Monday, January 21, 2008

YOU BURNOUTS ROTTING IN FRONT OF YOUR COMPUTERS!: Cult of the Superhardcore Gamer in Czech Gaming Culture

It's not unusual to see gamers discuss how many frags they have scored, to which level they have advanced and what mysteries they have unravelled. The feeling of achievement makes a many gamer's life worthwhile. But there are gamers for whom gaming is a serious commitment, a calling, an obsession. They hunger. They hunger for more and more games to finish, preferrably on an Iron Man difficulty setting.
Now, they seem to be relegated to forums of particular games, although, yes, there hasn't been much research on this phenomenon. But there was a time and place, probably one of many, where the superhardcore gameslayer was a shared and articulated fantasy of a larger gaming community. I say fantasy, because it was hard (as if somebody tried) to distinguish between real achievements and tall tales, between a gamer's life and a hallucination induced by too many hours of staring into the screen. There were gamers entering the realm of legend because of their "contribution" to gaming, there were fictional narratives of gaming ecstasies and gaming addiction, of people who took their calling too far. And most interestingly, there was a word describing a superhardcore gamer, a seriously dedicated gamer, in contexts of both fantasy and real life. The word, "pařan", was derived from the verb meaning "to steam". Welcome to the Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic of the early 90's.

The cult of the pařan originated in the discourse sparked by the early Czech gaming magazine Excalibur. Its suggestions of a very specific, emotional relationship to the gamer's computer (more than a particular game), hinted at a Gibsonian cyborg-like coupling of man and machine(1). Gamers' Atari ST's, Amigas and PC's were called "darlings" or "precious ones", promptly invoking the Gollum metaphor.
In a hilarious article called "How To Die In Front Of Your Computer", an Excalibur writer countered a mainstream critique of computer games with a jokingly meant article on how to be a "real pařan". He writes:

"Do not let anybody disturb you. As soon as you come from school or work, immedialtely turn on your computer (or, better, do not turn it off at all) and load your favorite game. Do not answer phone or doorbell. Do not go to the bathroom at all – you could have done that at work! Newbies should play at least until midnight, advanced gamers need not sleep at all. On weekends, pařans must stay at their monitors non-stop.

While playing, sit in the most uncomfortable position possible. This way, you can better identify with the game's main hero – he does not feel comfortable, either!

Never air your room! If you can, put your computer into a windowless room. It should be warm, hard to air and smell dank and stale. That's how you make for a real pařan atmosphere."

There indeed were and are gamers who, to a certain extent, follow these rules. No wonder that, in Score, the early 90's Czech gaming magazine (and likewise in the 80's British press), the ultimate quality of a game was its power to make a gamer sacrifice family life, social life and health. That's total immersion, that's leaving your body behind.
"You'll forget about your pink teddy bear, about your grandma and the urge to go to the bathroom. There will be only you and System Shock," said the review of System Shock in late 1994. Another "life-altering" game, the Sierra adventure Quest for Glory, is described as so addictive that once you start playing, "it goes fast: an hour or two, a sandwich or two, a divorce or two, a grave – just one..." (The same review addressed the readers as "you burnouts rotting in front of your computers", ironically reappropriating the language of their parents.)

In one of the letters to the magazine, a reader confesses:

"They call me Coffeebean and I am the wife of the great pařan that goes by the name of Broken Stick. [...] My husband has been immersed in playing games, Doom specifically, for several months now. [...] In his greatest pařan ecstasies, he jumps out of the window, just in his slippers, and beats our dog Azor with a broom. [...] Recently, he's been telling me my head has 4 feet in diameter. [...] Is there a way of suing id Software for ruining my life? Yours truly, Coffeebean.”

Of course it is all exaggeration, but still, it is now the rhetoric I'm after, not reality.
This is too Monty Python to be true, but note the word "ecstasy". Hardcore gaming is far beyond entertainment.
Although the stories mentioned above all happened in the realm of fantasy, there were real pařan legends, too. If they'd lived in Czechoslovakia, the heroes of King of Kong might have been among them. But Eastern Europe has always been a home computer rather than console or arcade gaming region, so the gaming legends claim that they "turned the score over in Jet Pac(2)" or that they "can walk through first levels of Doom, blindfolded" instead. This discourse of achievement made for a community that, although unrestricting and decidedly unserious, offered an accomplishment-based hierarchy.
Given it was a computer gaming subculture, there was always a huge emphasis on the technical skills and the mastery of many platforms. The advancement through the evolving computer environment and the experience of "beating the medium" (oh, games are the probably the only medium you can beat) in the very process of its making were an essential part of the more real-life pařan figures. The early adopters and the technologically priviliged, those who knew how turn a new technology into pleasure, were a step closer to the pařan-dom.
When the Score magazine, the best-selling gaming magazine and premier pařan outlet, decided to stop using the word pařan and the whole pařan rhetoric in its 13th issue, the editor-in-chief (himself a bigger pařan than anybody else) intended it as a step away from the fantasy of total dedication, towards a more "mature" attitude. He also wanted to reach out to the non-hardcore audience. Upon this decision, the editorial staff even divided their real selves from their gaming selves by discarding their gaming nicknames (used as authors' names) in favor of real names. But the myth was so deeply grounded in the gaming community that people were afraid of losing their status and the value of their accomplishments along with the signifier. A reader complained:

“Today, a child says 'I want' and gets a computer, finishes a game with a walkthrough and cheats and calls himself a pařan. He is not one, but what about those who worked themselves up step by step on programmable calculators, ZX Spectrum, Amiga and PC to be first-class gamers, aren't they pařans? They mastered mouse and joystick, crosshair and two-handed axe, magic and strategy, dialects of English and Norton Utilities? Aren't they pařans?!”

This was back in the day when many, mainly computer, games apparently weren't meant to be finished and their mindless difficulty renders them unplayable for a contemporary gamer - whereas now you quite often "sit through" a game rather than struggle with it. That might be the reason why pařandom was so precious to this reader.
It also explains why the "real-life", hierarchical, achievement-based element of hard core gaming was so central to the community, whereas the fantasy element probably originated as opposition through pleasure, as an immersion in a brand new meta-gaming world that included not only the games themselves, but the game of gaming, the whole digital space that was suddenly available and ready to be explored. And beaten.

1 While talking about computers with affection, do we use the mundane word computer anymore? Or do we switch to something more primal and powerful, something that doesn't remind us of the anemic office space?

2 I. e. running out of digits used to keep the score, and thereby reverting it back to zero. Not easy in Jet Pac, one of the most famous Sinclair ZX Spectrum games.

The screenshot comes from Bloodnet.

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