The cocktail party effect is an interesting phenomenon, as are most ways in which the human brain processes stimulus. Just as interesting is the way certain events crystallize in memory, so that even if one can’t place dates or even bracketing events to give context, something will remain. One of the first times I distinctly connected the idea of hearing a name despite my attention being elsewhere with something in my own memory–and that it was a memory is important, because obviously I hear things all the time that draw my attention, but I don’t remember them–was an afternoon years and years ago when I heard two kids I had never seen before namedrop Diablo Dave.
I was standing in line at some software retailer at the time, earbuds deployed, and listening to music while I made vague attempts to find a replacement copy of Tales of Symphonia on the used shelf they’d placed dropped into the middle of the store so that the line to the cashier had to snake around it. As I said, I can’t place the date, but as far as I can remember the only thing I ever bought from that store was a used copy of the King of Fighters 2000/2001 bundle, so I was either picking it up for the first time or trying to bring it back because one of the disks didn’t fucking work (Very kind of them to sell me a game that didn’t work and then declare that they couldn’t replace it because apparently it was the only copy in the city. And, by the way, no refunds.). So it was probably 2001, because I remember sitting through 8 minutes of scratchy loading screens just so that I could do Yuri’s Raging Demon. (And I’ll add that the only thing that made Igniz–yeah, that boss that had a full screen super that took no meter and would regularly use infinite combos–more enjoyable was having to wait 10 minutes between each fight with him.)
“Have you heard of this guy Diablo Dave?” asks the kid on the left.
“No, who’s that?” asks his friend.
So I quickly paused my music–everyone who uses earbuds knows that their greatest advantage over headphones is that the sound doesn’t spill, so it’s much easier to discretely eavesdrop on conversations (or maybe I’m just an asshole)–and focused in on what they were saying. It didn’t amount to much, and it definitely wasn’t anything new–something about how he got his name by playing Diablo 2 for a week straight without moving from his chair except for bathroom breaks–but it was one of those moments where I got an outsider look at something I’d been taking for granted. That’s almost always fascinating, and it did make me reevaluate some things. That Diablo Dave had become famous (more likely infamous) enough to be known, and discussed, by people that I had never seen before, and who shouldn’t have a reason to associate with him, made it clear that his weirdness had definitely made an impact.
Diablo Dave as I knew him was a large Spanish fellow–and I mention his ethnicity only because he was so vociferous about declaring it himself–who, surprisingly, played a hell of a lot of Diablo 2. We called him Diablo Dave to distinguish him from other Daves, like Skinhead Dave, which makes strangers calling him that even odder. Though I guess calling him “This guy Dave who plays a lot of Diablo,” isn’t as catchy. As far as I can remember, the first time I met him was at one of the city’s original LAN centres, a PC software retailer named, appropriately, Software Exchange, which had installed a bunch of PCs in the back room. As years went on and the LAN part of the store started to bring in more and more money, with the software part of the store gradually giving way, the owner decided to expand laterally and got himself a TV and a Sega Dreamcast, on which I first learned that I was too lazy to not hate Virtua Fighter 3: Team Battle while my friend, who was actually good at the game, took his pleasure in putting the boots to me. Diablo Dave came in to play Resident Evil: Code Veronica, so obviously this was before Diablo 2 was even a game. I saw him there, but we didn’t have much to talk about. I was busy playing Quake, Starcraft, and Rogue Spear, so having someone take up time on the Dreamcast was usually an excuse to put off playing more Virtua Fighter.
By the time Diablo 2 had been released, the LAN business had hit full stride, so the owner closed down the software section and expanded again by buying up a larger space down the street. Of course, he kept the name Software Exchange even though no software was being sold, and in fact most of his machines ran pirated or cloned games, which is a pretty good encapsulation of PC software sales at the time. When we heard Software Exchange had acquired some bootleg copies of Diablo 2 days before the official release date, me and a couple friends showed up and marathoned the entire game together. This was back before the ubiquity of the internet made cookie-cutter builds the norm, so when the 3 of us finally got to Diablo and realized that none of my Necromancer skeletons could hurt him, and their Barbarian and Amazon were both underequipped and totally clueless, we bit the bullet and spent the better part of an hour pummelling him, dying, buying potions, running to waypoints, and laughing our asses off at the futility of it all until we finally brought him down. It was a good time, and one of my fonder gaming memories.
I noticed Diablo Dave again as a frequent prop at various net cafes I would visit. This was during the boom and bust of the business, with two new ones popping up every time one closed shop. Less scrupulous players would often take advantage of the desperate need these places had for bodies in their stores by working up tabs, only to disappear for good, or at least till the place closed down and reopened under new management. I knew plenty of regulars at various net cafes, and there was an alarmingly high amount of them that seemed to occupy a cross-section of addictive personalities and people who have way too much time on their hands (not always by choice). It wasn’t at all uncommon for some people to spend days at a time at a net cafe, and many of them became traps for all kinds of oddballs and ne’er-do-wells. They were everything the police used to warn us about arcades being, except arcades closed up shop after midnight and didn’t have runaways sleeping in them.
With Diablo 2’s full release, Diablo Dave was settling into his role. He was a goofy guy with a thick Spanish accent who played nothing but Diablo, ate mostly McDonald’s french fries, and liked to take his shoes off so that everyone got a nice whiff of his socks in the middle of the night. He liked to park himself in the darkest corner of a net cafe, a spot from where he could keep track of everyone else there. From this spot would frequently come half-coherent exclamations of hate toward whatever particular Diablo 2 monster or boss was giving him trouble. “Little bastards!” he would shout as he slaughtered crowds of Fallen One imps, and he had some particularly nasty phrases set aside for his frequent encounters with Hephasto before that boss was nerfed. Although Diablo Dave was mostly subdued or, at most, slightly jovial when I saw him, I heard stories about some sort of temper lurking beneath the surface. On one occasion, a much younger regular was taunting Diablo Dave from across the room, and eventually threw a half-full can of Coke at him. Diablo Dave’s response was to stand up, cross the room, spin the kid’s chair around, and slap him across the face with an open hand. An overzealous response, but Diablo Dave was not one for half measures.
Diablo Dave was the type of person who got fixated on things, and possibly had some form of OCD (His dozens of mule characters stockpiled with every little piece of junk he’d ever found while playing Diablo 2, whether it was worth anything or not, attested to that.). Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to offset this trait with any sort of good judgment. It was amusing at the time, as he would regale me with tales of his latest Diablo 2 adventures, often involving some ridiculous build he was attempting, or how he’d been ripped off in an item trade. Like the time someone mentioned in passing that it was a good idea for a Sorceress to have decent defence stats, and Diablo Dave’s response was to set about constructing a Sorceress with max block, the heaviest armour, and enough strength and dexterity to get there. Of course it meant that his Sorceress did no damage–the only thing they were supposed to do–and was about as inefficient as it was possible for a Sorceress to be, but it didn’t really matter, because Diablo Dave played Diablo 2 16 hours a day (two more hours taken up watching movies, anime, and eating, and the rest passed out in a chair) and could afford to waste time.
“Where’s your brother?” Diablo Dave would yell at me whenever I saw him, as my brother also spent a lot of time at net cafes, and was one of the foremost net cafe con artists in operation in the city. He was especially adept at finding new businesses and tricking them into sponsoring him as a Quake player with free playing time, or just running up quick tabs and then disappearing. Which was the reason Diablo Dave didn’t see him anymore. My brother was careful not to go back to places that he owed money to, while Diablo Dave didn’t move from his spot once he’d found it, unless he needed more fries. And even then he preferred to have someone else do the run for him.
What set Diablo Dave apart from all the other net cafe rats was his utter lack of regard for anything approaching upward mobility. It’s not as if he was the only one who pretty much lived in a net cafe, but most of the others were both a lot younger then him, and at least tried to turn their lack of ambition into a positive, usually seeking some sort of employment with the places they were attempting to live in, even if it was just doing janitorial work in exchange for free playing time. At the time, I didn’t question anything, because at the time I wasn’t interested in questioning things. Diablo Dave was one of the more cheerful people I had to deal with whenever I went to a net cafe, always ready to complain about something I didn’t have to care about, and frequently barking out laughter at something I or a friend would say. That made it easy to overlook what was actually going on.
As I started to spend less and less time at net cafes, Diablo Dave started to stand out more and more. Unlike most of the other distinct personalities I ran into over those years, who mostly either moved on with their lives, or disappeared from mine, Diablo Dave was always still there, still in his corner, still playing his games. Looking back, and even at the time, it was obvious that he wasn’t a normal person, but it’s frighteningly easy to become acclimated for even the strangest personalities and circumstances when so much time is spent in close proximity with them. I should add that the factor that really set Diablo Dave apart from the rest was his age. Typically, the other net cafe rats of the time ranged in age from mid teens to early twenties, while Diablo Dave was at least twice that when he started, and years of living rough in net cafes had not done him any favours. While spending 20 hours a day playing video games at some seedy establishment downtown could charitably be passed off as a rebellious phase for a kid who didn’t know any better, Diablo Dave should have gone through those phases decades ago.
But I was not the type to press people for personal details. I went to net cafes to escape that sort of thing. I still heard things, though, and Diablo Dave himself would occasionally drop details of his past life into conversations. One of the last times I ever saw him, a short while before his current haunt, and one of the last downtown net cafes still in business, was about to close its doors, I actually brought along a recording device and tried to have him talk about his life and what he thought about it. Of course, now that I finally need them, all the notes from that encounter are gone, so I’m mostly relying on memory here.
Before video games, Diablo Dave was a regular family man. He was married, had kids, and held down a job. At some point, his growing dissatisfaction with the course his life was taking slammed into his escapism of choice. The times I’d seen him playing Resident Evil were not the gateway, but they were an indication of something greater. Sometime between then and shortly after the release of Diablo 2, he decided that enough was enough, and he quit his life. He left his marriage, his kids, and his job, and dedicated himself to doing anything but real life. I don’t remember being around for it, but I’d heard there was some sort of sporadic contact with his family for a while after he left them. I never heard him say anything particularly kind about anything in his pre-Diablo life, but he must have had feelings for something else at some point. The most he ever did was express vague antipathy toward what he considered normal routine, if not always the people that framed it. They were things that disgusted and annoyed him, and he seemed to think he was better off–or at least happier–without them. “I’m a gamer,” he once said, “and a gamer plays games.”
I have to assume there was more to it than that. Not to be entirely flippant about it, but Code Veronica wasn’t even that good, and before Lord of Destruction came out, Diablo 2 wasn’t worth leaving a family for. I imagine that things were bad enough for him that any number of escapist addictions could have triggered such an extreme response–and it doesn’t get much more extreme than total rejection of conventional society. Perhaps the problem was that the addiction he did choose was one that, at the time, nobody cared much about. Parents complained enough that authorities asked net cafes to keep school-aged children out during school hours, just like they did with arcades, but beyond that people could disappear into net cafes. They were the newest holes in the fabric of society, and nobody had seemed to even notice them, let alone have a way to patch them.
I doubt I’ll ever understand what really made Diablo Dave tick, because I doubt I’ll ever see him again. Most net cafes of the time have long since packed up shop, and the ones that still do business are mostly around because they were careful to not be the cracks that people fell through. Through a combination of higher hourly rates, actual lighting, and not letting people sleep in their chairs, they kept themselves cleaner, and attracted customers that actually had places they wanted to go when they left. It’s not as if I’m likely to run into him on the street, at least not the Diablo Dave that I knew. I have no ending for his story, happy or otherwise. Just as he must have cared for people at some point, there were also people who cared for him, and I want to believe that when he finally ran out of places to hide, he got help. I heard that at least once his wife came to a net cafe to beg him to come home to his family.
I have no negative message about video games as a conclusion. An addiction is an addiction, and from what I’ve seen, a person who needs an escape will take it where they can get it. It’s true that video games are increasingly designed to encourage addictive behaviour, and that doing anything to excess is unhealthy, but most mature human beings are able to regulate their lives in a reasonable manor. I’ve also felt the hours being sucked away, seemingly by magic, and there were times in my life when I hit the same low points that everyone does, but for whatever reason, I always drew the line at where I slept. Sure, I’d spend 50 hours piddling away my life at a net cafe with friends, but I could never sleep there. I don’t blame Diablo for Diablo Dave, and though I’m a fan of cliches, I don’t blame society, either. Some people are just different. Some people will always be different.