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."