THE AUTHOR OF THE WORLD'S most popular game mod was born in Saigon, toward the end of the American-Vietnam war. Minh Le, a self-proclaimed "big gun fan," stretched exuberant realism over the mechanics of the modern first-person shooter to make Counter-Strike, a mod of the award-winning game Half-Life.
Most first-person shooter games feature flashy techno battles in futuristic arenas with impossibly pyrotechnical weapons and resurrection ("respawning") after death. Counter-Strike strips away the fantasy from first person shooters. In place of rocket-launchers and "BioSludge" goop guns you'll find AK-47s and Heckler & Koch UMP45s. You aren't fighting in space, you're fighting in an apartment building, or in downtown Las Vegas. That shift has proved to be tremendously popular among the gaming community. While Counter-Strike has been published as a stand-alone product for sale in stores, true to its roots, you can still download Counter-Strike free online.
Playing a game of Counter-Strike is playing through a CNN fantasy. You are the GIGN, a French national anti-terrorist squad, boarding a plane to liberate hostages. Ahead of you is your team; dark suited men with machine guns creep around a corner into a hail of terrorist bullets. Should you rush ahead and battle an enemy you know is there, wait for them to come to you, or move around outside to flank them?
Games rotate through twenty- or thirty-minute sessions on a single map. For the time the teams are on that map, they have up to five minutes to complete their objectives. So you may end up guarding a guy trying to plant a bomb six or more times in a single session -- it's a good way to practice and focus your Counter-Strike skills. Players refine strategy to avoid loss or they suffer the boredom of dying quickly and waiting for the next round to start.
Death comes quick, and when you die, you stay dead, unlike many first-person shooters. Still, you can sail about as a sort of ghost, watching the living players try to finish that round. And you can chat. As grim as Counter-Strike may be, with its violent real-world aesthetics, the player banter makes C-S an ultimately social experience. Players laugh when people make mistakes, point out good skills, ask questions about weapons, and figure out which of their friends or acquaintances is playing along with them. (If this all sounds like a picturesque virtual community, remember that most C-S players are teenage boys, and strategy discussions must be translated from "Check out that fag camping in the manhole," or "Heh heh -- how did you like that headshot?")
Confronted by Counter-Strike's reality-based tableaux, ordinary online gaming hotshots make the first corpses. Cautious snipers and players who travel in packs rule the crowded Counter-Strike servers -- the most popular first-person-shooter servers online. Counter-Strike sneers at the boyish fantasies of playing a hyperactive cyber-Marine and wraps its hands around guns we've seen on the news. It's a pure shooter with a Pop Culture eye -- a mix of gun-lust, constrained game play and first-world counter-terrorist Cliff's Notes. Counter-Strike exists only in the world prepared for it by the war in Vietnam and COPS, where game-players grew up seeing footage of real men with real guns storming into houses and buildings and fields. Television made that veracity attractive. Minh Le made it interactive.
Justin Hall , future TV talk show host, is a web maven and personal publisher, based in Oakland California. He's currently recovering from eighteen months living and working as a member of a predominantly male tribe of young North American gamers.
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