. Many change their screensavers and desktop wallpaper several times a day to keep them fresh. The Matrix is a favorite, as is South Park. Other popular themes include space exploration, porn, and monkeys.
At the front of the room, Houston is working up the crowd. Heather Gregg (a.k.a. Sweetmeat) has joined Mascot at the registration desk. They are two of four women here. When the lights go out. Sweetmeat says, “Isn’t that romantic?”
The gamers dutifully put them on over their jeans or wrap them around their heads like turbans. “Can I get a rock?!” yells Houston into the bullhorn. The crowd replies without heart. “Can I get a rock?!” he yells again. This time they respond, a chorus of hoarse yells.
“Did they say ‘cock’?” asks Mascot. Sweetmeat laughs. “Girls don’t talk like that, do they?” says Mascot, pretending to be shocked.
“I do,” says Sweetmeat with a shrug, but what starts to look like a promising, albeit strange, moment of female bonding quickly evaporates into a long silence.
“Do you run on Linux?” Mascot asks quietly.
“Actually I run on a proprietary hardware system,” says Sweetmeat.
Mascot nods and turns her attention to a guy trying to figure out how to keep underwear on his head.
BECAUSE THERE IS NO DATA LAG HERE, THE KIND created by slow connections or heavy Internet traffic, a gamer at a LAN party can achieve the highest slate of gaming consciousness, like a surfer riding a perfect wave. As one player says in a LANparty.com treatise on how to throw a LAN party, (it’s] the most fun you can have with your machine.”
Quake’s release in 1996 marks the LAN party’s beginning. Doom, also by id software, let gamers link two computers via serial cable, but Quake was among the first to employ the idea of muttiplay, the “enjoyment of out-thinking a human opponent.” as Ozy says. Pay services such as Mplayer and Heat.net flourished on the Internet, but as with any subculture, enthusiasts found a way to do it better themselves and for less. They formed clans, small teams of online players who revel in quasi-military tactics, and launched dedicated Quake servers. By the time Quake 2 came out at the end of 1997, there was a substantial network of players who had completely lost interest in computer opponents and were only satisfied if they could get it on live.
Today, new computer games are assumed to have multiplayer capabilities; the best games have an underground following that supplies homemade levels and mods. A LAN party in Liverpool, England, might be for Starcraft fans only, while another in Santiago, Chile, or Sydney, Australia, might feature a night of Quake: Capture the Flag. A network for 40 people is cheap and easy to set up. Most are one night-only, held monthly or weekly on college campuses or in hotel conference rooms. Organizers charge $10 or $15 to cover the bare costs of running the party.
Norway’s The Gathering, which invited BANGG to be its U.S. partner this year, holds the record. In this, its eighth year, they assembled 4,000 people at the Viking Ship in Hamar, Norway, for five days of gaming on a single, incredibly massive network. The Gathering grew out of Europe’s demo scene, where young programmers try to out-do one another by writing the best demo, a short, technically pure computer program that usually features pulsating graphics and techno soundtracks. The demo scene is still alive, but The Gathering is increasingly centered around the size of the network. Like other LAN party organizers, they are finding that the new frontier of gaming is wiring the population of an entire small city into a vast, playable matrix.
WHEN TRAVIS HOGUE (AKA BREADTOOTH) AND JAMES Katie (a.k.a. Tetsuo) show up, the party changes. Houston had warned me about them, two veterans of Bastard’s BeatDown, an exclusive LAN party down in Costa Mesa that’s known as much for gaming as it is for people doing “crazy shit” like beer-bonging margaritas. Nancy Anne Nieman (a.k.a. Not_Anne) and Heather Fletcher (a.k.a. Syren), both BeatDown vets, are also supposed to come. Except for Syren, who is 23, Not_Anne, Tetsuo, and BreadTooth, like Union Carbide, are around 30, which is double the age of some guests. Most people here seem either to be around 20 or around 30. As part of the younger set, Houston naturally looks up to the older gamers. “I want the world to see that we’re partiers,” he says.
BreadTooth, who is 6 5″, enters gabbing. He is wearing a Dr. Seuss hat “You take a dead environment with dead people and you add one part BreadTooth,” he says, pausing for dramatic effect, his eyes flaring, “And things get trippy.” BreadTooth sells Internet advertising for GameSpy, a company whose software acts as a match making service that hooks up Internet gamers to nearby servers. With his long curly hair, BreadTooth looks like a heavy-metal guy, like Gene Simmons without greasepaint. But he bullshits like a boat salesman.
“Chicks love this shirt,” he says, pointing to the GameSpy logo above his breast. “I was at a trade show and these women would come up to me and rub my nipple. Right here.” He rubs his nipple.
Tetsuo, who is wearing a matching hat, is a few feet away setting up his computer in one of the center section spots between the door and the server farm. Houston has marked the area reserved. A small crowd gathers to watch. Tetsuo has a reputation for being a wild one, the kind of person who likes to push a situation to see how hard it pushes back. His computer ready, he starts blasting out a guitar-driven MP3 that makes one of his neighbors flinch. It sounds like Pantera. Ozy steps to the edge of the server farm and tells him to turn it down. Tetsuo pauses for a moment, wondering if it’s worth a confrontation. He decides it’s not
Houston clicks on the bullhorn and announces a Quake 2: Rocket Arena team tournament Rocket Arena is a mod, a remix of Quake 2 coded by a third-party programmer. Houston instructs everyone to sign up at the front “We’re going to be Team One-Pound Cock because we’ve got one-pound cocks,” says BreadTooth. He turns to Tetsuo and adds, “You know, some girls don’t like that.” He is referring to the heft of their members. Tetsuo nods.
LIKE A HOT SANTA ANA WIND, A RUMOR BLOWS through the ballroom: DeezNuts and 99 Cent Value Clan are hiring a stripper. “We’ve made a mutual defense pact” says Carbide, not a member of either clan. “We’re going to let them drink our beer, and they’re going to let us look at her tits.” BreadTooth and Tetsuo are game, though they’re worried the two clans, who are mostly made up of 18-year-olds, don’t have the tipping savvy to get a hot show. By mid-evening, small groups start drifting upstairs.
Around midnight, two rooms across from each other in the hotel have their doors wedged open, and about 30 people are flowing back and forth. BreadTooth is lounging on a crowded bed. “You’ve got to give Houston his props,” he says. When Houston came to his first BeatDown, says BreadTooth, he was a shy kid with no piercings. “Now look at him.” Today, Houston still looks young and a little innocent, but has a long silvery fang piercing each ear. And a Prince Albert.
The stripper, named Nikki, and two hotel security guards responding to a noise complaint arrive separately but almost simultaneously. The gamers, whose reactions in Quake 2 are so fast as to be almost instinctual, balk at this real-life encounter. Neither of the security guards look very menacing-one looks like a prep-school kid in his gray pants and blue blazer— but the gamers are too paralyzed to even apologize. Tetsuo tries to finesse the situation, but security has already decided to send everyone back to their rooms.
After security leaves, about 15 gamers, mostly teenagers like Viper31 and BobbyDigital, gradually, quietly sneak into one of the rooms. They pile five to a bed, with the remaining onlookers ringing the room. After what seems like a long wait, Nikki emerges from the bathroom wearing a turquoise mini-dress and matching sports top. She has a beauty pageant smile and fake breasts that are slightly square.
Nikki climbs on the bed and straddles Houston. “Yeah, bay-by,” he says in his best Austin Powers Cockney drawl. It gets a laugh and breaks the ice. As she goes through her routine, her tape player churns through a half-hour of Marilyn Manson and Filter.
The show is surprisingly interactive. Nikki spreads oil on her breasts and rubs them on Viper31 ‘s naked back. She makes BobbyDigital lie face down on the floor, drizzles hot wax on his back, then pulls down his shorts. She draws a heart on his ass with permanent marker. “Have any of you guys ever seen anything like this?” she asks. “I mean, not on a computer.”
Naked, Nikki pulls a string of purple love beads out of her “toy bag.” She says she needs a chair and three volunteers. Viper31 offers up his chair and Nikki takes a seat, spreading her legs and offering a black, spikeheeled shoe to a guy on each side. All pupils in the room collectively dilate. One gamer is so excited it looks like his collarbone might snap. Just as Nikki is starting to work the first bead into her vagina, the music stops. Houston slaps the tape player. With a hiccup, the song comes back on.
“That thing,” says Nikki as she works in another bead. “I really should get a CD player.”
“You know, you can make your own CDs,” offers one helpful gamer.
“I know,” says Nikki, “A guy offered to let me use his CD burner.” In goes another bead. “But he wants to charge me 50 bucks.”
The crowd is appalled. For people who get as much technology for free as possible, the idea of charging someone $50 to burn a CD is obscene. “I’ll do it for free,” say about three of them in unison, and a brief but detailed discussion about the various technical merits of CD burners follows. Nikki acknowledges their inherent value.
Finally, the guy kneeling in front of her pulls the beads out with his teeth. Each purple bead comes out of Nikki’s vagina with a little pop, until the entire string dangles from his mouth. ViperSl and the rest are shaking their heads in disbelief, not ever imaging a LAN party could be like this. “Good job,” says Nikki. “Good job.”
AT HIGH NOON, THE GREAT AMERICA BALLROOM IS dark except for the glow of monitors. The gamers have been here since early this morning and by now everyone is on casino time. It could be four in the afternoon or four in the morning— no one seems to know or care. BreadTooth and Tetsuo are absorbed in a game, their headphones on, empty Heineken bottles at their feet. Behind them, most of the server guys are playing Starsiege: TRIBES, a game that requires as much strategy as twitch, while Carbide wanders around searching for three Nintendo 64 players.
Houston is hanging out with Syren, who arrived today and has set up camp with BreadTooth and Tetsuo. She’s wearing a see-through turquoise top, tight black pants, and platform thongs, and stands cradling Sneaky Snake, a ball python she brought along to keep her company. Syren was once purely a spectator but she says she’s a gamer now. “Whenever I drive home from a BeatDown the guardrails look like ammo clips,” she says. “I have to keep from swerving to pick them up.” Her presence here adds an overt sexual energy. Guys look up from their computers more often when she’s around, hoping perhaps to glimpse the outline of her nipples.
BreadTooth and Tetsuo wander outside for a break. While Tetsuo has a cigarette, BreadTooth tells a small crowd of smokers about BeatDowns past. “At what other kind of party can >’ I you type ‘beer me’ and a girl wearing no bra and a T-shirt that says beer girl will come and bring you a beer,” asks BreadTooth. One time we even had a LAN inside a van— how cool is that?” On the drive down to one BeatDown he, Tetsuo, Syren, and her brother Superfly drank Jaegermeister and played Quake against one another on networked laptops. BreadTooth indulged himself so heavily at BeatDown IX that he ended up in the hospital with a migraine.
AFTER 12 STRAIGHT HOURS WITH BARELY A BREAK, A lot of people are tired, but a lot aren’t. With almost every table at capacity, the party is at its peak, and while a few wander the rows of computer terminals, most of the 150 guests have turned their two-and-a-half-foot section of real estate into a snug little nest.
About six people silently gather around Carbide’s dual monitors, keeping a respectful distance from each other. The air smells vaguely of pizza. On a nearby monitor a video loop of a chimp drinking his own urine plays. Carbide’s audience keeps their arms folded or their hands in their pockets, and the different styles of arm-folding and hand-pocketing are as individual as snowflakes, a catalog of guarded behavior. Some cross both arms evenly, fingers extended; others clench their fingers in a fist; still others holster their hands in their armpits, while a few lock their hands behind their lower back, as if viewing abstract art.
The word has spread about Carbide’s collection— this is his second or third showing this weekend. A big draw of LAN parties is peering into other people’s hard drives. It’s rude to read files during peak times, which can cause an entire section of the network to lag, but “share up” someone’s drive during off-peak times and in minutes you can copy their MP3s, movie files, bootlegged software, and, of course, their porn collection.
“Have you seen Troops?” says Carbide, referring to the semi-famous Star Wars-meets-Cops movie file. A few people answer with jaded “yeahs,” but Carbide fires it up anyway. Then Winnie the Pooh does his morning stretches in front of the mirror as the re-dubbed voice track praises Satan. And then, a take-off on the new Star Wars trailer, a fake preview called Episode I: The Little Menace, which features South Park characters. One of the guys watching says, “Yeah, bay-by.”
Carbide shows a movie file of a woman getting hit by a commuter train. The crowd groans. One kid takes his hands out of his pockets long enough to hide his laughing face. Another stands on tiptoes peering over Carbide’s shoulder to see how his directory is organized.
AS THE PARTY CONTINUES, SOME GAMERS PURSUE other interests. One watches a DVD of The Fifth Element, while another trolls the aisles with his digital camera. DarkMonkey is juggling pins. It is hard to verbally encapsulate all that is transpiring. Few dare to try. “I’d say it looks like one hell of a geek party,” says Funky from his vantage point at the server farm.
Funky is right, of course, but only partially. Even though, as one gamer points out, everyone here has spent time working tech support, the Big Bangg’s population is more varied than it seems. Not everyone is like Ozy, who spends more time configuring the servers and monitoring packet exchange rates than playing Quake. A nerd’s nerd, Ozy studies computer science at California State University, Hayward, has a job as a network engineer for Sprint, and a collection of 13 computers at home. Five are wired as a LAN, good for small parties.
The one in his bathroom is a dedicated MP3 server. In the morning Ozy simply presses the letter P on the wireless keyboard resting on his toilet tank and the computer plays his favorite loop of shower tunes. Though Ozy is very adroit with computers, he is neither unapproachable nor socially awkward. The server farm’s ring of conference tables is physically closed off but geographically central, and Ozy and the other server guys amicably entertain questions and swap stories with guests all weekend long. The section of tables farthest from the door is the least concerned with the softer side of LAN parties, most concerned with racking kills.
They seem to care only about dominating the other guys here. One calls himself, with impressive bravado, Anal Intruder. A high school senior from Napa Valley who also wrestles and flies helicopters, Viper31 sums up the appeal of the Big Bangg as “skills and no excuses.” At a LAN party, he explains, you can’t blame Internet lag when you lose.
Across the sprawling ballroom, small cliques form. In many ways the room— wide and open, crowded, tables strewn— resembles a high-school cafeteria. But unlike a high-school cafeteria, where a strict pecking order dictates how people interact, the lunchroom politics at the Big Bangg are more diffuse The majority of guests fall in between Ozy and Viper31. They talk about how to maximize the frame rate of a 3D accelerator card; they sporadically yell, “Suck it, bitch!” Hysterical parents and Congressional hopefuls would be disappointed at how peaceful the Quake-obsessed gamers are. Many seem to come not just for the gaming but for the physical contact the Internet precludes. Syren, who is currently studying to be a dental assistant, first got into computers as a way to “bond” with her dad and brother. Now she loves the attention she gets at LAN parties. “I want to be the chick who’s hot and knows more than you,” she says. Her snake and see-through top make for compelling arguments.
Most attendees are similarly theatrical if less physically expressive, preferring to crib lines from The Simpsons or Austin Powers. Accents abound; Cockney is preferred.
Everyone seems to crave attention. Some more than others. BreadTooth and Tetsuo, while at times condescending of the others present, care enough about their images to be disappointed that no one at the Big Bangg revels in their antics. They sit at the cool table— center section, first set of tables, in between the door and the server farm— but even with their large hats, they somehow fail to achieve a critical mass of trippiness. “There are too many arrogant people who just want to kick people’s ass,” says BreadTooth, explaining the shortcomings of this crowd. Tetsuo simply calls the party “lame.” The winners and the server guys are too preoccupied to give them the time of day. The rest are equally self-contained. Saturday night, BreadTooth and Tetsuo spend most of the evening sulking at the hotel bar, surrendering the lead to whoever wants it most, which turns out to be no one. People here actually just want to play.
HOUSTON MAY BE EXHAUSTED, BUT. EVER THE IMPRESARIO, he plays to the small crowd gathered behind him. Mascot, who had disappeared for a while, is back hanging out at the server farm with Ozy, who finally has some time to play. Tetsuo and Syren left the night before, but BreadTooth, Not_Anne, and Sweetmeat are all milling around. Many of the attendees have gone home. “His penis is 3D-accelerated,” says one gamer who still hasn’t had enough, though it’s unclear whose penis is so futuristic. Union Carbide looks very happy, having found a steady supply of console players, who are clustered by the front door waiting their turn.
“Nobody owns me when I’ve got the railgun,” says Houston, craning his neck to see who is still watching. Next door at Exhibit Hall B, the service of the Abundant Life Ministry is letting out, and an African-American couple with their baby pause at the doorway. They are a picture of sober reverence— he in a crisp, black suit; she a pastel floral-print dress; the baby in little lacy socks— and they are visibly confused. The father stops Ozy and politely asks him what’s going on. Ozy hesitates. “It’s kind of a computer gaming convention,” he says. The wife takes her baby on a quick stroll down the aisles, past bleary-eyed teens, tangled network cables, soda-can monuments, and the remnants of a doughnut and Dontos breakfast. When she returns to her husband, he gives her a questioning look. All she can do is shrug.
Houston watches the wholesome visitors leave. He savors their reaction. “All right, let’s get porn on all these monitors,” he says, pointing to the row of computers that face the entrance. “We need a porn server.” His audience is exhausted by now, but how can they not smile? Over by the door, a Mario Party party is in full swing. Carbide is playfully browbeating his opponents. The spectators’ arms are folded. A pizza is on its way. Everyone present has seen this screen a hundred times this weekend, but Carbide keeps them lively with butt jokes. He puts on a pretty good show. ■»
CHOICE CUTS Photographs by LIZ JOHNSON / fashion by JASON FARRER