merritt k’s new photo book LAN Party captures the unique craze of the early 2000s
When you think of the salad days of multiplayer gaming, it’s hard to look anywhere else but the peak of the LAN party period back in the mid-2000s. The sight of a gaggle of ungainly, bespectacled teenagers lugging their computers to a friend’s house is a faint memory in the minds of the suburban window watchers. New York-based merritt k is a video game designer, developer and archivist whose recent announcement tweet of her upcoming book LAN Party has captured the hearts of gamers from around the world.
The book itself is a collection of photos capturing the heyday of a bygone era sent in by fellow gamers and compiled by merritt herself. “I’ve been putting out calls for photos for the book for almost a year,” says merritt. “Some people will have one or two that they just happen to have saved and then some people will have hundreds.” Since the majority of pictures were taken when the digital camera was in its infancy, merritt acknowledges that the process has been “a trade-off between authenticity and legibility”, wanting to keep the original character of the photos but also not wanting them to appear as “a blown-out mess of artefacts and pixels”.
“I didn’t really expect it to go anywhere,” merritt explains, “this [LAN Party] was the first thing in a long time that I thought people might have an interest in.” Her instincts turned out to be right, with the original concept tweet from back in 2021 gaining nearly 100,000 likes. The interest did not stop there – the crowdfunder for the book is complete, nearly a month ahead of the deadline. To many young millennials and Gen Zers, merritt’s descriptions of “a carpeted living room” with “a dozen full-size computers crammed into it” sound like an anecdote from a period long before the advent of online gaming. They were simpler times – LAN parties were communal events where everyone playing was present in the same room, even if their self-imposed pickling was only broken to scoff or glug the usual refreshments of pizza and energy drinks.
merritt’s recollection of this period is not clouded by nostalgia, however, as she realises that these times were not “utopian” – “it’s not all white boys in these photos, but that is mostly the demographic”, she says. “[This] isn't the whole conversation for the people who were there,” merritt adds, as the photos capture “people making connections that they wouldn’t have otherwise made and then keeping up with those friends for years and years,” documenting times that were “formative” for many people. With the video game industry becoming the multi-billion dollar industry that it is, it’s still comforting to know that the community as a whole has become a more accepting and open space.
It’s true: the photos are humorous, but there is an overriding warmth to them – a bunch of misfits and nerds confiding in a love of video games, Mountain Dew and pizza, finding solace in a basement away from the trials and tribulations of suburban adolescent life. The book also offers a glimpse into the forgotten side of the Y2K era, a period we associate more with Paris Hilton and Juicy Couture than Starcraft. As merritt observes, “you get a good look at what kinds of clothes people were wearing or what kinds of media were popular,” preserving a unique point in time for others to look back on and, at some point in the future, probably fetishise in some ironic, semi-humourous fashion.
It’s not an overstatement to say that people’s lives have become much more online since the days of LAN parties. “It’s a strange time to be an internet user,” merritt reflects. “I think that [the book] speaks to younger people growing up in this technological climate, seeing these photos and thinking, wow, that seems really freeing to not be constantly online.” This rings especially true when you consider that the majority of our modern online habits have become increasingly isolating, like when we decided the easiest way to play multiplayer video games was alone in our rooms.
With people becoming increasingly invested in sacrificing their physical forms to the internet, we might see a resurgence of interest in the good old days of multiplayer gaming. Afterall, as merritt points out, “it would be much easier to do now,” due to the introduction of portable gaming consoles that are easy to move from place to place. Unfortunately, however, merritt informs me that because most games are run from “servers that are owned by companies [...] a lot of games don’t even support [LAN] anymore.” Large-scale LAN parties are still held on the continent and over here in the UK though, proving the demand is still there among the young and old nerds alike.
Pushing for a more communal approach to gaming could turn out to be beneficial in the long run for many people who feel themselves becoming increasingly isolated because of their internet usage. “Spending time in your room on your computer all day is like living in a little cave,” merritt explains. “You have to get outside and talk to people in person because there’s something so important about making connections with other people and learning to relate to them in person. It’s really beneficial for people.”
Compared to some of the gaming setups seen within LAN Party, we have it easy when considering our process to play multiplayer video games – a couple of clicks and you’re online. Though many of the staples remain the same – endless bags of Doritos, energy drinks and a general lack of movement and communication with the outside world – undeniably some of the magic is gone.
Maybe some of the innocence and magic faded when we started to scream at strangers in Call of Duty parties, or when our reliance on broadband connection meant we could drop out of a live game at the hands of another house dweller deciding to watch YouTube in 1080p. “I want technology to be something that enriches my life and my connections to other people, instead of isolating me” merritt observes. Perhaps we would all be better off embracing the technological limitations that have previously bought so many people together, instead of growing increasingly nonchalant about our inseparability from the online world.
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