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When forms like the “MySpace angle” emerged

Interview with Brookly-based writer merritt k about her new publication LAN Party coming out in January

by Endre Cserna & Róza Tekla Szilágyi

merritt k is a Brooklyn-based Canadian freelance writer, video game designer and podcaster. She is the editor of the book Videogames for Humans, co-author of the poetry collection Total Mood Killer, as well as the host of several podcasts such as Woodland Secrets, The K-Hole and Channel F. You can read her personal blog Other Strangeness, as well as watch her video essays here.

Her upcoming book, LAN Party is a compilation of photographs captured during the 1990s and 2000s, showcasing the Y2K-atmosphere of LAN parties. With contributions from gaming experts & writers, the book provides insights into the cultural significance of technology and gaming during that era. After a Twitter post garnered an overwhelming response of over a hundred thousand likes, the concept for the publication took shape & she collaborated with Volume, a London-based curated publishing platform specialising in illustrated books on visual culture to host the crowdfunding campaign of the photo-book. 

LAN Party will be published by Read-Only Memory, a prestigious British publisher known for its dedication to gaming history.

merritt k

The book consists of photographs depicting the LAN gatherings of the late 1990s and early 2000s – and these photographs radiate a special kind of nostalgia as they were created with early digital cameras at limited resolution. Besides them being documents of a long gone era – a world that existed before the internet took shape – why are you interested in them?

I’m interested in these photos because the relationship to technology they depict is very different from most people’s today. There is a palpable excitement that radiates from the images in the book, as young people were using computers to create shared experiences in novel ways. Today, we frequently encounter technology as banal or even oppressive, and I think it’s useful to look back at a time when people were optimistic and energized about the possibilities of computers and communications technology to see what we can learn from it.

How many photographs did you receive and what rules did you follow when selecting the ones that get published?

We received several hundred photos from dozens of contributors around the world. Unfortunately, there were far too many to include in the book, so we picked out images we thought were illustrative, representative, or else just amusing. Additionally, I tried to ensure that we had photos from as many different locations as possible. While most of the images in the book are from the US, there are a number from Europe and a few from countries like Australia and Ghana.

From the book LAN party, Liz Storey, 2002

We have read in an interview that you were looking up old pictures of LAN parties and then made a tweet about wanting a book full of them. How did you start collecting these photographs and are there any photographs published in the book made by you back in the day?

Collecting the photos involved putting out a call for images, tracking down the owners of some photos I wanted to use but didn’t know the provenance of, and in some cases, sorting through huge databases maintained by dedicated LAN partygoers to pick out the best examples. I don’t have any photos from gaming sessions in my teens, unfortunately — aside from some pictures of arcades where I used to play games like Dance Dance Revolution.

Could you provide insights into the design concept employed in the book?

The designers attempted to integrate some of the iconic visual elements found in the photos — cables, junk food, etc. Additionally, the dominant color was selected to imitate the default color of a hyperlink in HTML.

From the book LAN party, Matt Sweeney, 2003

As the photographs had quite a low resolution you decided to employ an AI-enhancement software to be able to print them in a better resolution. Nowadays we really are used to looking at images with almost lifelike resolutions, but why did you make the decision to manipulate the images in this way? Did it take away from the nostalgia factor or the home décor and personal fashion styles depicted in the photographs create this nostalgic feeling anyway?

The publisher wanted to use AI to make the photos more legible for publication, but they were careful to strike a balance between enhancement and authenticity. I think they were quite surprised by the initial reaction to this decision — a lot of people spoke passionately about their desire not to overly alter the images, which is totally understandable. As a result, they pulled back a lot on the upscaling.

These images are the early artefacts of digital vernacular photography – are you interested in this genre in itself?

Certainly. One aspect of these images which interests me is that they come from an era when digital consumer photography was first emerging. Of course, film photography and tools like digital cameras had been around for some time prior, but the period during which point and shoot digital photography began to become popular prefigures our current reality in which most people have a camera with them at all times. In many of these photos, you can see subjects trying out poses and reactions to the camera — giving it the finger, pulling faces, and so on. This is also around the time that recognizable forms like the “MySpace angle” emerged, before we had the term “selfie.”

From the book LAN party, Richard Stephenson, 2002

Have you personally engaged in or documented similar activities yourself, or have you pursued photography for previous projects?

I have a casual interest in photography but not much background or training in it beyond a few classes I took in high school. It’s definitely a subject I’m interested in learning more about, and while I’ve been busy with a number of other projects for the last little while, I would like to take up amateur photography sometime soon.

In his paper The Playstation Dreamworld Alfie Bown argues that “[the] accidental ideology underlying the logic of “the good guys” is a prominent feature of gaming.” How do you believe gaming and LAN parties specifically influenced the individuals depicted in the images, considering the images in your book predominantly showcase male environments?

You can definitely see the myth of the sweet, beaten-down nerdy “good guy” emerging in the late 90s and early 2000s, and of course the majority of the participants in the LAN parties documented in the book are young men. However, I think the reality is more complicated than that. Many of the people I spoke to about their experiences talked about how LAN parties involved people from diverse backgrounds, and there are women and people of color represented in a number of the photos. I also think in-person events like LAN parties sometimes fostered a sense of connection to community that is frequently missing for young people today, and that stands in stark contrast to the often-alienating experience of online gaming with strangers.

From the book LAN party, Tobias Czarny, 2006

Are there any virtual spaces currently available to foster niche, progressive, and forward-thinking communities?

Unfortunately, the internet has been progressively taken over and cordoned off by corporate interests over the last couple of decades. The move from forums and independently-run spaces to the centralized ownership of social media has had some benefits for things like access to news and political organizing efforts, but as Elon Musk’s management of Twitter has demonstrated, these platforms can be warped and altered to suit the whims of their owners. I think it’s possible that the mass social media period is ending and that people will once again return to smaller communities (blogs, forums, instanced social media, etc.) which allow for more focused but also diverse kinds of thinking to proliferate.

Your video series Forgotten Worlds studies the Y2K-era of the internet. What are your thoughts on contemporary game culture & technological entertainment? Can you think of a particular video game that holds cultural significance for you, either in the past or present?

I often think back to the Dreamcast game Phantasy Star Online, which was the first online RPG I ever played. The game’s world is a slick, futuristic one in which players wield magic and technological abilities to fight monsters, but what impressed me most about the game was its communication system. It allowed players to type normally on a keyboard but also to select pre-written messages which were translated into all of the languages the game supported. As a teenager, to be able to communicate with players in countries like Japan provided a tremendous sense of possibility and freedom. It seemed that the internet was going to open up the world in ways we had never dreamed of. In reality, the expansion of the internet and its encroachment into everyday reality has had complex results, many of which are negative. But I still think fondly about Phantasy Star Online and the vision of communication and cooperation it presented.

Book Design: Atelier Muesli

Specification: 280 × 180mm, 176 pages, Hardcover, Printing in six colours

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