Networking for fun and games
Computer gamers meet and compete at Locust Point Rec Center
by Mary Helen Sprecher
George Martsoukos is speeding down a boulevard, weaving erratically. He dodges telephone poles, takes a corner on two wheels and slams into a barrier. He continues on, black fumes billowing ominously from under his hood.
Next to him, Sharon Fidler is equally out of control. It’s raining and her car is spinning. “I’m going the wrong way,” she calls, looking alarmed. “Why am I going the wrong way? I am. Look at this.”
She is headed straight for the plate glass window of a women’s clothing store.
Martsoukos glances over. “You want to buy some clothes or something?”
A few seconds later, Fidler’s car explodes in flames. So does that of Mike Nash, a few yards away. Martsoukos is the last man standing–or driving–but not for long. His car goes up in smoke a few minutes later.
It doesn’t matter. He’s still the winner. Pulling off his headphones, he stretches, wends his way through the cables and wires stretching across the floor of Locust Park Recreation Center and makes his way over to the food table. His computer screen continues to glow, proclaiming his victory. “I wish my real car could do that,” he says.
Welcome to the meeting of the Baltimore Gamers Alliance. The organization of computer enthusiasts meets regularly at the rec center to play electronic games as a group. Martsoukos and a friend, Jason Miller, both of South Baltimore, founded the group.
“We were tired of playing online games,” says Martsoukos. “We thought, why not get together a couple of times a month?” He shakes his head. “Word got around.”
Some games, such as the one being played tonight, “Midnight Club II,” a cross between capture-the-flag and “The Fast and The Furious,” are especially enjoyable when played by a lot of people, all of whom have the ability change the outcome.
“When we play online,” explains Martsoukos, “we can get 20 or 30 people playing at once.”
Which enhances the game, but also slows it down, since the Internet connection is often not fast enough to provide real-time data to all players.
“We used to all play games over the net, but we had a lot of lag,” adds Miller.
“It made the game inaccurate,” says Martsoukos.
The best solution, which allows for the largest number to play, says Martsoukos, is to use a LAN, or local area network setup. On a LAN, one player hosts the game and others connect to his computer via a special cable hookup. A LAN, therefore, requires that all players be present for the duration of the game.
“It just provides for a very smooth gaming experience,” says Martsoukos.
Non-gamers might cringe at the thought of moving their computers off their desk even to dust underneath, but for Martsoukos, Miller and their friends, carting the equipment around to meetings and get-togethers is a matter of course.
“People bring their whole computer system,” Martsoukos explains. “Their monitor, PC, keyboard, mouse, headphones, joystick if they use one. We supply the cables and the power.”
Gamers generally have carrying cases for their computers and all equipment and are used to traveling to indulge their pastime. Many have been computer enthusiasts since a very young age, having cut their teeth on the likes of Nintendo.
The demographic of the Baltimore Gamers Alliance, according to its founders, is mostly male, 18 to 25 years of age, although Fidler, a woman, and Nash, a 27-year-old man, break the stereotype. What’s more, interest and attendance, says Martsoukos, is growing rapidly. “Every time we meet, our attendance doubles.”
Indeed, a glance at the www.lanaddict.com website shows game party locations across the country. There is even an automated RSVP system for some events. Another site, www.extremealterations.com, is an online store that carries computer modification hardware, gear bags, carrying cases and other products specifically geared to the LAN-based gamer. (There’s even a special offer on caffeinated water for use at late-night gaming sessions). Those are only a few of the vendors in a rapidly growing market.
Martsoukos is 19 and Miller 18. Both are longtime gamers, but BGA membership is varied. Fidler, for example, works in research at Bayview, while Nash is a network technician. They are city residents, but not all those in attendance tonight are: Brandon Nelson, Tim Parris, Roy Jones, III and Paul Denton, for example, have driven in from Glen Burnie. Michael Thompson lives in Catonsville. Some know each other from work, others from gaming.
All are in good spirits, enjoying each other’s company as much as the game. Because computer gaming is an often-solitary pursuit, both Miller and Martsoukos stress the benefits of meetings. “It’s a social thing,” says Miller.
It’s getting late, but the action at Locust Point is just getting started. Jokes and trash-talk are passed around the room along with cans of Pringles. Nash and Fidler have moved on to a trial run of another game, “Generals: Command and Conquer,” a strategic war game in which the player builds a base and commands an army. (Martsoukos describes the game as “more thinking and less action, sort of like chess.”)
The two are actively engaged in the dual processes of building their bases from the ground up and taking verbal swings at each other.
“This is going to be very painful for you. I’m going to win,” says Fidler. “I’ve gotten so good.”
“No, you haven’t.”
“Yes, I have.”
The banter continues as they navigate around their screens. Martsoukos rolls his eyes toward the ceiling and shakes his head, then turns his attention toward his own computer.
Originally, the group held its meetings at The Holiday Restaurant in Brooklyn, which is owned by Martsoukos’ father, but the as membership increased, the strain of plugging multiple computers into a few outlets became inconvenient.
Martsoukos and Miller settled on the rec center because both felt strong ties to their South Baltimore neighborhood. Additionally, the center, which according to Martsoukos, had a keen interest in being the host facility, offered a first-floor room and an adequate number of outlets.
“Power is an issue,” says Martsoukos. “You don’t want too many things in one outlet.”
Gamers, he adds, are as fond of souping up their computers with added features as hotrod drivers are of loading their cars with extras. Colored lights and windows on the sides of the computers are popular.
“You’ll definitely see that,” laughs Miller, whose own computer boasts green lights and a spider web design on the side.
The extra features, however, lead to ‘overclocking,’ or forcing the computer to go faster than it was originally designed to. This leads to overheating, and sometimes to tripping the circuit breakers. At least one user, says Martsoukos, has installed a special cooling device in his computer to prevent internal problems.
BGA meetings are held on Friday nights, starting at 5 p.m. and continuing until 1 a.m. It is, say the founders, a new time for them. The group previously met on Sunday nights, but the rec center did not have that time available. During the course of their sessions, the gamers may all decide to play one game, or they may split into different groups to play separate games. Those who show up decide in advance what is going to be on the game list that evening.
Membership in the Baltimore Gamers Alliance is free, but those planning to participate in sessions should bring about $15 each to cover the costs of food, including pizza, which is provided.
After all, even drivers of smoking cars need to eat now and then.