War Games

They line up by the warehouse door at Contractor Wire and Cable in south Phoenix like an army of IT guys delivering refurbished computers: 140 mostly white males, most in their mid-20s, clutching big CRT monitors in front of their guts and toting hefty cabinets and bags full of wires, keyboards and mouses under their arms.

To the couple of Spanish-speaking kids angling their bikes in the quiet industrial park street to view the action on this early Saturday morning in March, the only excitement in watching the slow parade of overburdened Dilberts lies in waiting to see if anyone drops his box -- which none of them does.

But inside, as each man picks a spot to set his computer down along the long rows of picnic tables lining the cavernous warehouse, the environment quickly transforms into the Bizarro version of Office Space, with every character playing a post-hypnotherapy Peter Gibbons knocking down imaginary cubicle walls and personalizing his two-square-foot space with geeky gusto.

One by one, as the boxes are plugged in, cabinets with angular-cut Plexiglas windows light up in neon hues from the banks of ultraviolet cold cathode lights encased among the multicolored wires and illuminated LED fans. Guys in tee shirts imprinted with Windows error messages and mother-board manufacturers' logos decorate their monitors with nerdy good-luck mascots -- a dragon here, a cartoon Ren Chihuahua there -- and personal photos. One beefy guy props a 3x5 of what appears to be himself in a superhero costume against the bottom of his screen.

Loud music, ranging from the latest skater-punk anthems to vintage Average White Band, blares from the MP3 player of a centralized computer specially set up as a music server. And every computer in the building is loading games. In fact, for the next 14 to 20 hours, nonstop except for the occasional snack bar or bathroom break, it's all about the games.

This is boot-up time at Desert Bash 2.0, the second annual super-size LAN party hosted by LanCamp, Arizona's biggest computer gaming "clan," with some 58 official members and another 340 game enthusiasts from all over the world registered on its Web forums.

Most of the LC clan is here, along with groups from other local clans like Fr3nsyc (pronounced "forensic"), Southwest Gamers League and CKUA -- short for Come Kill Us All -- whose members have arrived wearing matching black and red polo shirts with their call names woven in the back.

Here, overworked company computer guys and tech-obsessed teens log on to high-powered, multi-player first-person shooter games and suddenly transform into their online alter egos: fierce, treacherous warriors with names like DarkMoon, Invisigoth, InnerDarkness, Arson, and OptimusPrime.

"In online gaming," says Matt Bentley, better known as Mattilla, "you don't know what the person looks like, you don't know how old they are, what gender they are or what race they are. It all comes down to how they play the game. And at LAN parties, you get to see everybody, but it's still the same thing: You get respect for how you play, and nothing else matters."

Indeed, about an hour into the party, once all the players have gotten their "rig" wired up to the fast one-gigabit network, loaded the necessary game maps and wrapped their headphones around their ears, the neat rows of young men glued to their computer screens begins to eerily resemble the pod scenes in the Matrix movies.

On the surface, the crowded warehouse may look like a makeshift office full of busy cubicle drones. But beneath those headphones and on the screens each pair of eyes is watching, the LAN partyers are jacked into an entirely different, shared universe.

As Bentley walks around the room, surveying the vivid re-creations of Ho Chi Minh villages on the screens and the authentic '60s-era rock music bleeding out from the headphones, he notes that a majority of the gamers are already playing the latest update to the hit multi-player combat game Battlefield 1942, released less than a week before the event, called Battlefield Vietnam.

"A lot of people," Bentley says with a smile, "are in Vietnam today."

It's an odd environment to re-create in a game, and the irony of a Swedish-based game developer turning America's most unpopular war into a smash hit online shooter is not lost on the brainy computer geek crowd. On one screen, a BF fan has already made a background picture out of a Penny Arcade comic by gamer culture heroes Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins showing its two lead characters playing the new release. "What's the button to pick up stuff in Battlefield Vietnam?" one asks. "That's 'G.'" In the next frame: "What's the button to watch your best friends die, get hooked on drugs and then return to a country that hates you?" "I'm not sure there is a -- oh, it's 'Q.'"

But in today's games, total cinematic immersion is the key, and the Battlefield franchise has become a must-play series precisely because of all the realistic detail and freedom of movement built into the games. "Battlefield 1942," reads the promotional literature for the debut game, released in September 2002, "contains a specially produced game engine that handles dynamic models, scenery, land and air physics, and includes a system for 3D sound that provides an unrivaled feeling of presence. Suddenly," the advertisement promises, "you are just there!"

Certainly that "feeling of presence" is one of the keys to the series' success. In the original game and its add-on mods like Desert Combat and the recently released Vietnam update, gamers not only get to tote around realistic-handling, historically accurate firearms, they get to drive Jeeps, tanks, aircraft carriers and even jets and helicopters.

On Matt Bentley's personal Web page, the computer systems specialist and self-published sci-fi novelist keeps a journal of some of his most memorable games in BF1942 that reads like the vividly recalled tales of a real-life war veteran. In the stories, Bentley recalls saving online buddies from exploding bridges, charging tanks and torpedo-firing submarines as if describing real-life adventures.

"If you have a long day of playing Battlefield," Bentley admits, "you can find yourself looking around for other people, as if you're still in the game."

The realism of the game play, from the way the tanks roll when coasting down a steep sand hill to how fast helicopters drop when the player lets up just enough on the control key, can even make players wonder if the skills they acquire in the game might actually transfer over in the real world.

"A few of us like to go out in the desert sometimes and shoot the real guns from the game," volunteers one member of the LanCamp clan, a friendly 24-year-old City of Phoenix employee named Eric Young. "It's a lot of fun, being able to pick up a real 50-cal sniper rifle -- which is a big item in Desert Combat, a one-shot kill -- and say, 'Hey, I brought some ammo, can I shoot your gun?'" he says.

"It's surprising how close the real guns are to the game."

On a rocky hill located just off a rugged, unpaved stretch of Table Mesa Road some 38 miles north of Phoenix, Eric Young picks up the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle from the tray of weapons set up behind Major Tom's truck and holds it before him like a kid pawing the top toy on his Christmas list.

"That's the standard civilian model of the M-16," says Major Tom, an off-duty Arizona DPS officer who insists on giving only his nickname -- possibly because of all the "work tools" he has taken along on this Saturday afternoon shooting expedition.

"It's the exact same profile as the M-16 in the game," he says. "It's just a semi-auto version. But it shoots the same rounds. Go ahead," the good Major says, "I brought a ton of ammo!"

With a big grin spreading across his rounded face, Young pulls the butt of the AR-15 squarely against his right shoulder and digs his heels into the hill.

Although the former small-town boy from a tiny burg in southeastern Utah has never fired this particular gun before, Young handles the AR-15 like a trained special ops sergeant, locking and loading the magazine with a firm slap, slamming the bolt forward and resting his finger against the trigger as he leans into the scope.

Through aviator shades, Young, dressed in camouflage combat trousers and a white tee shirt, peers into the scope and centers the illuminated red dot on his target: a bright blue bottle of Bawls, favorite high-caffeine drink of computer gamers, balancing on a cardboard box across the ravine.

Until today, Young has only wielded an AR-15 -- or rather, its military brother, the M-16 -- as a computer-generated character in Battlefield 1942. But this afternoon, surrounded by about 20 other gamers with a similar curiosity about firing the real deals, Young's finger is not on the left-click button of a mouse but on the actual, cold steel trigger.

What's surprising, as he said, is how well the game has trained him to operate the real thing. From seeing how much slower his on-screen character runs while holding the gun, Young already knows the approximate weight of the weapon. By becoming familiar with the scope view on the PC, he knows how to manipulate the red dot in the actual scope and how far to expect the bullet to stay on that target before falling prey to gravity.

About the only thing Young doesn't seem to know about the AR-15 from all those hours of playing with its match in Battlefield is how gingerly it kicks on the recoil. When he finally squeezes off a shot, blasting the Bawls into tiny shards of ribbed blue glass, the rifle barely jostles Young's husky frame an inch.

"It's like shooting a little .22," Young says, sounding just a bit disappointed.

"That's the one thing they can't simulate in the game -- the recoil," adds pal John Czechowski. "If they could build some kind of vest that, when you shoot it, you feel it, that would be realistic."

Oddly enough, even firing the actual AR-15 feels a little unrealistic today. If Czechowski's rumble-vest ever makes it to the game shops, it seems, engineers would have to amp up the actual recoil effect to make it more, well, realistic.

"Nobody who plays the game would believe how light it really kicks," says Scott Tindle, who's brought along his own AR-15 to the shootout today. "It's a baby."

Like the other 16 guys -- and one girl -- taking their turns firing assorted military weapons out in the Arizona desert on this warm mid-April afternoon, Young, Czechowski and Tindle have come here to literally step inside "the game" they've been playing almost obsessively for the past 18 months.

"It is pretty similar, the way the guns handle in the game," says Young, referring to Battlefield 1942 and the other entries in the series.

The Saturday Shootouts, held about once a month, are organized by fellow LanCamper Ken Schneider as an extracurricular activity to get the gang away from their computer screens and commune with the real world (occasionally, the group also goes bowling).

But invariably, comparisons between the real world and the world created in the game are impossible to avoid -- especially when you're playing with the same toys in each.

"If you're running with these guns and try to shoot, the spread of your aim is too wide to hit anything. And that's the same way it is in Battlefield," says Young. "You have to stand still or lie down to get any accuracy. So it's real close to what you'd probably find in real war."

The armed computer junkies -- "geeks with guns," Schneider quips -- are a bit wary of how their offshoot hobby might be perceived. "We don't want anybody to think we're all Trenchcoat Mafia types," says Young.

The guys are also keenly aware that, beyond target shooting with the actual weapons they use in the game, there is no "next level" they can sanely take their immersion to. "What do we do next?" Czechowski says, laughing. "Go downtown with some tactical nukes in a briefcase?"

But for Young, at least, getting a feel for the weapons is not about using the game as a gateway drug to real gunplay. Rather, the ultimate goal, he insists, is to become satisfied enough with the realism of the game that firing the genuine article finally becomes unnecessary.

"I personally think all wars should be fought on the computer," he says. "There's nobody dying, it's all very strategic.

"Plus," he adds, citing what may be the biggest political advantage of the virtual Battlefield over the real one in Fallujah, "there's clear scores."

More than half of all Americans play computer or video games today, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and the average age of the player is 29.

For many, the image that statistic immediately brings to mind is of a growing legion of aging, pimply-faced loners -- a Nerd Nation of stoop-shouldered, socially challenged geeks finally venturing out of the house.

In fact, though, many of the millions playing video games today -- particularly the massively multi-player online games made for the PC -- are guys (and even a few girls) who were never part of the pocket-protector culture to begin with.

"I never got into the early computer games," says Young, whose backyard at home is filled with classic cars and motorcycles in various stages of customization, a benefit of his job scouting vehicle purchases for the Phoenix Police Department. "My brother, Brian, was into 'em. He was playing these text-only games back in '91 -- all that Dungeons & Dragons stuff -- when I was out working on bikes and cars. I didn't care about that."

Young found himself drawn to computer games only once the graphics got better and the ability to play online with buddies over high-speed Internet connections became a reality. Suddenly, the more outdoorsy fun seekers like Eric -- prior to getting into computer games, Young used to enjoy driving around new housing developments in his pal's Chevy S-10, shooting paintballs at the windows -- discovered they could derive similar visceral thrills from the safety of their own homes.

The huge advances in graphics and physics built into the new games were key in luring non-geeks to the addictive glow of the computer screen. Young never got into Grand Theft Auto 1 or 2, when the cartoonish 2-D action was always controlled from a detached overhead view. But he immediately got submersed in GTA 3's first-person car-jacking action, where the bad guy you play is free to run, drive or motor-scooter anywhere and punch out anybody he wants in a lawless, limitless 3-D city.

The ability to play and battle with real buddies online made it even sweeter. Some of today's heaviest game players, like Young, have never played a game in the solitude of a non-networked home, where it's only one lonely soul against a pack of pixelated Asteroids. For these guys, computer history, at best, dates back only to the mid-'90s, when Doom created a phenomenon by enabling competitive game play over a local area network, or LAN.

Young's first gaming memory is even more recent. "One day I was over [at] my brother's house, and he was playing Medal of Honor Allied Assault," he recalls. "And we did this mini-LAN there, with him and me and my nephew. And I just got addicted. Then my brother started this clan with his work buddies, and they kept talking, 'LAN party!' So they got me into it."

For the nuevo geek, who's only been into computers since the advent of massively multi-player online games, logging hours in front of a flickering monitor has never seemed an antisocial pursuit. When your first love affair with a computer is in a public space, surrounded by your buddies, it's hard to understand why everybody considers the invention an icon of isolation.

Fittingly, Young jazzed up his computer before taking it out to party, applying his automotive hot rod skills to souping up the electronic parts inside and tricking out the exterior with bubbling blue light beams fitted around a black candy-coated case. "Working on computers is a lot like working on cars," he says. "You unbolt the parts, put in some new ones, bolt 'em back in. In both cases, it's all about making them run as fast and look as cool as possible."

He noticed other guys were modifying, or "modding," their clunky beige boxes, too. And not just the other car dudes, with a spare can of cherry-red Krylon paint in the garage, or the shop-class jocks who disdained computers before discovering how to tinker with them. Old-school geeks -- "original gamers," Young calls them -- are also emerging from their rooms now with kick-ass rigs, empowered by the sudden popularity of their pursuit.

The wilder guys who invaded computer gaming -- the "cyberathletes" determined to make precision mouse-clicking a respected sport -- have brought the stereotypically introverted joystick jockeys out of their shells. Modding has become, according to Wired, "nerd folk art": Personal Web pages exhibit computers housed in everything from antique cigar cases to Mr. Coffee machines to, on one particularly disgusting gallery, a toddler's training toilet, complete with painted-on poop stains. LAN parties have evolved into monthly social events, with clan members taking turns converting their living rooms and kitchens into crowded game rooms full of stout-bellied IT cronies showing off their wildly personalized machines.

"It's guys like me, who are into the Fast & the Furious, Biker Boyz and Torque-type movies, getting these guys who are into Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to trick out their computers, too," says Young. "And some of 'em get really creative."

Boris Zavalkovskiy is a former member of the Russian military with a Ph.D. in physics who now works as a health-care information specialist at a major north Scottsdale hospital. His wife, Svetlana, is a classically trained pianist who gives private piano lessons at their home near the Pinnacle Peak area.

Every day, a tired Boris arrives home to the strains of another kid murdering Shostakovich on the baby grand. "Every day," he repeats slowly, in his still-pronounced Russian accent. So once or twice a year, Svetlana lets Boris -- a.k.a. Zborg -- have his LAN buddies over for an all-day frag fest on their computers.

"I think that's fair," says Zavalkovskiy, grabbing a slice of pizza in the kitchen while about a dozen of his LanCamp pals bang away at their computers on six folding tables covering the dining room. To create space for the Saturday blowout, most of the dining room furniture has been stacked atop the couches in the living room, where it will remain until Sunday morning. "Lana doesn't mind."

"You'll notice she's not here," adds co-worker Todd Christensen wryly, affixing a giant "LanCamp: Fueled by Bawls" banner on one of the walls.

Between the huge LAN parties like Desert Bash, group members take turns hosting smaller get-togethers like the Zborg Mini-Bash. For many of the guys, who either work in computer-related fields or are taking night classes at DeVry or other specialized schools to get into it, the regular LAN parties provide an opportunity to get wild and crazy with the technology they toil over by day.

"A lot of us work in the computer field," says Lock Langdon, who logs in by the name Jestyr when playing games. "But we're limited in what we can do with the computers at work. Here, we can do whatever we want and just have fun."

Langdon notes that in the games, he and his pals can take on personalities that are often much more colorful and uninhibited than they could ever be on the job.

"It used to be, the IT guys were kind of left alone," he says, recalling the salad days of the Internet boom when geeks were prized enough to be spared from the typical office restraints of dress codes and clock-punching. "Now, they expect you to come to meetings and be a little more involved in the corporate infrastructure. It's a little more confining than it used to be."

At LAN parties, office drones normally confined to spreadsheets, and young computer junkies accustomed to parents peeking over their shoulders, get to take their obsession to the max, sitting blissfully glued to their monitors, sucking down high-caffeine sodas and playing nothing but games until the break of dawn.

It's an odd application of the extreme sports mentality, lending a renegade "we do what we want!" attitude to predilections that are, underneath it all, pretty nerdy. In any other testosterone-filled convention, the sight of a bunch of grown men wearing matching shirts with nicknames like Chuckie, Keefer and J Dogg stitched in the back would be prime-choice bully bait. But at Desert Bash, in the geeky-as-you-wanna-be environs of the LAN party, the CKUA guys proudly pose for group pictures in their gaming uniforms and revel in the admiration of other clans.

"We thought about doing shirts like that," Young tells Chuckie, a gray-haired gamer with the CKUA clan. "But we couldn't afford the stitching."

At huge LAN parties like Desert Bash, where there are enough battling gamers to fill a downtown warehouse, computers are the weapons. And the guy with the fastest, smoothest and most responsive rig in the house is the Jedi knight of the conquests.

Harrison Egge, a shy, unemployed part-time community college student who enjoys building things with his dad, is known to have one of the fastest-running machines in LanCamp -- as well as one of the most talked-about case mods: a water-cooled contraption using a four-foot-tall handmade bong to keep his CPU running half a gigahertz faster than normal.

"I just wanted to do something off the wall," Egge says of the design, which makes ironic use of the laid-back hippie icon in the highly wired world of gaming. But the bong, which chugs along loudly in the living room of his dad's modest manufactured home in north Phoenix (the system, alas, turned out to be too large and unwieldy to tote to the LAN party), was only built to keep the computer running cool enough to further Egge in his primary obsession: overclocking.

"Overclocking is when you mess with the BIOS to make the computer run faster," he attempts to explain in plain English. "Right now, I've got a 400 megahertz overclocked from 1.8 gigahertz to 2.2. I'm gonna try pretty soon to go to 2.3, now that I can safely up the voltage to 2 volts."

For Egge, who goes by the call name Deathbringer, the obsession with speed goes beyond just trying to make Battlefield and Unreal Tournament run without a lag. "It does get to a point, up around 3 gigahertz, where your computer is fast enough to run any game out there," he admits. "But for me, I get more enjoyment out of seeing just how fast I can get it. A lot of people talk about you once you hit, like, 4 gigahertz with a Pentium 4. That's kind of the sweet spot right now."

Indeed, sometimes the race to be the first to log into a game is a high-glory game in itself. "A lot of us race to see who'll be the first on a server whenever a map changes in the game," says Young, whose processor, video and sound card have all been overclocked to run at extra-fast speeds. "On a lot of servers, they'll give you a list of who loads first. And if a server gets full, it'll kick the slower ones to let other players on."

Still, there's a definite gaming advantage in having the fastest system. "Before I got into overclocking, I had no idea the windows [on the vehicles] in Battlefield had a reflection," Young says, explaining how the realism in the game is enhanced with every added gigahertz of video processing speed.

"And the sound card works better now," he adds. "I was always wondering why I was getting killed in the game before, and it turned out it was because I couldn't hear them coming.

"Now," Young says, "I can actually hear people walking up behind me. The game is so much more realistic now, it's almost scary!"

"In my opinion, Battlefield is a little cheesy, as far as how the actual weapons work," says Scott Tindle, showing off the arsenal of weapons carefully laid out in the Rhino-lined bed of his pickup at the Saturday Shootout on Table Mesa Road.

"Take the M-249 Saw," Tindle says. "In the game, we're made to assume a soldier can run while holding the saw and shoot it at the same time, with a spread [of ammo discharge] of only about five feet."

"In real life, you couldn't even hold a saw standing up, let alone fire it," adds Cedar Coleman, whose CZ-75 Czech pistol is another sought-after weapon from the game. "It'd knock you flat on your butt."

Tindle, a trained marksman who takes pains to point out that he took home defense classes at Maricopa Tactical school to learn the proper way to handle weapons and got some personal instruction on the guns from a friend who spent two years in Korea, says he's bothered by all the gun-toting geeks he sees at the shooting range now whose only previous experience comes from playing PC games.

"There's a bunch of guys who've grown up without ever seeing a weapon who only know what they've learned in the games about these guns," Tindle says. He points to a group of younger guys firing off rounds in the center of the group, including a tough-looking bloke with tattoos covering his forearms and a cigarette dangling from his mouth who's firing off rounds from a semi-automatic held at the hip, Max Payne style.

"You can tell by looking at them, the way they're turning around with their barrels pointing at everyone. Those are the guys who've never had training outside of what they learned in Battlefield 1942. Especially when they're waving around an AK like they've got over there. That's not exactly the most trustworthy weapon."

"That gun could go off any minute, if you shift it around too much," adds Coleman, another formally trained gun collector. "The game is forgiving," he says. "Real life is not."

At the very least, Coleman suggests, the yahoos swinging the AK should switch from playing Battlefield to Rainbow Six.

"That game was made by people with military background," he says. "In that game, you can't just run in and shoot everybody. It's a lot more tactical.

"Plus," he says, "in Rainbow Six you can't get recharged health if you get shot. If you get shot in that game, you're pretty much done."

Tattoo boy fires off a few more rounds at some Mountain Dew cans not more than 10 feet in front of him, and Coleman and Tindle shake their heads.

"If you're gonna learn to shoot from a video game," Tindle says, "at least pick the one that's the most realistic."

In a gaming clan, just like in a real infantry, players quickly find their area of expertise. Some find they're best at firing missiles from an off-shore aircraft carrier. Others excel at manning the turrets on the tanks.

For Young, who discovered he could master the difficult task of piloting a helicopter with a few precise mouse-clicks and keyboard strokes, the chopper immediately became his thing.

Young, in fact, got so good at flying the choppers in the Battlefield mod Desert Combat, he began to wonder if the skills he picked up in the game might actually work in the real world. The military, after all, uses its own game, titled America's Army, to train recruits before turning them loose on the real machinery. Eventually, Young became so curious about the science of transference, he wound up spending $15,000 on helicopter lessons at a Scottsdale flying school.

"I did it for almost a year, spent a ton of money on it. And it was probably all just because of the game," he says a few days after Desert Bash, hanging out with Czechowski and fellow LanCamper Brian Lick in the front yard of his north Phoenix home. "I went out and dropped 15 grand on flying lessons I'll probably never use in my future. It's not something I wanna do with my life. But when I learned how to fly in the game, I just wanted to compare it to the real thing. And sure enough," he adds, in his amiable country drawl, "it was dang close!"

The real flying experience, Young feels, has given him an edge at piloting the helicopters in the game. "TeNjin's the other good pilot in LanCamp," he says, motioning toward Czechowski, "but he hasn't flown the real thing."

"That doesn't make you better!" Czechowski protests.

"You say it doesn't, I say it does."

Young criticizes the latest update to his favorite game for making it just a little too easy for players to keep the choppers steady. "In Battlefield Vietnam, when you pull up on the collective, it'll stay up," he says. "But in real life, if you let go of the collective, the helicopter starts to come down. And in Desert Combat, that's the way it was: You had to cap to keep it up.

"Now," Young says, "anybody can fly the helicopters. And that's not the way it should be. I spent a year of training on flying -- not just in the game, but in real life, too -- and I was considered the best pilot. Now, in Battlefield Vietnam, anybody can be the best pilot."

Young still thinks his actual chopper experience puts him at an advantage in the game, if only because his understanding of helicopter dynamics gives him a better idea of how to take one out from the ground.

"What do you think, TeNj?" he finally says at one point. "Could I take down a helicopter with an RPG?"

"You mean, in real life?" Czechowski asks.

"Yeah," Young answers, extending his left arm up under an imaginary rocket-propelled grenade launcher. "I mean, if I ever got the chance to shoot a real RPG at a helicopter. I think I could probably lead it enough to take it down by at least the fourth shot."

"Yeah," Lick offers, sitting down on the porch with his wife and young son. "You might have to take a couple of practice rounds, but you might be able to take it out."

Young just smiles.

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8478.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern