When Video Games Meet Drugs

Editor's note: At their request, the names of some of the gamers quoted in this story have been changed.

It's "adults only" night. Tom, 28, signs off from his job as an info-technology troubleshooter for a starched-shirt corporation and goes home to pack his gigahertz computer rig in the car. He grabs a few other necessities -- cash, pot and beer -- then drives 45 minutes to Alan's house, where the LAN party is in full swing. He slips Alan the $30 cover charge and sets up the rig.

The spacious living room looks like a college computer lab. Fifty slouching guys, most of whom have brought their own computers to hook up to the network, are locked on the Counter-Strike matches playing on their computer screens. The air is spattered with mouse clicks and trash talk. There's the same stale sock smell, the same rattle of pizza crusts as the Dominos boxes are shoved aside, the same hard plastic chairs (for an extra $5, you get a cushion). Some guys are downloading porn and warez. Some have brought sleeping bags for those moments when they simply cannot keep their eyes open a second longer. Tom steps outside to swap Counter-Strike strategies with a few prospective teammates and light up the weed. Now it's time for stoner mayhem.

Tom leaves three days later, drained from lack of sleep and fried from staring at his monitor. With his jacket empty of weed, another workday stares him in the face. It's been a weekend muffled in sensory white noise, a visit to a cocoon of headphones, pixels and dope, and he'll do it again next Friday. Gamers like Tom roam between thousands of LAN (local area network) parties each month, held in basements, living rooms, and hotels, some with 10 players, others with 2,000. They're seeking a double dose of unreality with a pack of like-minded people, chasing an escape within an escape.

Before the 1960s, few people could have anticipated concert halls filled with stoned fans chanting for Jimi Hendrix, or movie theaters packed with people settling in with a tab of acid instead of popcorn to watch "Easy Rider" or "2001: A Space Odyssey." Television in the 1980s spawned drinking games in college dormitories. Now drugs are on the computer gaming scene, a natural and not all that surprising step as gaming matures into a mainstream cultural force.

Gaming isn't well understood as an adult pastime. It's been a while since anyone looked sideways at a punk haircut. Not so for that copy of Counter-Strike bought at Best Buy. And for some gamers, even as they become adults, their underground subculture is a badge of honor. So while the Cyberathlete Professional League struggles to win credibility for gaming as a mainstream sport, there are gamers who refuse to sell out. They prefer the fringe, deriving a tribal identity from a gaming netherworld where speed and acid are as essential as a quick hand on the mouse. A rebellion is taking place in the invisible traveling cities of the LAN party circuit.

Some gamers have probably always dabbled in drugs, but on the LAN party scene, particularly at adults-only events, drug use is relatively new. Maybe it all started with caffeine. Hardcore gamers are driven to play just one more hour, turning an evening session into a three-day marathon. Not without regret -- "The worst thing is when we're playing for a long time and suddenly realize it's 5 a.m. and we're going to waste our Saturday sleeping," one said -- and not without the aid of Jolt Cola, Red Bull, and the latest darling, Bawls, which contains 80 mg of caffeine per bottle (a cup of coffee has around 100 mg). Fans of Bawls average four or five bottles per gaming session.

Speed and cocaine appeared on the scene as gamers searched for longer play sessions through chemistry. In Thailand, police raid gaming cafes on a regular basis, looking for the amphetamines being slipped into the water to keep the customers up all night.

Wonder how far a gamer's drug habit can go? Take Quake II On Drugs: The Guided Tour. An enterprising German duo played Quake II under the influence of every drug known to man or woman and posted the results of each experiment. The Web site rates drugs on fun factor and effects on fragging capacity. Cocaine scores 3 out of 4 for fun, and 4 out of 4 for ability distortion: "Who doesn't know the superior feeling to come with invulnerability, quad damage, and a BFG [Big Fucking Gun]? On cocaine one feels always this way, even if one has only a blaster [i.e., Small Fucking Gun]."

If you want a virtual high, check out Cita. The company designs games to be a "preventive vaccine to drug use" by simulating the effects of drugs like cocaine within a motorcycle racing game. The simulation initially gives the player enhanced sound, movement visuals, and reflexes. But then the effects "wear off," and the player has to "snort" another dose. Eventually the duration of the effects shortens, and the amount of drug needed to kick in the enhancements grows, until the player is spending more time snorting than playing.

While kids testing Cita's software realize that their in-game performance suffers, they're also eager to see what other drugs play like (although Cita doesn't yet have any other drug simulations) and often ask to take a copy of the cocaine version home.

You don't have to look hard for a real-life experience. References to pot-smoking pop up in the titles of multiplayer game sessions online -- 420, Potheads Only, Kannabis. Sometimes people announce through in-game chat channels that they're sparking a joint or are already stoned.

"I probably spend a quarter or maybe a fifth of my time playing Counter-Strike stoned as opposed to sober," one gamer said. "It feels as if I'm a character in 'Saving Private Ryan,' running around in the heat of battle. I play better when stoned. I'm more relaxed, I'm focused, I move the mouse more accurately, I don't feel as nervous if I'm the last person alive on my team."

Counter-Strike and pot are a popular combination. Other games require different drugs. The venerable Atari 2600 console is still popular for many reasons, not the least of which are pot and LSD. The blocky graphics have a hypnotic lava lamp quality you won't find on a sophisticated modern machine. "I was tripping really hard and I was able to consistently score over 10,000," one player said about a trip with Kaboom, a classic Atari game. "The green background kept shifting color, the bombs left trails, and everything outside my field of vision was melting ... It kept me occupied from midnight to 5 a.m."

"NetSushi" spoke in an excited hush. In the background his co-workers and managers approached to ask work-related questions; then he got back to talking about acid, pot and gaming. He's done the pro circuit as a gamer; he's also done the party circuit. "In my high school years, we did the acid thing and played games until 7 or 8 a.m. But you can't sit still on acid. Even with mushrooms. You can only take so much, 10 to 15 minutes, then you'd throw up. We used to play StreetFighter but never could finish a game."

Marijuana, though, seems to be a gamer's power-up. "My best games definitely came from smoking," he said. "I used to be addicted to playing and smoking. I finally stopped, but then I quit playing for six months because it wasn't fun anymore. I wish I wasn't as old or as responsible now as I have to be, because I'd get back into it. You're more 'in the moment' while stoned." Most of NetSushi's friends would rather smoke and play than game without a high.

"We definitely love to drink and play, too, but if we're competing, it's a definite no-no. If you want to smoke pot, fine," said NetSushi. "But not drink -- you talk too much trash, and play worse. We also don't play with kids; it's too much hassle. If anyone brings something out, you have to get rid of it right away."

Joseph Boy, owner of Sol Games, said that not everyone spares the children. "There are LAN parties in Tampa, other cities in Florida, where it's all porn and drugs. I've seen kids swapping porn, a guy getting a blow job in the middle of an auditorium from a girl he just met, people coming in the back doors without paying and leaving with a couple of disks. I don't want people to think of that when they think of gaming. We take security very seriously."

He's spent three years running LAN parties out of his house in Florida, shelling out $900 a month for the power bill. It used to be an adults-only scene, but Boy cleaned it up as kids started playing. "We said 'no alcohol' when the first kid came in. So some guys would leave every hour to hit the bar down the street, then come back." One 17-year-old got caught sneaking out to his car for a drink. "We had to ban him. That caused a whole bunch of complaints, because he was the one who drove his group to the parties, and they lost their ride."

Boy, whose "No drugs, No alcohol, No porn, No warez" policy inspires fan e-mail entitled "No Fun," said he banned one of Florida's top professional players last winter. "[He] fell asleep on the pool table, and lying underneath was his credit card. When I picked it up, I also found a pipe with weed in it. He took back the card but said the pipe wasn't his. We called everyone into the living room and I smashed the pipe. Then we banned [him] and his friends. A big CPL tournament was coming up, everyone wanted to play with him, so we lost a lot of business over it."

The CPL takes a firm anti-drug stance. Alcohol and illegal drugs are not allowed on the premises of CPL events. All violations are reported to the authorities. But policy aside, drug use still lurks on the fringes of the competitive gaming scene. With thousands of dollars in prize money at stake, some players are turning to beta-blockers, cocaine and anti-anxiety drugs like Tranxene in their search for an edge.

Angel Munoz, the league's CEO, is not oblivious. CPL events bristle with law enforcement. "We employ off-duty police officers, sheriffs and constables to ensure that any disruptive behavior is monitored and reported. These people are vigilant 24 hours a day, and have specific instructions on how to proceed, if any suspicious behavior does arise." He concedes that the CPL can regulate only illegal drug use, and anti-anxiety agents are too broad a category to police.

The CPL has been striving for several years to be regarded as having "elevated computer game competitions to a professional sport." It hosts tournaments all over the world and televises some game matches on ESPN. It also sends its top players to interviews with CNN, the USA Network, Fox, NBC, newspapers, and so on, and holds exhibition matches. The competitions, which award prizes up to $150,000, are grueling; the top players have to keep their reflexes sharp and their concentration focused over several days. The matches are broadcast live over the Internet, and Munoz is making plans to have the World Championships in December televised.

To date, Munoz said the CPL has never had a drug-related incident, and that if illegal drug abuse is ever deemed to be a problem, the CPL will implement random drug testing. A pro gamer out of Australia commented, "I would say that at a tournament, perhaps as many as 20 percent of the players could be high on something."

Drug testing wouldn't be a hugely popular move. Almost every pro gamer interviewed knew at least a few people who toke up before a big match to calm their nerves. Given marijuana's popularity on the LAN scene, a training ground for the pro leagues, the CPL could lose a lot of players.

But, as Johnathan "Fatality" Wendel, currently the top-ranked Quake III player in the world, said, "It might make them clean up their act. Later on, when it's longer down the road, I think the CPL will have to drug test. If they want gaming to be known as a professional sport, it might be a good idea if they did."

Wendel, 20, follows a training regimen like most athletes -- at least 40 hours of practice during the week, a good night's sleep and a healthy breakfast on the big day. And no drugs or alcohol. "Some people do tell me they play better when they smoke pot; they tell me I'd play better if I smoked. But I'm already one of the best in the world, so why would I?" (Fatality is the first player to win over $100,000 in a year, and just signed a six-figure endorsement deal.)

When asked about the LAN party scene, the world's most accomplished Quake player sounded like every other kid in America. "With us it's Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew and then a run to Taco Bell or Wendy's."

Video games take in as much revenue as the domestic Hollywood box office gross, and arguably consume more of our time. But like other forms of entertainment, games on their own don't carry everyone far enough away from reality for their liking. For a pastime most often associated with loners and geeks, the arrival of a shared drug subculture in gaming indicates, for better or worse, the arrival of gaming as a mature and complex medium. In the '60s, proponents of the drug revolution in music assured us that "the kids are all right." Perhaps gamers will reassure us that they're all right, too.

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