Go forth and mulitplay

Every year, around 5,500 gamers bring their home PCs to a sports hall in Norway. Some come to play, others just for the festival atmosphere. Simmy Richman finds out what turns them on at the world's largest computer party
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The Independent Online

To begin, some techie time travel. In 1943, Thomas Watson, then chairman of IBM, stated boldly: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Thirty-four years later, and Ken Olsen, founder of the Digital Equipment Corp that would go on to create the Alta Vista search-engine, added: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." What they would have made of the Gathering, held in Norway over the Easter weekend each year, is anyone's guess.

To begin, some techie time travel. In 1943, Thomas Watson, then chairman of IBM, stated boldly: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Thirty-four years later, and Ken Olsen, founder of the Digital Equipment Corp that would go on to create the Alta Vista search-engine, added: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." What they would have made of the Gathering, held in Norway over the Easter weekend each year, is anyone's guess.

But before we travel north to find out what makes over 5,000 people bring their home computers (and often a favourite armchair) to the sports hall in Hamar that played host to the 1994 Olympic speedskating event, let's remind ourselves how we got here; how the PC and computer games became a fixture in twice as many UK households as the dishwasher.

In the late 1970s, an American hobbyist called Nolan Bushnell decided to bypass the race to turn the silicon chip into an educational tool and produced a machine that was fun to play games on instead. The success of his Atari console persuaded the new Thatcher government to promise a * "microcomputer in every school by 1984". Yet, while the government may have foreseen the potential for computers as educational tools, it is unlikely that it realised it was also paving the way for the machines' popularity as gaming platforms that would distract generations of kids from homework.

But over in the US, Richard Garriott did. At just 19 years old, Garriott was developing a Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing game that could link players together through Apple II computers. At the time, Garriott said: "I created Akalabeth for me while working at a ComputerLand store." Akalabeth would go on to sell over 30,000 copies. The next year (1980), Garriott produced the first episode of the most popular on-line role-playing saga in gaming history, Ultima One. A geek cult was born.

There are now hundreds of games available to on-line gamers. In the UK alone, there are over 50 companies arranging what are known as LAN (Local Area Network) parties, where players (see box, page 22) can meet their nemeses face to face for a weekend of action, fast food and never being told to turn that bloody thing off and go to bed now.

Britain's biggest LAN party to date was held at Newbury racecourse over the Easter weekend in 2002. Its organiser, Multiplay, had to turn people away when numbers started to reach the 1,000 mark. It cost £70 to join in a weekend full of games such as Quake. Craig Fletcher, Multiplay's managing director, says, "These events are mainly for people who've played each other on-line but never met. It will be their first chance to have a beer and chat."

Which all sounds good fun if that's your kind of thing, but the people behind Norway's Gathering are very clear on where their event stands next to other LAN parties. "They are small concerts," says Per Kristiansen, 34 - part of the Gathering crew since 1996 - "ours is Glastonbury." You can see his point. Even a cursory glance at these photographs of last * year's event reveals all the familiar fixtures and fittings of the rock festival: sleeping bags, fast-food containers strewn everywhere and as many home comforts as can be carried on trolleys into a temporary village.

Indeed, even this event's evolution echoes that of its pop predecessor. "It was freer in the old days and there didn't have to be so many rules," says Kristiansen. "Also, people used to have to be able to program, while these days it's much easier for anyone to get into it. The culture has changed. You no longer have to be geeky or nerdy - everyone has a computer now, so the age range and personality types have shifted hugely over the years."

And the Gathering is not just about playing games, either. The most popular part of last year's meeting was the Demo Event, in which people come to show off their skills with graphics and sound. There is no point to demos other than as a form of pure electronic art, but many of the people who show the best packages will find themselves approached by game, music and graphic companies looking to pool the hottest new talent.

Last week, around 5,500 made the plug-in pilgrimage. The Gathering is politics- and religion-free and no one involved will make any money (although many - including the founder, Vegard Skjefstad - will find love here). So why do they do it? "In Scandinavia there is this thing called dugnad," says Kristiansen. "This is where a group of people come together to do something for the communal good. It used to be harvesting, but we decided to set up the Gathering, instead. You see kids learning skills that will be with them forever, and you see people getting married and returning later with their kids. This is what makes it worthwhile for us."

Confessions of a LAN-party addict

Adam Fineman is a 25-year-old IT consultant and mobile-phone salesman who lives just outside London. Once a month, he attends a LAN party organised by Lanse (Local Area Network South East). Events last from Friday to Sunday and are held in a disused office building in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

"I went by myself the first time," he says. "Most of my friends thought I was mad, but it was a great way to chill out and not get bothered by the girlfriend or family. You get about 60 people at Lanse events and I've made some good friends there.

"Mostly we play Counter Strike, which is an anti-terrorist game. You run round and complete missions against other teams. It's great fun, but to be honest most people are getting a little bored with it now and we are just as likely to play Quake III, Battlefields or the Doom games. The best thing about LAN parties is that when you play on-line in your home, every time you kill someone you know someone somewhere in the world is going 'You bastard!' At a LAN party you can actually hear the person you've 'killed' shouting it across the room.

"My girlfriend puts up with it. If there was a party the weekend of a LAN she'd just have to go by herself. If it was a birthday or anniversary, though, I'd have to miss the LAN party. I like my testicles where they are, thank you very much."

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