The Life and Death of cK1-Laura

In the days before every game came with an account login, before ubiquitous voice chat, before social media, before matchmaking systems with stat tracking and MMR, a player’s identity was far more personal. Doubly so for the majority of players also working on forming a personal identity in their real life as they struggled through puberty and their teens. It was a strange time, and the story of cK1-Laura is emblematic of much of what made it so.

Fairly early in Quake 3’s life, a North American team (called “clan” at the time) reached a status as near to super-stardom as was possible before widespread eSports coverage. They were Clan Kapitol, and used the tag cK. I remember the first time I saw their play, which was a demo from the point of view of their break-out duelling player. In it, he waits patiently in the basement area of the map DM7, and when a trap door in the ceiling opens and the enemy team rushes in, he brashly charges with only his gauntlet drawn and manages to get the kills. That player was none other than Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, who went on to become the most well-known competitive gamer of the era. At his side was someone who would go on to become another big name, Paul “czm” Nelson. These guys were the real deal, and as dominant in their time as any storied sports franchise in its own heyday. Everyone who played Quake at all competitively knew about Clan Kapitol.

On weekends, I would go to net cafes downtown and spend all night playing with the friends I’d made in them. This started before Quake 3, so most of my formative experience was playing Quake 2 on LAN, with every other player being in the same room. We were young, we liked to talk trash. I lost every game. I had a good time.

Around the time of Quake 3’s release, the net cafes began to get internet connections. Expensive connections, too, so that they were the places to go for the best ping. I kept playing Quake, but most of my friends were increasingly interested in competitive play, which meant duelling. I hated duelling and never got very good at it. So I began to go online and play on my own, or with anyone around who had nothing else to do.

All the time spent being beaten down by much better players had tempered me, and it turned out that I wasn’t nearly as bad as my LAN record made it seem. Once I became as serious as someone like me could get, I solidified into a good player. Not amazing, but much better than average–I’m dealing with relative skill here, and even if I was in the 95th percentile, I’d learned at the feet of the 98th. But I could reliably top any scoreboard and carry pub teams, and that got me attention.

With cK a household name, one of my friends had a brilliant (we thought) idea. We could form our own joke clan. After some discussion, it was decided we would be cK1, cleverly (we thought) named after the Calvin Klein perfume. Not only that, but we were Clan Kapitol’s separate all-girls team. So we ended up with a roster that included players like cK1-Katherine, cK1-Jessica, and myself, who became cK1-Laura.

Keep in mind that this was a time of truer online anonymity. Soon, a very dedicated snooper could track Punkbuster IDs, and maybe IPs if they knew who ran the server, but since we were playing from different net cafes using different Quake 3 CD-keys,  that wasn’t a big concern. To most people, cK1-Laura was every bit as real as any other name I used.

We all have things about our past that we look back at in cringing horror. For me, some of Laura’s actions would qualify. She lived a brief life as an aggressive, outgoing personality, as a skilled player who liked to rub an opponent’s face in a death. And, yes, that Laura was a girl was a frequent part of that.

There were always rumours going around about women and girls playing online. I remember reading an intricate exposé in the early 2000s written by someone dead-set on exposing an alleged female Quake player as being a man. The player in question had been active for years, even leading a large public clan. But when communication is only through text, either on IRC or in the game itself, and nobody has a webcam or a microphone, well . . . let’s just say that “There are no girls on the internet” became a rule for online discourse for good reasons. My first ever competitive match (not as part of cK1) was against a West Coast clan calling themselves the Girlz of Destruction, and not for a moment did I believe that more than one of the players on the other team was a woman.

But cK1 was a joke. Not a very funny joke, but the point is that we weren’t serious, not in how we played, or how we acted. For me, it was a way to be someone other than myself. It wasn’t particularly important that cK1-Laura was a girl, outside of that making the endeavour inherently a bit silly. What mattered was that Laura was not me, not the me that had become the star player of my own clan, not the me who was teaching the founders of that clan how to play Quake, and definitely not the me who had to mediate the constant bickering that went on between clan members whenever I was at work or school. Laura was nothing more and nothing less than a casual Quake player with no relationships, no ties to other players, and no desire to interact with them outside of firing rockets and lightning beams.

Until she wasn’t.

cK1 originated as s a Rocket Arena clan. That was a simple mod for Quake 3 that, while enormously popular, was seen as casual and non-competitive by most. The mod I played competitively was Threewave, and it centred around capture the flag games. Although its most popular game type, called Capturestrike, was essentially Rocket Arena with flags added, the mod itself had many mechanical and technical improvements that made it difficult to go back to the relatively primitive CVARs and features of Rocket Arena. So cK1-Laura eventually made the transition to Threewave as well.

She first appeared on UK servers, where I would only play once the East Coast servers dried up. That meant it was 4am and I had 130 ping. But nobody knew me, and that was enough.

It might seem strange now, but an era without permanent accounts and friends lists was no less personalized than what we have now. Anyone could change their name at any time, but that doesn’t mean they did. If a player wanted to make a name for themselves, then that name had to be consistent. They might use a random alias while warming up, but once they thought they’d hit their stride that real nick came out, even if only for the final moments of a match. UnnamedPlayer hitting all those mid-air rockets does nothing for anyone. Good players established a reputation by being seen. And even many who did use aliases consistently had ways of tipping off their peers. One of my friends would always use two-word nicks, and incorporate bold blue letters into them at regular intervals. It was obvious to everyone who knew him when he was on a server, and he would switch to his real nick once called out. It didn’t have to be that esoteric, either. Some players used the same aliases so often that those nicks became as recognizable as their full clan tags. Not using any official tags was just a way of showing that a pub game wasn’t serious, or that they were looking for a new clan.

Others never used aliases, though they would change their clan tags depending on the situation. And some even switched to aliases if they were having a bad night, or wanted to good around. But, for the most part each player hung their reputation on a single nick, one that became their in-game identity, and played the majority of their games using it.

Impersonations were also common enough to be an issue, depending on how well known a player was. I experienced it myself, though rarely. I’d connect to one of my regular servers and have people tell me about some match we’d played together that I had no memory of and that happened on a day where I wasn’t even playing Quake.

For these reasons, many people became keen observers of others. When a mystery player would not reveal themselves, speculation on who it might be, based on play style, weapon preference, movement, and general behaviour became a hot topic. You’d be surprised how accurate some guesses could be. And how necessary it was. Someone could call out a player pretending to be someone else, and possibly save their friend some embarrassment.

But cK1-Laura was more than an alias, which was the problem. It’s not as if I didn’t use aliases anyway. When I did, I had to keep quiet, which went against my natural inclination to fill the screen with chat between rounds. Laura, on the other hand, was part of a design project. She had her own config file, separate from my own, and she had her own chat binds. She didn’t have to stay silent, either. She was free to chat up a storm, and she did.

By the time cK1-Laura was playing on my regular servers, I was already using more aliases as a response to the increased stress I was under in my competitive play. There were days when I didn’t want to be the player who had all that baggage. And I might be playing with a real-life friend who wasn’t a regular Threewave player, and maybe I wanted to mess around without anyone looking at me sideways.

I suppose it should have been obvious, and it really does seem so now, but Laura, who had no overriding personality traits of her own, ended up being a lot like me. Aside from the whole being a girl thing–which, being honest, didn’t amount to much after a while. It wasn’t too long before the same players who I’d been friends with as myself were courting Laura’s friendship as well. She was a good player, after all, and not elitist, and, like I said, she liked to talk. Soon, she was getting recruitment offers, because it was always clear that cK1 was not a Threewave clan, and there’s no conflict in playing for a different clan in a completely different mod, especially when one of those clans was an all-girl team that never played real matches.

One player in particular, who will remain anonymous, was all over Laura. He was someone I’d befriended soon after starting with Threewave, and who had been in my main clan early on, but who was also constantly clashing with its leaders, until the day he decided to quit and form one of his own. I couldn’t make that switch, even when he asked, and he understood the reasons. I might not have been a founder, but I was there from the beginning–the first player to join, I’m pretty sure, after seeing a random forum post–had played in (and won) our first matches, and had taught the co-founders how to play Quake, bringing them up from not knowing what each weapon did to the point where they could hold their own in both scrims and real games. I couldn’t join this guy’s team, but maybe Laura could. And she almost did.

Laura’s fatal flaw was that she was outgoing. As Laura was more than a mere alias, she offered opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise. An alias is nobody and anybody all at once, because it’s covering for someone. It’s putting up a wall, and it works both ways. People were a little more careful about what they said if they suspected they might know who was behind the mask. Laura, as a distinct entity in the online world, didn’t have that problem.

I’d typically start playing in the early evenings and then keep going for as long as I could. I saw the East Coast players off to bed, made my rounds with the UK players as well, and had breakfast in time for the East Coast players to be waking up and starting their first games. That’s when Laura began insinuating herself into my routine. After getting one too many questions about whether I’d slept at all last night, it was Laura that played that bleary-eyed morning Quake.

The effects of 24 hours without sleep are about equal to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10, or so I’ve heard, which is over the legal limit for driving. I don’t drink much these days–can’t stand the taste of alcohol–and didn’t drink at all back when I was playing Quake 3 competitively. But I was no stranger to staying up all night, and have plenty of experience with its effects. I’ve made my dumbest online posts with the momentum of an all-nighter, right before the crash into my bed. As someone who normally avoids saying anything at all, I’m keenly aware of that little voice in my head that gets louder the next morning, the voice that keeps telling me to go for it, no matter how stupid what I’m about to say or do might be.

Through a series of mounting lies, I fleshed out Laura’s online presence. She couldn’t appear out of the ether without someone asking questions, and I wanted those questions to be anything but, “Who is cK1-Laura an alias for?” Laura had answers for the frequent conversation started that popped up in a public game. She gained an age, a home city, and a history of playing Quake 3 in other mods before moving to Threewave. I tried to keep it as consistent as my sleep-addled brain could manage, and it appeared to be going well enough for a while.

Over time, I became bolder. I was already predisposed to going too far, thanks to my sleep deprivation, and my brain started to ask questions like, “If you had the chance to walk into a room full of your friends as someone else, to sit in on their conversations and ask them questions, would you do it?

I was curious, and on my bad days I could be slightly on the annoying side of the humblebraggart. I was certainly not above calling luck for a genuinely good shot I’d made, or complaining about the one time I missed a jump that most players couldn’t do in the first place. Yes, cK1-Laura did mention my real nickname at least once in the hopes of getting some unfiltered compliments. It happened. I’m not proud of it, but I’m at least at a point where I wouldn’t deny it.

I remember an episode in which one of the founders of my Threewave clan met Laura, after I hadn’t seen him as myself for a while. He was a trucker, and sometimes spent weeks away. I was so tempted to say something, to switch my name so we could catch up. If Laura took an unusual interest in him that game, and managed a chat with him as a stranger, then it was the best I could make of the situation, and it was still rather suspicious.

But I still managed to make it worse.

My former clan-mate had noticed Laura along with a few other people who were recruiting. It would be weird if I turned them all down, or so I thought. Besides, I’d been in the same clan since I’d started playing Threewave, and was accepted by default when I responded to the forum post. The founders were so new to Quake that they couldn’t have held proper tryouts if they’d wanted, or known how. A lot had changed between then and the time Laura appeared. I had dragged us through at least one invitational tournament, as well as the automated ranking battle websites and plenty of scrims. I was the most well-known player in the clan, and if I’d decided to quit–which I didn’t want to do–in order to take a show at some other clan, I didn’t think I’d be getting that honest new-player evaluation that I wanted.

I also felt like I was losing my touch, or the little competitive drive I might have started with. Why not take the chance to see if I could make the cut without my reputation preceding me?

So there I was, logging out of IRC in a cold sweat on a Saturday afternoon before switching the CD-Key for my copy of Quake 3, and then reconnecting and attempting to interact with my friends as a completely different person.

I was just paranoid enough to take those basic precautions. Maybe he didn’t know, and maybe he never suspected, but despite the steps I took to cover my tracks, I realized Laura had stepped over a line. I was in a running chat with a friend, and I was leading him on about becoming a core member of his new clan. I have vague memories of an actual tryout game, and of acing it, even without any sleep. I typed some noncommittal on IRC afterwards, then went home to bed.

The clear light of the next day came with the full realization of what I’d done, and I decided that it was time to put Laura to rest. I went back to my normal aliases, and only used her again when I played Rocket Arena, which was almost never.

If anyone wondered what ever happened to Laura, it never got back to me. Maybe that’s for the best. That’s a conversation I never wanted to have, and as the months passed and Laura faded from memory, I figured I’d dodged a bullet and should be grateful. I did end up ringing for my friend’s new clan, and using another alias–one that he knew about–for that. It was only for some scrims, and I still felt guilty. After that, I made up my own joke clans, ones that didn’t involve pretending to be someone else, but that still satisfied my desires to have both an alias and a cool clan tag.

And the whole being a girl thing? It never amounted to much. On the UK servers, where players were more polite, I sometimes received comments or compliments about being a surprisingly good player, for a girl. If I actually was one. It’s not as if I was using it for anything other then taunts–the “You were killed by a girl” thing when I was feeling ostentatious. A public Quake server is not the place you go about propositioning someone, so that never happened. Except for this one guy, but he thought that my regular nick was a girl as well, and I had this compulsion to screw with him. I’m pretty sure he messaged me a phone number once. That was another sign that Laura should exit stage left.

Playing with girls wasn’t much of a novelty for me, either. There was a player in Montreal who I knew was a woman. Most people did. It was interesting for about half a second, and that was that. She was an alright player, too. Not amazing, but still good enough to stand out in her own right. Laura was more overt about her sex as well, as this woman never used the “I’m a girl, by the way,” angle. The most she’d offer was a correction if someone referred to her as male. And, yes, I talked trash to her just like everyone else, but all that was about her being French (Half my family is French-Canadian, so I know how to do that.). I like to keep my insults interesting for both parties.

I live a life of isolated personas. Who I am with my boss is a different person than the one who interacts with my family, and both of those are vastly different from the version of me that hangs out with my friends. It’s not quite an identity crisis, it’s more of an identity situation, a result of growing in and out of social groups, of having to embody sometimes contradictory traits to blend in. I spent my childhood in a strict religious household, with much of my free time put toward activities with others like me.

Yet, I was always wary. For many reasons, I did not make friends with the kids with whom I should have had the most in common. I thought they were weird, and they likely thought the same of me. From an early age, I wasn’t that interested in the religious things like they were, not in my heart. My attraction to video games only deepened that divide. I remember being pulled out of an arcade once, while in my early teens, by an adult church member, and receiving a severe berating. I’d been wearing a jacket with one of our religious symbols on the back, and the mere association of that with such a den of scum and villainy was enough to get me into trouble. Once the man doing the berating was gone, I walked right back into the arcade. In there, I was someone I’d rather be.

The difference in my transition from playing LAN Quake with real life friends to going online and dropping into servers full of complete strangers was stark. While searching for my place in the loose hierarchy of public players, I adapted a new persona. I was no longer the goofy guy who played for 2nd or 3rd place, who didn’t have any weapons bound, who professed hate for the lightning gun, who even played in 3rd person, without a crosshair, until that became cheat protected. The very idea that I could, and did, win games, that my play impressed other people, altered how I acted. Within days, I had all my weapons bound, and within a week I was a notorious lightning gun user–I’d only disliked it because it’s a top-tier weapon, and everyone I used to play with was much better with it than I was.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t myself, but it was another version of me. Even the nick I used when I played Threewave was completely different than the one I’d been using since I started playing Quake way back when. Another reaction to changing groups–my real-life friends didn’t know that I was playing Threewave competitively, and wouldn’t recognize my new nick if they happened upon it. Perhaps it was the sort of lie by omission that still leads to dishonesty, though. Validation can be addictive. When everyone has said what they had to say about me, could I get similar reactions as a different person?

If Laura has any legacy at all, it’s that she taught me to play a character, and that I could have fun just by doing that. Because I’m not a competitive person, so the fun is what matters. When I played in fighting game tournaments, I was the one who talked the most trash, and went to the weirdest places with it. I turned myself in the equivalent of a WWE wrestler, and often yelled myself hoarse. I said things to my opponents that I would never say to anyone else under any other circumstances. Nothing was off limits, not race, religion, politics, or hair colour. Once, when I was in Philadelphia for a major tournament, a black player did a double-take at some incredibly racist remark, laughed, and told me he wouldn’t have believed I said that sort of thing without hearing it for himself. My saving grace is that I’m good at reading people and crowds, when I care to, and knew when to hold back and when go all-in. I might have confused him at first, but his son held on to my stuffed bear all weekend, and on the morning after the tournament, while we were waiting to get our ride to the bus station, he brought us a makeshift breakfast of fried chicken, hot sauce, and watermelon. At that point he was just baiting me. And for all the trash I talked, for all my posturing, I rarely won a match, let alone an entire tournament. I was never near the same level of player in fighting games as I was in Threewave, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying myself.

Someone I knew told me that when we first started playing DotA 2 together she hated me, thought I was incredibly rude, and her boyfriend complained that I was an asshole. Another player got so mad at me during a game that he added me to his friends list just so he could have an argument, call me names, and then remove me. I have been friends with all three of them for years now. Once they got to know a more real version of me, I suppose they found that agreeable enough. Also, I carried them in a lot of games, which does a lot for frayed nerves.

My time pretending to be a girl online is not much more than one of the things I did, and by the standards of the people I knew, it was tame. Did I ever tell you about the guy who spent a couple of weeks at one of the net cafes, constantly popping caffeine pills while he hung out in chat rooms? He arrived wearing a nice shirt and tie, and left a nervous, twitching wreck. But at least he got out. Not everyone did.

I gave playing competitively a shot, and I did have fun. It also brought me to a mental and emotional state where I couldn’t play FPS without uncontrollably shedding tears from my left eye. That was as real as I ever was. I don’t regret any of it, and I would do it over in a heartbeat, but it was a lot of work to push myself like that.

cK1, which started as a stupid joke, was ultimately another piece of the puzzle. It’s a clan that had no leadership, no training schedule, and not a single official match. But sometimes, when I was having a particularly bad day, it was nice to go online and become someone who only existed to have fun.

 

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