It's another pleasant night in another group house in another Washington suburb. All's quiet on the cul-de-sac; the lawn mowers are stilled and the basketballs have bounced to a stop. It could be 1959. That is, until the boys in the Arlington brick rambler switch on their three computers, power up their local area network and jack into the future.
There's no dining room table in the dining room. After all, this is an all-guy group house. Instead, there's a Pentium MMX 200 with its guts showing, jury-rigged to run faster, like a stock car sucking nitrous oxide. The housemates call it Little Boy, after the first atomic bomb. In the basement are two more computers: The PC is Fat Man, named after the second A-bomb. The laptop doesn't have a name.
This is more than just an in-house gaming parlor. This is the next generation of roommating--the wired group house. Instead of just sitting around on their sagging castoff furniture, drinking beer and watching sports on TV, these guys are sitting around achieving virtual intimacy by playing computer games together--though not in the same room. Beers, however, are still consumed.
If society is accelerating into a totally wired, utterly atomized future, wherein face-to-face contact is replaced by digital conversation, banking, shopping, meeting and greeting, the vanguard of that new world can be found right now on Tazewell Street in Arlington.
At the mouse of Little Boy is Mark "Rence" Florence, 28, a communications major at George Mason University. He weaves his way through a 3-D computer hellscape, a video game called Quake II. Wild animation dances on Florence's screen, creating an arena that pits his weapon-wielding warrior against two really bad guys.
Florence is not playing against the computer, however. He's fighting his buddies, who are jockeying their own computers in the basement below. When he clicks the mouse--sending a deathstream of bullets, rockets and grenades at the characters on the screen--he's fragging his best friends, one floor down.
Much has been made of the way males communicate--or don't. It has been said that men tell jokes instead of conversing because they are incapable of genuine bonding. And that they substitute sports chatter for meaningful dialogue.
Now, consider the notion of a houseful of men relating to each other one step removed from physical interaction--via computer cable--and relating primarily by blowing one another to smithereens. This is considered fun--and, though some may find it hard to fathom, this is also intimacy.
The men of CoolHaus--it's a group house hip (or weird) enough to have its own name--are exploring the frontiers of virtual connection. When they tire of shooting each other, they dive onto the Internet, where hundreds of video game battles are waged around the clock by gamesters across the globe. There, they can connect--if it can be called that--with thousands of souls worldwide.
"Arrrggh!" exclaims Florence, pumping weapons fire into an animated soldier. His foe drops, bloodied. "That was Mark." Somehow, Florence recognizes which character his roommate is piloting.
In his basement bedroom, Mark Burchard, 26, is steaming, furiously pounding the mouse on Fat Man, looking to exact revenge. It was Burchard who started this whole thing. Two Christmases ago, Burchard's folks were worried that their smart son's life was going nowhere. He was a waiter. So they bought him a computer. A buddy who goes to Caltech--a scary-smart computer god, by all accounts--gave Burchard a copy of Quake II. Soon, all the roomies--current and former--were addicted. "Digital crack," they call it.
Playing Quake II against the computer was fine for a while. It didn't take long for Burchard to add a second PC--Fat Man, which he built from scratch--and a local area network (LAN) card that enabled him to link the computers so the roommates could play as a group. Now a computer help-desk technician at Logistics Management Institute in McLean, Burchard remembers how excited he felt driving home from work the night he got his LAN card, which also enables the computers to perform other network functions, such as moving files between computers.
"It's just another way we can interact," says Burchard, hammering away at Fat Man's mouse.
Burchard's back is to housemate John Taggart, 27, a library assistant for Arlington County and artist who battles on a laptop six feet away. Taggart wears headphones, listening to the on-screen carnage. Florence is upstairs, firing at both of them. "You can go out to a bar, but not a lot happens at a bar," says Taggart. "This is a way to hang out together and do something."
They also rent movies and watch them together--a more traditional way to hang out--but their interaction is still peculiarly male.
"Women friends point this out: Communication for us is mainly shooting movie quotes back and forth," says Taggart, laughing. "Instead of having an actual conversation, we recite lines back and forth. Most movies have a nice story working, and you can pick lines from the appropriate scene from the movie for whatever's happening in life."
Conversation by proxy.
"I'm trying to work against it," says Taggart, "but for whatever reason, it's easier to pick out the lines--the dialogue's already written, and it's witty and everybody laughs."
Then there's the issue of relating via computer. You aren't actually shooting your roommate--your computer character shoots your roommate's character. Competition by proxy. Brings you together.
"Killing your friends--that could be a way of showing them you love them," deadpans roommate Jess Lang, a 27-year-old online editor. It is a concept that most women seem genetically incapable of grasping. Similar, perhaps, to schoolyard boys expressing affection to girls by punching them in the shoulder.
This night, active war is being waged at CoolHaus--a house that even has its own Web site. CoolHaus dates to 1994; this rambler is what they call the third "iteration" of physical plant and roommate configuration. The name comes from the guys' first house--a couple of them were paying $50 a month to stay in the palatial home of a friend's parents, which caused them to exclaim regularly: "What a cool house!" For irony's sake, they adopted the Germanesque spelling. When the boys are feeling particularly pretentious, they add an umlaut.
Quick CoolHaus facts: None of the current roommates scored lower than 1300 on the SAT. One does not know how to ride a bicycle. The house's Web site (http://home.earthlink.net/coolhaus/) is a chronicle of the place and its occupants, including technical specs on the computers and famous roommate quotations dating back years.
The 'haus's current tenants are Burchard, Taggart, Lang and Robert Sweet, also 26, an international project officer for the Federal Aviation Administration. But CoolHaus has a large and close-knit family tree of former members and Friends of CoolHaus, such as Florence, who got plucked off to marriage five years ago, but returns regularly to vaporize his friends on the computer.
These are self-described geeks, but much higher up the geek hierarchy than your average Dungeons & Dragons gamester, they insist. Most of the guys have hung out together since high school, belonging to a clique that never belonged to any other cliques. "We never wore black trench coats," Taggart jokes. Florence and Taggart date their friendship to preschool, when the former used to tell the latter to "go bite girls."
Nowadays, how do potential girlfriends react upon introduction to CoolHaus?
"Well, if you judge from the steady stream of them we bring around . . ." Taggart says with a self-deprecating laugh. Lang puts it succinctly:
"They mock us."
The CoolHaus boys find kindred spirits lurking in Internet game rooms. Several Web sites offer instant access to ongoing Quake II games. Gamers who routinely play with one another form "clans" that enter game rooms as a marauding group. Once inside these computer battlegrounds, clan members work as a team, moving from room to room to liquidate other clans. There are rankings for clans and individuals; Burchard has been ranked as high as 40th in the world among Quake II players.
The CLQ, an Internet gaming clearinghouse, keeps track of nearly 4 million online gamers playing on more than 73,000 servers around the world. Copies of Quake II, CoolHaus's game of choice, are downloaded from the Internet more than 16,000 times a day, according to Planetquake.com. Sheer probability insists that at least some of the players are women.
One place for gamers to meet like-minded women is at LAN parties: Envision a hotel conference room with 50 players battling one another, each at a computer, for an entire weekend, eating nachos and drinking beer, crashing on sleeping bags only when it is physically impossible to go on. LAN parties provide a sort of remote human interaction: Gamers sit side by side but focus on the screens in front of them, not on the human beings next to them. The CoolHaus boys have never attended a LAN party but hope to host one soon.
Enter a Quake game room--whether at a LAN party or on an Internet site--and you are suddenly surrounded by dozens of other players who vary widely in skill level and computer power. Your foes may be sitting at computers in Iowa or Denmark. But you can "ping" an opponent--fire a computer tone at him--to determine the size of his server and, in turn, his technical capacity. Thus, you can "get to know" a gamer on another continent by the way his computer character shoots at you.
The Quakescape is an egalitarian environment. "The game is very forgiving of bandwidth," says Florence, meaning that even gamers with low-power machines but turbo-charged natural coordination can compete on an even plane.
"Some guys are just hand-eye savants," says Florence, with a mix of resignation and awe. Quake legends have risen up out of the ethernet, underpowered gamers who liquidate opponents with otherworldly skill. They are the sandlot legends--the Naturals--of Internet gaming.
Even though this is a cyber-community, where close friends might never actually meet one another, it is a community nonetheless. Everyone who religiously plays Quake II knows the names of the game's great players, as surely as every neighborhood kid knows the best basketball player on his block.
There are no savants at CoolHaus, but that's okay. The boys settle for several hours' worth of vigorous competition on their regular Thursday and Saturday gaming nights (and many in between), when they take turns on the computers, eating pizza and quaffing brews. Life is good.
But is it possible that roommates can actually grow closer by staring at flickering PCs, backs to one another or in different rooms altogether, disemboweling one another with a deadly fusillade of ones and zeros?
When the CoolHausers shoot their way into an Internet game room, they can quickly identify one another by their movements and strategies, which they've learned after hundreds of hours of playing together.
"There may be up to 50 people in there, and you can tell if your friends are in a game room," says Trent Hone, a Friend of CoolHaus, sitting among the Cool on a living room sofa. "He can tell it's me and I can tell it's him."
He pauses for effect.
Burchard agrees. He recognizes his roommates' character traits while embroiled in battle. He points across the room at Lang: "You're wily," then at Taggart: "And you're crafty."
So much for computers creating an alienated society. These computers, this LAN, these game nights have bonded these guys as surely as any weekly poker night. And, just as in a poker game--with its face-to-face contact--the guys have deciphered each other's bluffs and feints in the cyber killing fields. Thanks to remote annihilation, they are closer friends.
And such familiarity, it turns out, only makes it easier to kill your best friends first.