The gamer subculture of the 2000s
If somewhere in Eastern Europe we say ‘computer club’, not a sterile salon filled with the latest-generation computers and other appliances comes to the people’s minds. Having heard this phrase, a common person born in the late years of the USSR will rather think about a dark basement with narrow corridors lighted by the soft glow of dozens of computer monitors. The first computer clubs began to appear in Belarus at the beginning of the new millennium. For example, in the town of Vileyka a hundred of kilometers away from the capital, the first such club was opened at the turn of 2002. By that time, there were dozens of computer clubs in Minsk. However, in Vileyka, where time flows at its own speed, the first computer club did not even have a sign, it was established in a derelict basement opposite the local house of culture. Its interior was austere: wooden tables, gray walls and 20 new computers. The nineties finished, and the twenty zeroes began. While a couple of years before, new computers could be seen only in the bank in Vileyka, now the new Belorussian middle class, which could be named so rather relatively, could afford a home PC for the family. Those who were poorer could count on only a computer club.
An hour of gaming in the computer club cost 600 Belorussian rubles. However, as the club did not even have a sign, rumors were spread among the boys that there were days on which they could play at 450 Belorussian rubles, and even at 300! There was an essential disadvantage – there was no Internet. The only place in town where one could enjoy the Internet for money was the local post-office. And although there was only one computer there, there were no lines to use it.
That was the summer of 2002. The dollar was equal to 1830 Belorussian rubles, and the average monthly salary in the country amounted to 100 dollars.
A basement, school desks, and forty computers
Entrepreneur Andrey Milostev, one of the founders of the computer club in Vileyka, recalled that, when business became good, they bought twenty more computers. In our conversation, he often asks himself a rhetoric question: how did we all get inside there, in that small basement? In addition to gamers, the club was always filled with teenagers who would come to see others play. Incidents often occurred near the club entrance, which could be easily used as a plot for a social drama. For example, parents of one of the teenagers could rush into the club, desperate with poverty, yelling “We have no money to bread with, and you waste it on games!” and kick the poor boy out of the club. There were always many people near the club doors. There were no special signs or marks, but one could always spot the club’s location by the column of tobacco smoke coming up. Besides, a fight could easily be started after the game. The reasons for it could be that some vandal could have deleted somebody else’s ‘saves’ or could intentionally have spoilt somebody’s progress in a shooter game.
Mistaken will be the one who will think that, in order to play some game, like Quake, it was be sufficient just to come to the club. Lucky dogs were those who waited near the entrance for only several hours. However, boys would rarely go there alone and spontaneously. They usually agreed about such a visit in advance. First a call was made in the backyard of an apartment building or of a school or in another popular place of children’s get-together whether anybody wanted to fight in a game. After the participants were recruited, a courier was appointed. He was given the entire amount of money at once, and he walked to the club to order a game. Usually it was the club owner or a special club employee who would write down the gamers’ names in his record-book. His desk was in the back of the basement, and he would record all those who came in an Excel table. Communication with him consisted of just a couple of phrases. One had to name the number of computers and the time, and then to pay the money. On the fixed day, the whole crowd would first get together and then walk to the club chaotically, anticipating the virtual battles.
Not Counter-Strike and not Warcraft
If we ask an outsider about the computer games of the twenty zeros, we will definitely hear something like Warcraft and Counter-Strike. But in 2002, other games were popular in the Belorussian countryside. Absolutely all those who came in large crowds preferred to play Rune. A bit later, the tidal wave of Quake 3 swept over the gamers, and only after that, Counter-Strike 1.3, together with still popular strategies, reached the local Winchesters.
In those times, there was no Internet in the computer clubs, and the very possibility of relatively affordable and fast Internet appeared in the country only in 2004. And, of course, there was no limitless Internet access at the time. At best, an average family could afford several gigabytes of traffic with the downloading speed of something like 240 kilobits per second. The common connection would provide the downloading speed of only 32 kilobits per second. Hours of the Internet time were spent on downloading some mode for Quake 3, and then playing ‘on the sets’ of some champion of virtual tournaments.
Of course, competitions were arranged among the gamers. They often had an informal character. Neither the gamers’ community nor the local press was interested in such events. The ‘tournament’ itself was purely nominal. From the outside, it rather reminded of rivalry between two teams. A victory in that rivalry, though, promised good money to a teenager.
First the teams got registered, then each put a certain amount of money, and the game started. The winner team would take all the money. Such events were never regulated. On the other hand, who could speak about observing rules and laws in those times? Most business owners considered their business only from one aspect: to earn as much as possible. Computer clubs were relevant, because the manufacturers of computers were in a position which was closest to the situation of a cold war. As a result, hardware was fast getting cheaper and cheaper and could become outdated in half a year’s time. Under those conditions, a business owner would rather pay fines out of his profits than expand the club area in order to meet sanitary requirements.
Survival on the verge of legality
Computerization meant not only the emergence of theme computer clubs. The whole residential communities now had local networks, and the gamers got a possibility of playing in the net from home. The communication providers began to offer packages of services, including limitless Internet access. Computer clubs were living their last days and managed to keep their balance positive, providing services balancing on the verge of legality. For example, exactly before the phenomenon of computer clubs went into eternity, the service of a ‘night record’ arrived to the countryside from the capital. One could play all night in the club at a huge discount. Of course, nobody checked the gamers’ age by IDs. But that was the job of the police. Having looked through the government press of the time, we can easily see that the raids of searching for teenagers would always start with combing the local computer clubs at the night time. Police were interested not in the teenagers as such but in the problem of drug dealing. While in 2002-2004, no one heard anything about ‘spices’, by the beginning of the 2010s, a ‘spice trip’ became a trend. The participants of the trip took mood-altering drugs, and then would play virtual games all night.
Besides, one could record a game on his own disk. As it was still impossible to download a game from the Internet, any schoolboy could come to the club with his own blank disk and record any game or film for 1500 Belorussian rubles. Such an option emerged around 2004. At that time, a dollar was equal to 2100 Belorussian rubles, and the price of a disk with a new game could easily come to ten thousand.
Andrey Dichenko, born in 1988 in Kaliningrad, is a Belorussian Russian-writing author and journalist. He graduated from the history department of the Belorussian State Pedagogical University named after Maxim Tank. He is the author of the books “Plates and Failures”, “You Me”, "Sunny Man”. The author’s texts are part of the curriculum of the Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, USA, the course of Eastern European literature. He worked as the editor of Ya magazine (Belarus), as the deputy editor-in-chief of Znamya Yunosti newspaper, as a journalist of Bolshoy magazine (Belarus) and in other Belorussian mass media.
To have and to be