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How Left 4 Dead cured a toxic LAN environment

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Left 4 Dead represented a turning point in how I socialise through games. In 2008, LAN parties were still around and I had a good group I’d play games with at my old IT gig at the University of Montana. We’d take over the office after-hours and run through a list of custom Warcraft 3 games (a lot of the original Dota before I realised what a mistake I was making), some Quake and Unreal, Counter-Strike and the like. The common thread: all competitive. Worse, so was everyone in the room. Things got heated, and after a lifetime of football and wrestling coaches teaching me how to boil blood, I shut down the moment someone took a game too seriously. I still do. 

Left 4 Dead changed the mood completely. We went in on a few of those early four-packs and spread them around. No one was particularly excited about Left 4 Dead, but it was a Valve game so we had to give it a go. We didn’t play anything else for the whole semester. 

We started inviting more people to game nights because working together to survive a zombie apocalypse was a far more appealing activity than getting wiped by Mike in every game ever. Enough people of varying skill levels would show up to get a few groups going, each dancing with the AI director at their own lovely rhythm, bouncing between despair and hope. The screaming in the office shifted from anger to a chorus of yelping barely discernible as calls for help and ensuing thank-yous. Rather than end each session deflated, saying nothing and shambling off to our dorms, we’d stick around or walk somewhere together, maybe get food, breaking down a dramatic standoff at Dead Air’s refuelling finale, or how everything nearly went to shit in Blood Harvest’s cornfield sprint. 

(Image credit: Valve)

After mastering the campaigns, we entertained the idea of trying out the versus mode and, yeah, that had me worried. See above. Yelling. Fragility. I tensed up at the thought, but Left 4 Dead’s versus mode never dipped back into that volatile competitive mood. Coordinating the perfect Smoker pull and Hunter pin combo to split up the survivors always carried more of a pranking-your-pals energy than any spectre-of-my-disappointed-dad vibes. Versus was cunning and playful, hewing closer to hide-and-seek than the pure reflex-driven play of most competitive shooters. We stayed jubilant and friendly. The dingy basement IT office lit up with whooping and back claps like a damn mead hall. God I miss it.

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