Soon our hour of traveling past fields of grain and windmills in the plains of Saxony came to an end, and we arrived at the Leipzig Central Train Station. It was time to get to the Convention Center. At first I opted to follow the fat kid (the first one) through the tunnels of the train station, since I figured he and his friends would know where to go, but I thought better than to place my fate in the hands of adolescent gamers, and so found a platform where I could take a five-minute regional train to the Convention Center. I could tell by the crowd on the platform that I was in the right place. To my right, there stood a young man a few years younger than I wearing a positively titanic white t-shirt that said “Big Boss Salidim: King Bass Tim. TN-CLAN.” He had an Atlanta Hawks baseball cap on, tilted about fifty degrees to the side with the sticker still on it, and even though his shirt obscured a good half of his baggy jeans, there he was, dressed to match his other “clan” members.
A clan, in modern video game-ese, is just a group of players who regularly play together in multi-player games, who may or may not be friends in real life; they often share booty from kills in role-playing games, and may have “clan wars” with other clans in any game that allows for fighting, and as I saw at Leipzig, many of them do not leave their clan ties behind when the computer turns off. At any rate, this young man was talking with his parents, who had presumably insisted on coming with him to the convention. They were not dressed in clan gear.
Other than the clan member, there were some younger kids, and I decided to talk to them. Two of them weren’t particularly talkative, but one, wearing an egg-colored UMBRO sweatshirt with no undershirt, a cheap gold necklace, and white tube socks with his Reebok sneakers, had the pity to hold a conversation in German with me. He was from Berlin, probably on the same train I had come on, and this was his first games convention. “What’s the top attraction [Hauptattraktion] for you here?” I asked. “ESL,” he responded without making eye contact. As he explained, ESL (European Sports League) was the largest competitive online gaming league in Europe; the regulatory body, it sounded like, for games like “Counterstrike” and “World of Warcraft.” The Games Convention was as good a place as any to meet up with infamous clan rivals and talk shop with other players from your game of choice, but he was here “mostly to see World of Conflict,” an alternate history action game in which the Soviet Union does not collapse and instead launches simultaneous invasions of Central Europe and California as a gambit to stay in power. “And what about any of the books?” I asked. I had seen advertisements for “Starcraft” novels, for new stories and spinoffs from “Diablo” that promised to extend the plot of these games into games into oblivion. “Nein,” he said, “we’re here for the games.” Our train arrived, he pulled Harry Potter out of his backpack, and we were on our way to the Games Convention.
As I walked the half-kilometer from the Convention Center to the halls themselves, I began to pay more attention to the physiognomy and background of the average visitor here. For one, there certainly were a lot of them. Throughout the day at the Games Convention, I had a hard time getting on to any machine, and even the lesser games required a ten to fifteen minute wait to play. I had honed my skill of fidgeting and giving physical cues to the tune of “God, this guy has been playing forever” during my days of waiting for “Mario Kart” at Best Buy while I horded enough money for the next N64 installment, but this was a popular convention. The wait for a ten-minute run of “Starcraft 2” or “World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King” must have been at least three hours, but no one seemed disappointed to wait so long; they were among their own, and they were happy.
But what did they look like? Fat, certainly. Baggy jeans were the order of the day for this crowd that was almost uniformly white and under twenty years of age, but many of them had followed the time-honored fat-kid strategy of wearing baggier clothes on top, as well, and so even though it was a warm August day, I saw many chubby adolescents sweating out the walk in an unnecessary windbreaker while they carried their backpack full of Snickers bars and pineapple juice. Then there was the other strategy: maybe if I just stuff all of this video-game-produced chub into a tighter package, it will look better? So there were some taller gamers walking to the halls in awkwardly tight jeans, and sweatshirts with no room for rotation at the arm; their torsos reminded me of those cheap pillows that have become popular nowadays, the kind filled with sand that are impossible to really get a squeeze on. I felt like if I had tried to pinch one of these young men’s stomachs, the fat would have just gone – well, somewhere. I don’t know where, but Leipzig made it clear to me that video gaming probably isn’t good for your health, and may very well be bad for it.
We had arrived! I already had my ticket, but I saw people lining up, and where there were adolescents lining up, surely there was something good, and so a quick show of my driver’s license later, I had my red wristband, reserved for the (few) people here more than eighteen years old, granting them admission to all the stands in all of the halls. According to the main Games Convention pamphlet, this was a new invention for this year. As the disclaimer for my 18+ band read, “the double-barreled action of a game like “Killzone 2” isn’t for kids!” The poor peons with the green armband, for those twelve years or younger, “can look forward to age-appropriate [altersgerechte] titles like the role-playing game “Blue Dragon.” They’re not going to see any violent shooters or bloody horror games – and for good reason!” I was proud to wear the red band, but I soon noticed that many gamers younger than I had simply not waited in line for the band, and since no one was checking, I was not too distressed when mine fell off just minutes later. As I was soon to see, there were many things inside the halls a mere band wouldn’t protect me from.
Join us next week as our esteemed ethnographer journeys deeper into the conference halls of darkness.