There I was, a middle-aged reporter who had never played a shoot-'em-up PC game before, sitting in a darkened conference room at a Ramada Inn in blue-collar Yonkers, N.Y., preparing to square off against a group of hotshot teenagers and twentysomethings.
My fingers sat paralyzed on a PC keyboard as I squinted through my glasses, trying to focus on the action on the monitor in front of me. We were going to be playing a team-warfare game called Counter-Strike. I hoped to avoid embarrassing myself.
No such luck. Every time a new contest started, just as I was tentatively choosing my weapons and ammo, I was blown to bits --"fragged," in gamer lingo -- by one of the bad guys. This happened again and again. Not only did I never get a shot off, I never even succeeded in hoisting one of those mean-looking guns.
My 15 minutes of gamer fame lasted just two seconds.
BYOPC. Maybe it was because I was too busy taking in the fascinating scene around me. I was surrounded by two dozen dark-T-shirted young guys, ages 13 to 30, and one brave young woman, age 19, all seated at tables, faces glowing from monitor glare. Rock music blasted from speakers: the Who's My Generation, covered by Oasis. I'm 53, with a youthful outlook. But holy moly, did I feel slow -- and old.
This was my first "lan party." With names like Friday Night Fragfest, lanExtreme, and Dibbz All-Nighter, these gatherings take place by the thousands every weekend in small towns and big cities across America. Enthusiasts congregate in private homes, hotels, schools, and Internet caf?s, spending a day or two playing shooter and strategy games.
The events take their name from the local-area networks, or lans, over which PCs are connected. The players bring their own computers and typically pay $20 to enter. The party I attended was hosted by 7hm Gaming, a New York area club.
CUSTOM MACHINES. lan parties are of intense interest to companies that sell PCs and gamer gear. Outfits such as Alienware, Nvdia, Advanced Micro Devices (), and Logitech () help sponsor the events by distributing swag: mouse pads, T-shirts, hats, and all sorts of other goodies to be used as door prizes.
Why the interest? Executives believe the tens of thousands of gamers who attend the fests shape the buying patterns of perhaps 6 million Americans who are willing to pay extra for high-performance gear. "These are the smart friends who tell others what to buy," says Ruben Mokerjee, a marketing manager for Logitech, which is launching its first gamer mice this fall.
Game mavens are like hot-rodder hobbyists from another generation. They buy superfast circuit boards for their PCs and then fiddle with the processor chips to coax out (or "overclock") a little more speed for the 3-D graphics. That creates a lot of heat, so they install extra-big fans and water, or freon-cooled systems, to keep the chips from melting.
BAND OF OUTSIDERS. Looks matter, too. At my lan party, Dion "Diotro" Magistro, a 16-year-old budding Web-site designer from Ridgefield, N.J., showed off a PC he had custom-built featuring a clear acrylic shell and glowing blue, pink, and green lights inside.
For young gamers, it's a thrill to be catered to by the business world. Out in the hotel parking lot, during the kids' cigarette break, I quizzed them about their lives. "We were pretty much outcasts growing up. We didn't fit in. But we were interested in computers, and we found each other," said Rich Magnano, 26, the leader of 7hm Gaming, who works as a litigation-support administrator by day. "Here, we're respected for who we are and what we can do."
These days, a lot of people dig what these kids are doing. By Steve Hamm