In the beginning, the Internet was seen as the Great Isolater for video gamers.
While online, they could battle foes as far away as Japan for weeks without ever leaving their homes. Gaming addicts holed up in their rooms for days at a time, never setting foot outside (except maybe to tip the pizza delivery guy). It was a very lonely time.
But as the Internet matures, video gaming is going outdoors - in the form of computer Local Area Network (LAN) and video console parties. Gamers are forming clubs and renting out bars and firehouses in Maryland to throw these bashes. It provides a whole new dimension to the game: the human element.
"There's nothing like being able to look over a table and yell at someone that you just killed them," said Bob Keller, of a gaming group called the Maryland LAN Gamers. "Putting a face to a name is really, really neat - especially if they're your friend."
Every other month, Keller rents out the firehouse in Greenbelt and hosts a 50-75 person LAN blowout party. The next one is from 10 a.m. to midnight on Saturday. He started gaming with his friends three years ago in a house, but moved into hotel meeting rooms and now to the firehouse's main hall to accommodate the growing size of the party.
The biggest advantage to LAN gaming is the elimination of lag, caused by slow Internet connections, which makes the games seem to pause or stutter. But with the computers in a LAN party wired together, the games run as smooth as butter.
Baltimore's largest gaming group is the Baltimore Gamers Alliance, a year-old club with about 30 members. Every other Sunday night, they rent the meeting room of Cox's Pub in South Baltimore and turn it into a digital brawl. To spice things up a bit, the BGA alternates between LAN (where participants bring their PCs) and video game console parties (where gamers bring their Xboxes, Gamecubes and PS2s). The meetings cost $15 per person (to pay for renting the bar and food) and are open to the public. The events attract everyone from gaming greenhorns to experts.
Most of the core BGA members have plenty of chops, but you wouldn't bump into one on the street and peg him or her for a hardcore gamer. None of them have the stereotypical pasty-white faces and horn-rimmed glasses. They're average-looking young people: facial hair, T-shirts, the occasional tattoo.
Once you get to know them, their enthusiasm for gaming can be a little intense. But they don't care what you think. "I normally don't worry about it if [my friends] think I'm a geek," BGA member Brad Koerber said.
Seasoned gamers like Koerber can break down their PC in 10-15 minutes, toss it into a box or two, load up the car and head out. At the bar, it takes about an hour to set up all of the computers and link them. BGA supplies the cables and power. Their events run 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday nights, depending on when the junk food and energy drinks run out or when their eyelids start sagging.
After all, they do have jobs to wake up for on Monday morning. Coincidentally, that's how some of the core BGAers met: They used to work together at the Best Buy in Glen Burnie.
While the BGA's ranks aren't saturated with new faces, there's been a steady increase in membership in the year it has been active.
BGA co-founder George Martsoukos said the group's goal is to consistently draw 100 people and have monstrous LAN blowouts much like those in Greenbelt. They know that Baltimore's gaming network is large enough to do it, but the problem is that they wouldn't be able to host a LAN party every other week as they do now.
Another drawback to huge LAN parties is the impersonality. Right now, almost all BGA members are also good friends. They see the social and practical benefits to gaming. (Yes, mom, there are practical benefits to gaming.)
"They say computer gaming kills your brain, but I think it's helped mine, if anything," said George Martsoukos, who noticed he's become ambidextrous from years of gaming. "I think my hands work better, they work in unison, and [gaming] improves my driving skills."
Video games have played an even bigger role in Koerber's life.
"I learned how to read by playing 'Final Fantasy,'" he said.
Whatever their rationale for getting into gaming, when BGA members get together and play, they said it's much better than just playing alone.
"We're actually there, interacting with each other," said BGA co-founder Jason Miller.
Maryland LAN Gamers hosts its next LAN party from 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday at the Greenbelt Volunteer Fire Department, 125 Crescent Road. Visit www.maryland langamers.net.
The Baltimore Gamers Alliance hosts its next LAN party 6 p.m.-2 a.m. on Nov. 21 at Cox's Pub, 1501 Covington St. in Baltimore. Visit www.balti moregamers.com.
For more club events, see Page 37.