The first gamers were ready before sunrise, queuing in the cold outside the Elmia convention center, in the small Swedish city of Jönköping. Some had spent the night in cars and trailers in the parking lot. A few minutes to 8 a.m. they were clawing at the doors to the Northern lobby, anticipating the opening of DreamHack - the largest Local Area Network (LAN) party and digital festival in the world, hosted several times a year around the world. To the annual winter event in Jönköping, almost 10,000 gamers bring their computers for the 72-hour non-stop gaming bonanza. Another 15,000 or so are expected to visit the event exposition, watch e-sports and cosplay, and attend musical acts only the Hardstyle freaks have heard of.
Finding the press entrance to DreamHack proved difficult at first - a great mechanical gate barred the entry point, making the area look like a prison yard. While I'm waiting outside, I'm lucky enough to catch an idling DreamHack crew member.
"h3LL0! d0 j00 sp33k 1337?" I say.
"Never mind. Do you know where the press registration desk is?"
"It hasn't opened yet," answers the official, and points me back to the gate.
Once inside I encounter a steady stream of young men, pouring into the halls with their parents in tow, pushing office chairs loaded with energy drinks, or carrying computer components. The DreamHack crowd is predominantly male - women are estimated to make up only 10 % of the LAN participators - and many are relatively fresh out of the womb: Teenagers are in overwhelming majority; the amount of hormones in circulation should merit a visit from the Health Inspection, labeling the festivals as a biological hazard zone.
Each participant is assigned a table space of 83 x 60 cm in one of several areas, of which the largest, the D-hall, can host up to 4500 individuals and their machines. Once hooked up to the network, the attendants are free to do whatever they please within the frame of Swedish law. Counter Strike: Global Offensive, and games that stem from War Craft 3, dominate the screens. But occasionally I catch glimpses of oddities: vehicle simulators, old classics like Minesweeper, and Solitaire, and even online poker.
Once upon a time though, the appeal of DreamHack was equal part network game play, and the opportunity for large-scale file sharing and downloading. The LAN was a massive hub for exchange of digital music, film, games, and of course pornography. This was before high-speed internet connections were a fundamental feature in every Swedish household. Since then DreamHack has evolved from a big sleepover into a formidable clean shaven gaming festival.
The event still has some to offer those with no intention of engaging in conflict wielding a keyboard and a mouse. The e-sport aspect of DreamHack has grown considerably the last few years, reaching 15 million viewers world wide in 2014. The newly implemented cosplay showcase features people dressed up as presumably famous video game characters, in costumes that could awaken dormant fetishes in anyone.
Then there is the DreamExpo. It is one of the few areas that are decently illuminated. My personal favorite is the PC retailer Komplett, who arrange what can best be described as shouting matches between spectators at their exhibition stand, but with elements of competitive gaming. I join in occasionally, but never grasp the underlying purpose to the game playing - in context it seems secondary to the shouting. It is, however, appealing enough to just stand in a group of pubescent boys and scream at an agitator on a stage bathed in red light, so I never cared to find out what all the noise was about.
Ten minutes before 4 p.m., pompous horns and drums begin to sound through the PA-system in the D-hall, where the main stage is. The knightly tune signals that the festival is about to be officially opened, and that the next 64 hours are going to be spent peering in the dark. At 4 p.m. sharp the lights go out. The horns fade into a cavalcade of lasers, pyrotechnics, and electronic dance music, and the crowd gets very excited.
The laser show is a very important element of the opening ceremony. When the organizers decided to replace it with a group of human torches, Swedish gaming message boards were flooded with complaints by disappointed attendants. The show was called "The worst opening ceremony ever", and some critics swore to never visit DreamHack again.
Gamers can be just as sensitive and conservative as any other stigmatized interest group made up of disparate individuals, and they are protective of the commonalities that they actually share. Gatherings like DreamHack, and the rituals surrounding the LAN events - like the characteristic call-and-response of "Haaallååå!" - are important for the community in order to define and legitimize the culture, while also consolidating the sense of membership among the participants. Thus, unexpected change to what is considered DreamHack tradition (such as the ceremonial laser show) is rarely welcomed. "DreamHack is sort of like Mecca for the gamers that come here," says André Åkerblom, editor in chief at the e-sports news site Fragbite. "It's a place where gamers can meet and actually see that they aren't social outsiders, and feel that gaming isn't something to be ashamed of. We're passed the stage when gaming was considered strange, and in that the festival has played an important part."
There are also inclinations within the gamer culture that are problematic. When a subculture like hardcore gaming is under the process of going mainstream, and the previously homogenous community becomes exposed to new influences, those most reluctant to change tend to display impressive arsenals of ignorance and hostility. Misogynic attitudes are widespread, and these are also reproduced at DreamHack. Derogatory terms like "LAN slut" are still used to some extent, and sexual harassment by anonymous users in chat channels is quite common. "I get that several times a day," says Emma "Swebliss". With more than 130,000 followers on Twitch (a service that allow users to live stream footage from their screens and web cameras to an audience with capabilities to write comments) she's the biggest female game streamer in Northern Europe. "There are a lot of trolls. It's usually young boys seeking attention, and all streamers get them, but girls get more of them and the comments are much more sexualized."
At DreamHack the issue has been on the agenda for many years, but press officer, Fredrik Nyström, says that they could have been quicker to identify the problem. "Many girls have been disappointed with certain participants, and with us too to some extent. Maybe we haven't always been good enough at communicating what we stand for, and how we are working against harassment and negative attitudes. Even though we definitely could have done a better job at an earlier stage, I'm confident that the work we're doing now is resulting in better attitudes and a nicer tone."
A lifetime of sexual rejection, mommy issues, inbreeding… Whatever the reasons for the hate and confusion, the non-existent opportunities for relief for the sexually frustrated are not making things better. Privacy is non-existent at the Elmia convention center, not even the bathroom stalls offer much seclusion, and the sleeping halls swallow a couple of thousand people. Coitus is a no go, and masturbation is only for those sleight of hand, whose imagination has not been badly inhibited by internet porn.
After 18 hours of dreamhacking I feel deeply emerged in the LAN spirit, and it demands that I keep going. I decide to take some old "leet haxor" wisdom to heart - applied when in dire need of extended, hyper focused coding - and get jacked up as fuck on whatever dangerous substance I can get my nose on. Speed would probably have been the drug of choice here, but DreamHack has no tolerance for conventional intoxicants. Instead I quickly chug a liter of Monster energy drink (a horrible, toxic concoction, widely popular at DreamHack) to shock the shit out of my central nervous system. It gets the job done: increased heart rate, restlessness, bowel movements, exaggerated ideas about my own greatness, and recurring feelings of impending doom. During the short rush I manage to write down a lot words - scrambled gibberish, much of what you have been reading up until now. Thereafter I get an unexplainable urge for some old fashioned, mindless destruction of property. Luckily the impulse coincides with massive caffeine withdrawal, and I quickly degenerate into zombie mode, only to fall asleep at my workstation in the press area, at 4.30 in the morning.
To Fredrik Nyström, this type of destructive inspiration is nothing new. "I can't quite explain it, but there is talk within the organization about 'LAN madness'," he says when I ask him about the notorious raids that LAN participants began to subject a local Statoil gas station to in 2006. "You sleep too little, you're in a rather dark environment, and eventually you go little crazy, quite simply, and perhaps do things that you normally wouldn't." The raids appear to have ended in 2013, after combined efforts by Statoil, the Police, and the DreamHack crew. "I think this kind of behavior was more typical for the old DreamHack. We used to be a LAN only. Sleep deprivation among participants was much worse back then. Now we have a lot more content to offer at prime time that makes people want to be awake and fresh during the day."
"You sleep too little, you're in a rather dark environment, and eventually you go little crazy, quite simply, and perhaps do things that you normally wouldn't."
I spend the following two days lurking in the LED lit gloom, watching people and the games they play; screaming like a banshee at the e-sport finals. By Saturday the ten thousand bodies and their computers have outdone the air conditioning, turning the whole convention center into a subtropical climate zone. When I notice that my own body odor has begun to follow me around like a restless spirit, making itself apparent wherever I go, I decide that the time has come to make an inconspicuous exit, to go clean my shorts.