By David Brooks

New Hampshire Business Review, January 21, 2005

Reprinted with permission of the New Hampshire Business Review

When you hear the word “LAN,” do you think of:

• Corporate IT headaches? If so, you’re a geek, and a boring one.

• “sakes”? If so, you’ve watched too many movies with fake Southern dialogue. (Nobody pronounces “land” without the final D.)

• Fragging your buddy, then waiting until he is reincarnated so you can frag him again? If so, you might be a geek, but you’re also the future of the world.

Well, I may have exaggerated that last one a bit.

But it certainly seems that on-line gaming has moved from being the sad refuge of carpal-tunnel loners to being the filter that separates the digital wheat from the analog chaff for corporate America.

This is particularly true for the high-stakes kind that uses local area networks to directly connect computers for gamers sitting in the same room, thereby avoiding dreaded Internet lag.

Such places rent an office or an unused warehouse, then fill it with wired-together computers and rent them out to gamers who like to play interactive shoot-em-ups like Half-Life against each other.

As a business model it’s a bit wobbly – they tend to come and go – but as a cultural phenomenon it’s a blast. For a sizeable portion of younger males, LAN gaming occupies the same psychic spot as darts-in-the-pub does for English working men: A competitive yet cooperative social glue.

In Hampton, there’s a place trying to take the idea further.

The recently opened HoloDek, in a faceless office park near Route 1, has the usual banks of computers and TVs for non-gamers – ours being a society that feels deprived without something playing within eyesight – but it’s also got a 13-foot-wide screen hooked to a souped-up system, so your digital opponents are bigger than you are as you blast them with a shoulder-held ion cannon. Serious gaming, as they say.

Even cooler, HoloDek (those who don’t get the Star Trek reference can stop reading now) is building a 20-foot-diameter sphere that, when finished, should create a wrap-around gaming environment for the players seated in the center. Then you’ll really have to look over your shoulder in Doom3.

I suppose a 2-D, words-on-paper guy like me should be dismayed at such a breeding ground for an attention-deficit-disordered future, and certainly I feel no desire to visit. But then, I’m old (i.e., irrelevant) by networked-gaming standards.

Plus, I’ve noticed more studies that show some good aspects to video/PC/network gaming, such as one published in Nature that said gaming can improve “visual attentional processing” – keeping track of lots of stuff at once – and even develop good work habits.

And I’ve watched my son play these things for hours without visible drawbacks. He’s not fat, he’s capable of reading an entire book and he talks to me with only a modicum of teenage snideness. Can’t beat that.

Of course, I have to throw him off the computer every now and then when he’s been mouse-ing too long, but what kind of a father would I be if I didn’t prevent my children from having as much fun as they want? That’s part of the job description!

Further, with games getting their own high-tech awards show, and attention from academia (Worcester Polytech just established a four-year degree program in computer game design), and even their own labor scandals, this is obviously a part of modern life that’s just going to grow.

Why, it’s enough to make a person exclaim “Lan’ sakes!”

David Brooks writes about technology and science for the Telegraph of Nashua. His New Hampshire Business Review column appears monthly.