It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in Kampala, and I was in a big room at the back of Alleygators Bowling Alley, Garden City.
Mounted against the walls were gigantic 1990s Sega and Namco arcade games like Top Skater and Time Cop. Old and dusty, they reminded me of museum pieces, especially when contrasted with the ultrathin, crystal clear Fifa 13 that four men in their mid-twenties were playing on a 32-inch flat screen HiSense TV, just next to the entrance.
A banner, which had an imposing picture of a soldier in military fatigues, stood nearby with the words “Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever” inscribed across the bottom.
The room had been converted into a battlefield for the day. Under a low ceiling, rows and rows of laptops and desktop monitors sat atop big white tables, with a labyrinthine network of cables snaking out into hundreds of units.
Before I set out on this assignment – to find out about GamersNights, an underground fraternity of gaming enthusiasts who meet online every Wednesday to play computer games — I told a couple of my friends about it and their responses were openly scornful.
PC gaming is not a practice that is usually brought up when tools for social transformation are being evaluated. Most people think gaming is for geeks.
“It’s because they don’t have all the information,” said a software developer and avid PC gamer, who prefers to be called by his gaming nickname, Saint. Saint, like me, sat on a plastic chair, a tangled mass of computer and extension cables around his feet.
“They just don’t,” he continued after a little reflection.
The gamers sat at their stations playing Call of Duty IV, a popular co-operative multiplayer game that involves teams of Special Ops in combat gear running around under heavy fire in a shell-shocked city somewhere in the Balkans.
Some of the players were dead quiet, hardly blinking, furrowing their brows and occasionally biting their lips in extreme concentration. Others kept up a loud, continuous commentary of what was happening in the game, lacing their analysis with graveyard humour and foul language. No one could doubt that this was serious business and, when the Russian team defeated the US team (or whatever), the whole room erupted in cheers and curses.
“This all started about two years ago,” Saint explained, “NtindaSnyper, SithLord, EagleEye, AgentSmith, I and a few others. We would meet to play PC games like Need for Speed - Most Wanted and Halo. After a while we began wondering if there were other guys out there like us, so we created a Facebook group and reached out to them. We have to vet you, though; not everyone gets in.”
The membership now comprises about 150 young, educated middle class gamers, most of them computer programmers, who refer to each other by aliases. Their names are inscribed on the backs of the group’s black-and-white uniform T-shirts, adding an element of mystique to this exclusive community.
“We don’t know and don’t care who’s whom in real life, we only know each other’s aliases. It’s like a second life for us.”
Typically, the composition of the group is mainly male. SheWolf, an animation and graphics student and one of the few female gamers, believes this is because of society’s stereotypes concerning what women can and cannot do.
I later learnt that the T-shirts were printed by Orange Telecom. The gamers frequently collaborate with Internet service providers like Smile and Orange Telecom when organising non-online events.
These companies want the gamers to publicly test their bandwidths (gaming requires a strong and consistent Internet connection) and help create publicity for the companies’ products by word of mouth.
Though the Fifa football series are probably the most commonly played video games in Uganda now, the GamersNights players do not seem to think too highly of it and other console games. Console games are those operated from hand-held controllers or pads.
“We prefer PC gaming because it allows us to link up on the Internet. Each of us can play from the comfort of their home. But you cannot play Xbox or Playstation on the Internet, not in Uganda at least. We just don’t have the infrastructure,” said Spectre, a veteran gamer.
The gamers believe that multiplayer PC gaming is not just a source of entertainment but a highly educative and competitive sport.
“We get to display our creativity, building levels, creating our own graphics and so on. PC gaming and gaming in general improves your brain power. It gives quicker reflexes, better concentration, resource management and a better sense of spatial awareness. Right now, my brain is wired and even physically constructed differently from yours because I am a gamer,” added Spectre, who has been gaming since he was three years old.
“PC gaming is not just recreation, it is a workout,” explained Saint, when I asked about the tag that gaming is nothing more than a geeky pastime for idle youth and the socially challenged.
“Not only do you train your mind and learn valuable life skills, you also have a chance to interact with new technology, especially in the field of networking. There is a lot of troubleshooting. It’s not kiddish, it’s not easy,” he said, adding, “Anyway, I hear geniuses make hard things look easy.”
Saint has a point. Research in this field has proved that while video games do not necessarily transform one into a genius, they have positive effects on the brain.
Daphne Bevalier, a brain scientist and researcher, demonstrated in a 2012 TED talk how action game players displayed better attention and retention abilities, advanced eyesight, the capacity to keep track of various details in the environment simultaneously and brain plasticity, which is the speed at which the brain adapts.
She, however, discourages binge playing and compares action games to wine — beneficial in small evenly spaced doses and dangerous if used in excess.
A study published by the BBC showed that the brain scans of people who play video games for more than nine hours a week reveal a larger ventral striatum. The ventral striatum is the central hub of the brain’s reward and motivation system, the same region usually activated when people anticipate positive environmental effects or experience pleasure such as winning money, good food or sex. The same region has been implicated in drug addiction.
Whether or not video games appeal to people with a natural genetic tendency to addiction or whether video games themselves cause addiction is yet to be established.
While the primary purpose of gaming is to have fun, most of the players were confident that the sport has indirectly taught them practical skills such as organisation, leadership, computer networking, graphic design and system administration simply as a matter of course.
They also believe that the growth of the sport is what is needed to create awareness about a little known fact that may prove to be a handicap in the future: The East African region needs its own Internet ecosystem.
Since the inception of GamersNights, similar groups have emerged in Kenya and Rwanda. It has proved difficult to compete in these cross-border tournaments because these players are on Internet networks that are not connected via a local Internet eXchange Point.
“It’s just a failure of configuration. We are not organised,” said Spectre. “Their signals have to travel all the way from Rwanda to say, London, before they reach us, which makes it all slow and very expensive. They might as well be on the other side of the world, even though they are just next door.”
SheWolf says gaming is not something you just outgrow. The GamersNights group envisions an East Africa that is a powerhouse in this kind of sport.
“We want this to go big,” said Spectre with marked passion. “We want to invite guys over from South Africa. We want people to appreciate the talent that goes into these games. In other countries, players do this for a living, practising for up to 12 hours a day. We could have the same thing here.”
He paints the picture of a sport with benefits ranging from the economic gains of merchandising to a reinvigorated sense of national and regional pride. This has happened in Japan, Europe and the US, he says.