The Importance of LANning

I was a boy scout, but not in your typical Boy Scouts of America set-up. We had girls in our troop. We also had a Scout Master who did everything he could to get us using technology. He knew which way the world was going. So on top of our camping trips, knot-tying, and games of human conkers (something the BSA’s health and safety department would never have allowed), our Scout Master organized LAN parties. He gathered a hoard of spare computers, got us to help set them up in the old Scout Hall, and loaded up the games of the era. QuakeWorld. Half-Life. Battlefield 1942. We cut our teeth on CAT5 and woggles.

Imagine this, only with CRTs that we'd hauled on a four-hour hike

Imagine this, only with CRTs that we'd hauled on a four-hour hike

A couple of years later we got our own computers, and it was a regular routine of loading machines into parent's cars or lugging them on foot to the Scout Hall. Wherever we gathered, Lanning would inevitably deliver important lessons under the guise of fun and games. We got valuable skills, learned to solve problems creatively, and built friendships that would last decades.

LANning was our first experience of computer science. We learned about IP addresses, command-line options, troubleshooting, and general security. This quickly progressed to getting inside the machine itself and solving basic hardware issues, swapping out cards, and shifting hard-drives from one machine to another. We even learned about basic home electronics when our 20+ computers blew the Scout Hall’s fuse. Perhaps the success of this learning was that it didn’t take place in a formal classroom; we were either learning from our Scout Master (somebody who knew what he was talking about) or from our peers (who we could blame if anything caught fire).

Actual photo from 2006

Actual photo from 2006

When a network cable isn’t long enough, how do we get everybody connected without the room turning into a jungle of CAT5? When we run out of desks how do we make an ad-hoc workspace using a handful of chairs, an old wooden crate and a saw horse? This brand of creative thinking is becoming an invaluable tool in the workplace, as employees are asked to solve problems and deliver solutions in unexpected ways across a huge number of contexts, from marketing to finance to design. Lanning taught us this transferable flavor of thinking. While I’m sure many other hobbies develop creative thinking in similar ways, it feels as though the uniquely complex nature of Lanning, with its regular and inevitable technical faults, gave us far more opportunities to practice. We learned to find solutions with minimal equipment, space, money, and time. We definitely earned our moments of fun.

For myself and my friends, engaging in solitary hobbies is a large part of who we are. The danger is that it’s very easy to spend too much time alone without realising it. In the early-mid 2000s, the internet speeds in New Zealand made online gaming impossible. All multiplayer experiences had to be face-to-face. Our desire to share our love of gaming with others dragged us out of our caves and into the shared Lanning space, ensuring that we got a healthy amount of face-time with others, and helping us to build friendships that have lasted decades.

Unfortunately, the experience that my friends and I had - as well as the lessons we learned - may be harder to access for the youth of today. The simple fact is that Lanning as a social activity seems to be declining in popularity.

It often feels as though the initial cause of this decline was the increase in internet speeds. Online gaming offered a wonderful (and irresistible) level of convenience, allowing players to engage with friends while sitting comfortably in their own homes. There was no more dealing with the tangle of dusty wires behind the desk or trying to fit a computer in the back seat of the car. The advent of accessible voice-chat also meant that gamers could talk away and share information instantly. It was almost like being in the same room.

The second factor in the decline of LANning was the shift away from player-hosted games and towards dedicated servers. In titles that manage their multiplayer experience in this way players can no longer be assured of the ability to set up private games for their group only. Players must now search online for an empty server of the right size and pray that the ping isn’t too high, or otherwise settle for a larger server and hope that they aren’t interrupted mid-game by a random member of the public. Players are also no longer connecting to one another via an internal network but must rely on a connection to the internet. Despite being in the same room as one another. A common issue in the early days was that the home internet connection couldn’t handle half-dozen players connecting at once. This is still a significant problem when the connection is slow or the game has dodgy net code. If the internet goes down altogether, players are literally unable to play that particular game together.

The shift away from democratized multiplayer gaming and the convenience of online gaming both have their benefits. A design that champions dedicated servers help a more casual audience access the game experience, and now that we’re adults and live in separate cities the ability to connect via the internet is a wonderful way to keep old friendships strong.

But it seems that the particular experience I had growing up is starting to fade. The bunch of friends huddled around a kitchen table, numb with excitement at 3 am, falling asleep on their keyboards at 5, going for 11 am walks to the bakery, then doing it all again the next night. The unique learning opportunities, the impassioned initiation into the world of technology, the hard troubleshooting work that doesn't feel like work, because it's fascinating and you know there'll be a great Counterstrike game afterward. Our Scout Master gave us a chance to experience this, and we are infinitely better for it.