Before the dawn of todayâ€™s ever-connected broadband age, social gaming was a very different affair. There was no Xbox Live, no Steam â€“ if you wanted to get a group of 20 friends all playing the same game together you had to risk life and limb venturing into the scary outside world and haul yourself down to your local LAN centre. This was doubtless some grotty basement with a collection of just-usable PCs that would almost certainly give you some variety of disease the second you touched the keyboard and mouse.
The astonishing thing, though, was that we didnâ€™t care; we were too busy shooting the hell out of each other to notice the surroundings or the PCs' specs. There are very few (legal) ways you can get the same kind of high as experienced when you take the number one spot in a Quake III deathmatch - pulling off a long-range headshot with a railgun and actually seeing the expression of the guy opposite you wither in disappointment is a joy to behold.
This kind of physical interaction simply isnâ€™t possible over the Internet and as much as programs such as Teamspeak, Ventrillo and Xfire try to make online gaming as simple as possible, they will never rival the simplicity of simply sitting down in a room full of PCs and hitting â€œJoin Game.â€ Even better, you should also be able to avoid the usual slew of 14 year old kids screaming into their microphones hurling profanities at you for daring to beat then them at Counter-Strike (so says Hugo who's yet to make it into his 20s - ed.).
My first experience of LAN gaming actually consisted of me, my next door neighbour, and ten metres of Ethernet cabling trailing from our study with the primary (and higher outfitted) PC, through the landing, to the dining room and the second PC. No mean feat, bearing in mind this was 2000 and I was only 12. Even one on one there was something incredibly satisfying about hearing the mournful cry of my foe as I obliterated him in Red Alert 2.
When, in 2001, we got our first ADSL connection things changed. Suddenly playing CS against just one person didnâ€™t have the same appeal. Shooting anonymous Dutch strangers gave â€œsocial gamingâ€ a whole new meaning. When Valve launched the Steam service in 2002 it seemed like a done deal, with increasingly unhealthy amounts of time being devoted to the improvement of my â€œleetâ€ skills; all from the comfort of my own home. The LAN centre started to die a death and before long you would have been hard pushed to find any of these venues managing to stay in business.
More recently the introduction of the Xbox and Xbox 360â€™s â€œLiveâ€ service has meant that even console gamers can enjoy the online interactive experience, the forthcoming Warhawk for the PS3 taking that to an extreme by being a multiplayer-only console game. The culture now is that people simply donâ€™t think twice about networked gaming and take it for granted as an almost integral part of their gaming lifestyle.