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September 4, 2008

Hardcore Gamers Go for Pwnage

Plugged in and immobilized at NVISION 2008.

David Downs

People who think they're into videogames should have been on the floor of the San Jose Convention Center on August 26. You'd swear off this shit for life. It's like a casual toker going to a 4:20 festival, seeing all the burned-out hippies, and vowing to trade in his bong for running shoes.

Dubbed NVISION 2008—"the great big visual computing show"—the three-day event is more aptly named "NERDCON 5000." More than 9,000 gamers have bought $10 tickets to ogle booths of 750-watt power supplies, CPU fans, and RAM chips. A hot chick from Battlestar Galactica is the Monday attraction, supported by less-hot astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot the space shuttle. Buzz Aldrin hosts a screening of his film Monday night. Wednesday, the Mythbusters blow stuff up.


Graphic by Mister Lister.

Yet the real attraction all week sits in the huge gaming room called the "GEFORCE LAN," which is basically a Dork Thunderdome, big enough to hold a 747 and booming with Queens of the Stone Age's "Sick, Sick, Sick." The hangar is dark and cool, cloaked in black light and freezing air conditioning. It's been divided into grids like a computer chip and in the large corner grid sit more than 200 gamers in row after row of flat-screens, PC towers, and cables. They're roped off from the rest of the room and patrolled by sentries. These are the most extreme, hardcore gamers in the world. The influencers. And they're all trying to set the Guinness World Record for most consecutive hours of non-stop online multiplayer gaming.

Young, male, malnourished, and flaccid—the Guinness records trenches look like every video gamer cliché lined up in rows. Empty BAWLS energy drinks are stacked next to uneaten apples. Dangerously obese gentlemen go to town on Team Fortress 2, next to frenetic, 14-year-old Asian kids getting all twitchy in Call of Duty 4 while swilling Mountain Dew. Occasionally two gamers laugh or share a moment, but mostly these hundreds of dudes slouch shoulder to shoulder and stare into their monitors. It's an ergonomic holocaust. They snack on Cheetos while Guinness referees in "Get your ASCII to NVISION 08" T-shirts patrol with clipboards.

Filling out and signing off on each person's "Guinness World Record Attempt Log Book," a referee says the extreme gamers started at 11 p.m. on Monday evening and will finish at 11 a.m. Wednesday. Entrants earn 10 minutes of downtime for every hour they play. It is Hour 15, with 21 hours to go, and many are taking their first naps.

"The typical strategy is to play for 12 straight hours and then take a break," says a female referee, one of the only two women I have seen in the area. She logs out a teenager with blond, neck-length hair and tries to tell him what time he has to return, but he can't add 120 minutes to 2:40 p.m. He stutters and looks totally dazed. His brain has crashed.

"So, um, … 3 … 3 … ummm."

"4:40. You have be logged in by 4:40," she explains politely. Blondie takes a second to process the data and nods, getting out of his chair to stammer toward the bathroom. You can almost see the blood clots start to recirculate out of his legs. Some pros have wheeled in custom chairs, huge screens, wireless keyboards, and other gear. But most plan to sit in these cheap, steel, thinly upholstered San Jose Convention Center seats for 36 hours. That should be a Guinness Record in itself.

Next to Blondie, a charcoal lump in a hoodie slumps over his keyboard, his monitor blank.

"The No. 1 way people drop out is they fall asleep," the referee says. "You just think, 'I'll rest my eyes for a few seconds', then you wake up and an hour has gone by. That guy is totally knocked out."

Next to him, a gamer who's had nothing but Mountain Dew and junk food is farting. "Agg!" his friend says. "It smells like rotten eggs!" No one is allowed to move away.

2008 is supposed to be the year videogaming branched out. No longer the domain of the oily and girlfriendless—Wii was supposed to have gotten Grandpa bowling. Working professional women like the Nintendo DS. But NERDCON 5000 proves new gamers are mere barnacles on a huge, misanthropic core. And that core is addicted to guns, explosions, and fragging in dark, cool isolation. It looks like the scene from The Matrix—all these pale people plugged into huge power towers and immobilized. The twist of reality is we choose our Matrix. When the day comes, we will plug ourselves in.

By Hour 36, 203 players have finished. Bleary-eyed and a bit confused, they stand on the main stage and receive their prize: a certificate and a pair of shoes. Something tells me they won't be doing much walking.

(You can check out more of Mister Lister's Gelf graphics at

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Article by David Downs

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