Waking up is hard.
Picture a bag full of cotton wool. Now stuff it with rocks and give it a good beating. That’s what my head feels like right now. It’s not a hangover. I don’t drink.It’s just the tiredness. Weeks and weeks of one hour of sleep a night hit me in the face.
I’m almost used to this, now. Ammi’s made my tea – double helping of milk, sugar, everything. Drink that for ten minutes while trying not to nod off again. Bathroom. In, out. Uniform’s on the bed. Shoes.
Ammi gives me the usual line about never polishing my shoes. Ignore.
Pick up the bag. It’s always got the same four books in it. Ammi rants about how I just pick up the bag every morning and toss it away when I get home every afternoon. Ignore. Ignore. Escape. I’m off, sprinting down the lane to the schoolbus.
A new day has begun.
The bus is where I think. It takes 25 minutes to get to school. Mr. Anduruwa* – we call him Ibba – is going to revise differentiation today. I’m screwed; I haven’t touched Maths for a week. The Chemistry teacher is alright.
But there are more important things to worry about. Our clan is splintering. The COD4 team is at loggerheads with the DOTA people. We’ll lose the Teamspeak server if we don’t pay this month. We’ve got scrims with other clans scheduled and we’re going to get hammered if we don’t practice. And I need to hustle up 5000 rupees.
7 o’clock. School is here. Time to go be normal and deal with the Ibba.
So the Ibba was cool; he had me stand outside the class for two periods, but that’s alright. Saved me the trouble of having to write stuff down. Turns out Chemistry and Physics are both absent.
School is a waste of time.
I throw the sandwich. Oliv3r, aka Nadun, is in the next class. God knows why he calls himself Oliv3r. Anyway. I give him the sign. Five minutes later we’ve snuck out of the section block. Two minutes after that we’re over the wall. There’s a T-shirt in the bag. School shirt’s off, T-shirt’s on. We’re laughing all the way to the café.
The café is like any of the dozen or so proper gaming café’s in Colombo: discreet, tucked away in a little corner frequented only by people like us. Gamers. Two flights of staircases lead to a neat door that swings into a dim cavern. Three lines of PCs. Carpeting that might be any color between gray and red. Sandun, the proprietor, behind a large desk with an old PC on it.
“Two Milos,” I tell him. Without a word, he reaches into the cooler next to his desk and tosses me two Milos.
Sandun is old. 35, maybe 40. Nobody knows. He has thick arms, a rather bony, sarcastic face and doesn’t speak much. He opens this place at 8.30, on the dot, and packs up at 7 – again, on the dot. He doesn’t let anyone smoke or bring anything alcoholic anywhere near; I’ve never seen him tossing people out, but that’s because nobody really wants to push him that far. We don’t know much about him at all – he’s been running this joint for five years and all I know is that he lives somewhere in Nugegoda. Sometimes he joins in for a match of DOTA in the late evening; he’s neither good nor bad.
Sandun makes his money off a small army of people like me – regulars who come down here especially to sit down next to each other, connect to a server and play together.
We come here because it’s a clean place with power and Sandun lets us run a tab. We play long hours and settle at the end of the month. It’s a good deal.
I settle in to PC #13, my personal favorite, and sign in. 13 is identical to the others, but a year or so of playing here makes me automatically head to this one place. It’s in a good spot. Nadun takes PC #11. “PA | Oliv3r is now online” says a pop-up. Good.
We have some time to kill, so I start up Dota2 and send Oliv3r an invite.
The café is silent now, because it’s a weekday and it’s still morning. Come evening, this place is going to be flooded. Then it comes alive – the constant click-click-click of expensive mice, the low hum of computer fans over that of the air-con, the grunt and the tchah! as someone takes a bullet to the face. COD4 players are mostly silent unless there’s an epic showdown happening – sniper versus sniper, a lone gunman against an entire team, that kind of thing. DOTA players are noisier. God help your eardrums if someone’s playing a Faceless Void or Pudge.
“I’ll play Axe,” says Oliv3r. Noob. He always takes Axe. I don’t argue. I take Zeus and spend the next 45 minutes killing a bunch of Russians with lightning bolts while Oliv3r charges in and dies over and over again.
Russell, Cat and WaRaKa are here.
These three are perhaps the best friends I have right now, mostly because we think the same. We like the same movies, get excited over the same things, and there’s just enough differences between us to keep it fun. Russell’s family is rich. He uses his real name, is a prefect at his very distinguished school and is a straight-A student. Cat is a very smart outcast with a head for figures and authority problems. WaRaKa likes anime and spends most of his life revolving between school and classes.
Normally, we wouldn’t have met. Their school is a rival to ours and we generally beat the stuffing out of each other in the occasional yearly insanity. But here we don’t have that distinction.
The four of us – together with Oliv3r – are the Call of Duty 4 wing of Mad Company. Call of Duty is an ancient game, released in 2007, modified to meet tournament standards. Sri Lanka is probably the only country that still plays it, but it’s still the most popular eSport in existence here. Every year the numbers of COD4 players swell. New players, new T-shirts, new clans, new logos – and us trying to hold on and make some headway against the big Names in the scene. Maximum Gaming. Death Company (now Xiphos). The Tech Morph Outlaws. These are the people everyone wants to beat. We know some of them, but only as names on a server.
They’re good. Scary good. We need to get better.
For the next hour, we discuss the problems we’re having. We’re running short on cash; I can’t steal my class fees forever. WaRaKa owes Russell money – money that’s gone into covering café tabs and three Milos a day. Scope and Pittu, two of our best players, have lost touch. Scope is playing Dota2. Cat blames MaREK, our Dota2 head. Pittu is getting serious about his studies: he wants to make it into university. Oliv3r, the replacement, isn’t getting good enough fast enough. We’re a brand new clan and we’re already saddled with too many problems. The Sri Lankan Cyber Games, the be-all-end-all eSports tournament in Sri Lanka, is two months away.
What happened to the days when you could just sit down and play for the fun of it?
So we’ve sorted out some of our problems.
Scope called. He’s going to rejoin the team and play with us for the next four months – enough time to get to SLCG and train Oliv3r afterwards. Morale isn’t high but at least we won’t make fools of ourselves. Russell’s Science Society needs logos, a set of brochures and a booklet of some sort: WaRaKa will design it in lieu of the 5K. He’s pretty good at that.
We lay out the strats. I spent the whole of last night looking up fragmovies from the very best COD players on the Internet and comparing them with everything I have on the top Sri Lankan teams. I think I have a good idea of how they move and react. There are two maps that are commonly played – Crash, Crossfire. We may not have an advantage in reaction speed – that takes thousands of hours of training – but we can plan.
We lock down and start practicing.
My head hurts.
Four hours of staring at a computer screen point a virtual assault rifle at someone else is nothing, but the lack of sleep is kicking in. The Dota guys haven’t shown up today, so the café’s filled with COD players. I’m just another name on a server and my killcount is dropping in the ranks. I’ve gone from taking headshots to irritably hitting Tab every other minute to see who’s passed me now.
Time to leave.
I nod to Sandun and duck out as quickly as possible. That’s another 240 rupees gone. I’ll have to pay for it at the end of the month. I take the bus home, and on the way, I fall asleep.
“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact… same thing… over and over again… expecting shit to change.“
Insanity is not finishing Far Cry 3. Insanity is going home after five hours of gaming, turning on the PC, settling down with lunch at 5.30 PM and watching game trailers with the towel still on your shoulder.
I like insanity. Insanity is life.
Unlike many people who play only one thing (that pisses me off), I have a whole range of games I’m into. COD, DOTA, fine for being competitive. But I also enjoy Minecraft. And whatever single-player game is guaranteed to be really good. I can’t play them all – can’t waste time.
So I play the greats when they come by. Bioshock Infinite – done. Far Cry 3 – done; I travelled through miles of terrain, over mountains and across valleys, killed Vaas and made my choice about who I want to be. I keep trying to play the Witcher, but I really hate the gameplay.
But for now, Minecraft. I personally don’t build much – I just explore. It’s a world eight times the surface of the Earth. There’s a lot to see.
My parents don’t understand it.
They want me – us – to do the same old boring stuff that everybody else does. Walk outside. Play cricket. Watch the match, I suppose. Meh. I have spoken with dragons. Walked the rooftops of Renaissance Italy. Shot down starships. Controlled gods. Call me un-Sri Lankan, but cricket doesn’t hold a candle to any of that.
Okay, to be fair, I’m not doing a good job of studying, either. I suppose I should study. I will study.
After this video, of course. Someone’s replicated Ancient Rome in Minecraft. Oh. My. God. And the guy doing the video is pretty good. He probably makes a lot more money than my parents ever will. There’s money in YouTube, if you know how to be a good gaming commentator. Millions of dollars. In Sri Lanka you could like a king off that kinda money.
Maybe I should ditch Maths, buy a mic, make my own videos. What if I make Colombo in Minecraft?
Scope called. He’s pulling out again. This time he tells me the real reason: his girlfriend doesn’t want him “going to the café.”
We’re back to square one. That worm. Him and his girlfriend. He actually thinks they’re going to marry someday. Pathetic. I call Oliv3r, get him online. Then the others. Russell has cousins over and can’t come online.
WaRaKa and Cat drop into the game and start going over the spots – where an enemy might emerge, where the smoke bombs should go, where the sniper is most likely to be hiding. Angles of fire, safe spots, wallbangs, glitches. Then they switch and pretend to be on the attacking side.
Again. And again. And again.
I fly around in spectator mode. Oliv3r has reflexes. Up front, he’s good. In a short-range firefight he’s about equal to us. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know the maps properly. You can’t get anywhere if you don’t know your map. Period.
We switch him to an SMG. Short-range it is. He and Cat will rush, moving with all speed with lethal bullet-spamming AK47-u’s. Russell and I have medium-range stopping power. WaRaKa plays the sniper, always. Sniping is a science of its own.
Cat’s Internet conks out and he has to go. Fine. I poke the head out a bit and say hello to Appachchi. Same questions – how was school, etc, etc, and I’m back in the room. I want to get back to the PC and he wants to get back to his news and cigarette. Social responsibility, done.
But I’ve had too much COD for the day. Anno 2070 it is. Anno 2070 is a citybuilder. Basically, you have a bird’s-eye view of the future, and you get to build cities – roads, infrastructure, industries, the whole nine yards – and balance it all perfectly. The depth is amazing. Especially given the premise – global warming has hit really bad, the coasts are flooded and you have to rebuild, mostly off a mobile sea base called the ark.
I’m in a tight spot.
My cities need coal for energy and I’m running out of coal. There’s a food shortage. My economy is heading to hell in a handbasket and my citizens are unhappy because they want more, more and more. I open up Chrome and start reading up on urban planning. This is going to take some thought…
Alright, the city’s stable. I’ve expanded two-fold and my economy’s still in a dwindle, but it’s not going to go crunch overnight. I’ve also found the work of a Greek mathematician called Nikos Salingaros who’s got a lot to say about urban planning and architectural design. Almost all of it is over my head. Someday I will read this stuff.
But not this day.
This day is dinner. I hate dinner. Dinner is red rice and late and always has beans. Ammi tries to ask me questions and I have to pretend to listen.
I have nothing to do, so I check Facebook. I wish I didn’t. Most of my Facebook friends are idiots who just share photos with a “hikz” or a “lolz” tacked on top. Twitter is depressing because I have exactly ten followers and all of them are trying to sell me SEO.
This is boring.
I fire up Steam and shuffle through all the games I can’t buy and couldn’t download even if I could buy. Russell comes online. He’s finally gotten rid of the cousins and wants to play some Dota2.
It’s late. And Ibba is apparently giving a mock exam tomorrow.
Ammi pokes her head into the room and tells me to brush my teeth and go sleep. Out of sheer annoyance I decide to stay up and have play some Dota2. I get the usual rant. Nobody listens to you, Ammi. I’ll go to sleep.
After one game, though.
Just one more game.
*Note: this article was assembled from interviews conducted with a number of people. Names and certain key circumstances have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.