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.'"