It’s a bright Saturday afternoon in the middle of June, and I’ve just pulled into a suburban driveway a half-hour outside of Boston. As I’d covered most of the distance between New York and my friend’s house by bus, I’ve arrived without my full desktop rig, widescreen monitor, and macro-programmed keyboard. Instead, the seat beside me holds just my trusty Logitech G9 mouse, headset, and a 16 ounce can of AMP energy drink. As I gather my handful of peripherals, Dave spots my car, and opens his garage door in greeting.
This summer marks 10 years of LAN parties in Dave’s living room. Though we first met at Nashua Catholic Regional Junior High School, it would be several years until our friends’ shared interests in Everquest, Counter-Strike, and pizza aligned sufficiently to accrete a full LAN party. The first events were pretty tame; a handful of friends dragged their computers into Dave’s house, which at the time was still located in New Hampshire, and threaded a tangle of Ethernet cables and spare routers through a Tetris of spare card tables and folding chairs. One or two unlucky gamers would always be caught with an installation error or unpatched version which barred them from play for the first hour, but with the tech savvy of Dave’s older brother, Jim, everyone was soon off to an afternoon chock full of trains and smoke grenades.
Photo Credit- Michelle Ciotta 3:00 PM – After logging into a borrowed laptop, catching up, and scoping out the deals on Steam, we played through Left 4 Dead 2’s The Passing, and have now stopped to snag lunch from the pizza & sub shop on the corner. Although the well-reviewed DLC had released several months prior, we had each chosen to hold off playing until we could do so in person together. While a host of games have consumed our time at past parties, including such classics as Dungeon Siege, Star Wars Jedi Knight, Serious Sam, Mobile Forces, and Battlefield 1942 and 2142, Valve games seem to have distinguished themselves as overall favorites, most notably Counter-Strike (1.6 & Condition Zero) and Left 4 Dead 1 & 2.
Experiencing the cooperative team-based formula of CS while in the same room as your teammates proved to be particularly alluring to our high school crowd, and as word of Dave’s private battlefield spread, a wave of friends and frequent parties followed. LAN parties began to host as many as 16 players, overflowing from the living room into other parts of the house, with routers and cables snaking haphazardly between, often regularly running for as long as 16-24 hours. In an attempt to redistribute the burden of what rapidly became a biweekly event, the LAN went on tour, with parties being held in friends’ garages, basements, back porches, and barns. An upper limit was finally reached when the power needs of so many computers began to trip the houses’ circuit breakers, and lack of sleep resulted in one friend dosing off while driving home, only to be awakened by the sound of his car sideswiping the median. To his credit, after safely making it home, he managed to convince his parents to give him a ride back to the LAN party.
9:00 PM – We’ve spent several grueling hours pushing through a L4D2 campaign in “Headshots Only” mutation mode and L4D’s fan-made I Hate Mountains, and have just made another trip to the corner for a well-earned snack of french fries, onion rings, and jalapeño poppers. Our Left 4 Dead battles have been especially challenging as Dave, Jim, and I are the only three players here. For the last several years, this has frequently been the norm. Jim takes some time to make a phone call, while Dave and I boot up another favorite, Rise of Nations, whose AI opponents, when teamed en masse against us, have helped us compensate for our dearth of present human opponents.
Two factors were principally to blame for our falling attendance: college and the development gap between CS and Valve’s next cooperative release. The former caused obvious problems, as for a significant portion of the year, our friends were scattered across the country, and LANs became limited to Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring, and summer breaks. Meanwhile, the latter left us with only iterations of Counter-Strike or the games of other developers to sustain us. A further blow was dealt when Dave’s family moved from New Hampshire to their new house in Massachusetts. At just under an hour away, this presented one more hurdle to bringing players to the card tables. While our gamers persisted for the first few semesters, and I managed to spawn a new, smaller LAN group in my college dormitory, it soon became clear that our golden age of LAN parties had passed.
2:00 AM – After more than 12 hours of gaming, a hard fought Rise of Nations victory, and achieving both the “Stache Whacker” and “Guardin’ Gnome” L4D2 achievements, I unplug my mouse and headset, shake hands with Dave and Jim, and head for home. While our numbers have dwindled, few experiences in gaming have been as enjoyable, meaningful, and long-lasting as these LAN parties, and even after 10 years, I find that I never leave that living room disappointed. I pull out into the street. Driving to the on-ramp, the night is cool and damp from an unheard rainstorm. I sip my AMP and peer out at the empty streets, where the reflected colors of the traffic lights shimmer and change, heedless of the traffic that has long since moved on.