Scotttish comedian, broadcaster and writer, Bruce Morton reflects on the original social networks – the world of PC gaming in the 1990s and the ‘clans’ associated with them.
It was a 2am Skype conversation. With a player from Germany, shortly due to leave our gaming community for a while because he was going into rehab. The match we’d been taking part in had finished, the other players had cut their connections.
And this fellow and I just quietly talked for a while. An hour, maybe. About life. About stuff. About where he was, what he’d been through, where he hoped to be. It was one of the most intimate conversations I ever had with anyone.
When we eventually said goodnight, good luck – see you out there in a couple of months – I switched off and drifted to 1998.
A hot afternoon in a flat in a London suburb.
Big Phil lazed on my sofa, far side of the room, browsing a magazine, affecting indifference. I fretted over a keyboard, glancing at the screen, muttering. The picture on the monitor dissolved, juddered and reassembled.
Big Phil hauled himself from the sofa, regarded the screen and said, “Cool”.
Quake 2 was the game I joined that day. The child of Quake, the grandchild of Doom. The invention of Id Software. Pixels made pictures, funnelled through phone lines.
Almost immediately, a player running around this sci-fi landscape typed a message to me: it rolled up on the corner of the screen. This player could tell I was not properly using the mouse/keypad combo; could tell I was new; sent succinct advice, friendly advice – now second nature.
It goes like this: W-A-S-D on the keyboard moves your avatar forward-left-back-right. Left click to shoot. Right click to zoom. Nudge the mouse around and go bug-eyed at this 3D world. Shift to accelerate. C to crouch.. Space bar to jump (hear the Quake 2 audio trigger then: “Hut! Hut..! Hut!”).
An amusement arcade in your room. A cartoon you can change by involvement. Quake 2, it was.
Outside, it was a hot afternoon. Inside, it was any season you choose. Meantime, there’s a guy on a ledge shooting a rocket at me. Whoosh! Run for cover! Another guy blew up the ledge guy. Big Phil’s diffidence disappeared. Big Phil demanded a turn. Later, big Phil went home and we met that night in the same digital landscape, shooting laser rifles, falling off ledges. Look out! “Hut! Hut..!”
A year later I’d run’n'gun in an occasional online two-man crew with Greg Hemphill: Greg in Hyndland, me in Teddington, the server hosting the game – who knows, somewhere in Brussels? – pairing up to rack scores and laugh our heads off on headphones playing Kingpin (soundtrack by Cypress Hill).
2002 – in Leicester for a gig – I hooked up, as arranged, with a gifted Q2 player called Bids. We’d played and chatted together in the maps. He and I and shared post-gig drinks and shot the breeze.
And in 2004, I joined a clan. A clan is a disparate group of players, from corners of the world, who will favour a particular game, get chatting online during said game and who will form a dedicated team and agree to kick in some money to rent a server and then use that passworded server to practice tactics and roles and then go up against some other clan which has been doing the same. Sometimes 16 players vs 16 players. That’s a lot of organisation. A lot of enthusiasm. AoS was our name.
We entered a Europe-wide competition playing the game Battlefield Vietnam. 32 clans. We took the Bronze Medal. We were guided in our tactics by our clan boss, a Norwegian who called himself Urban and who had served time in the military.
The team included Scandinavians, Londoners, Welsh, Americans and Scots. Teenagers and married men. I never met any of them face to face – but I regard them as friends. Some of the AoS clan – the Londoners and the Welsh – once made the trip all the way to Norway, to meet face to face with each other and the boss and shake hands and eat pizza and drink beer.
And now, I read, the desktop PC’s day is numbered. PC gaming’s days are numbered. The young tech Turks are moving on. There are gaming laptops, these days. There is arcade fun on mobile phones. Super Mario, for instance. On a 2-inch screen. Did anyone ever actually enjoy that shit on a big screen? Angry Birds? Please. Get a life. Buy Etch-A-Sketch. Do something.
Shove your consoles up your hole and abbreviate text messages till the cows come home using hooves to log-in and make their status update. “Moo!”
PC gaming was, amongst other things, the infancy of social media. PC gaming was where much of that stuff began. Interest groups connected on digital networks? PC gaming.
LOL? WTF? OMG? PC gaming.
(Okay, tech pedants, BBS was first – but the gaming world crystallised the possibilities, hustled the technology forward, enervated the software geeks to enervate the hardware geeks and back again and so on).
So, it’s a moment, now, this latest part of the game-tech evolution. A staging-post. I’m resisting, as long as I can. I’ve invested too much time and money and I like having my big, customised ASUS machine under my desk, furnished with six hi-speed fans to keep the case and components cool for optimum performance. It’s a f****** beast, this thing, and it sits there by my feet like an old, fat dog. My previous dog died, the one who was with me on the ledges of Quake 2 and the alleys of Kingpin and the jungles of Battlefield Vietnam.
PC gaming may be wounded, hurt in the avalanche of consoles, laptops, tablets and mobiles offering games and other recreations “on-demand” (sigh). Although, the astonishing worldwide success of DayZ shows that there are still things possible in PC games that you cannot do on consoles. Specifically, modify one game (Arma 2) to create another (DayZ). And from that modification, build a new community, through contact and ideas – not via the marketing efforts of some games publisher. (I find it pretty cool that DayZ, a zombie game, has somewhat reanimated PC gaming).
Modification (modding) was common in PC gaming, for a while. The idea being that the developer allowed access and latitude so that the user could change the game, dress it in new skin, adjust the parameters. Niche networks, anyone?
I haven’t spoken to my German friend since he signed off that night. I haven’t been on those maps since. The game got uninstalled the next day ‘cos it was taking up too much time. And that conversation that night had felt like the end credits in a movie. But, I wonder about that exchange still. I was touched by it.
I wonder, did anonymity, distance, allow us that intimacy? Perhaps. Except that we were not, technically, anonymous to each other. And distance doesn’t matter quite so much these days.
I can paraphrase a thousand hack articles about social media and say that in this age a new compact is in effect: one where people who will probably never meet, meet. One where the idea of relationships is altered.
I’m trusting that my friend in Bonn is putting himself back together. I’ll never see him face to face. I wish him the best. I don’t see big Phil these days. Maybe if we were in a clan we would still be in touch.
Quake 2, Battlefield, all the others I’ve played and loved: thanks for everything. The laughs, the tension, the friendships, the innovations and the community.
“Hut! Hut..! Hut!”