In a dimly lit room, hundreds of gamers gathered at the GEEX Show on Thursday to watch and play some of the industry's "latest and greatest" in video-game entertainment.
They were college students with pierced eyebrows and tattoos. There were gray-haired business executives in polo shirts. And then there were the stereotypical gamers: young men in baggy jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with smart-aleck slogans.
Games such as "Guitar Hero" and "Fight Night Round Three" were projected onto massive video screens as players waited and watched in line.
"For me gaming is something that transcends religion, politics and even one's own environment," said Chris Kahl, a 40-something Kearns resident who is a self-described lifelong gamer. "I've met and played with gamers from foreign nations like Japan and Syria, and as long as they can speak English, we can connect and have fun together."
The physical limitations that time and space can impose on friendships and personal interactions don't apply to gamers linked to the Web. Those friends are just a click away. Yet for most gamers, it's still nice to get together and share one another's company in person on occasion.
For Kahl, the GEEX expo at the Salt Palace Convention Center this week is an opportunity to play games and compete for prizes, as well as a chance for gamers to gather and socialize.
Gamers often have parties online to play games through local area networks. The lines between virtual and actual reality blur so that they are difficult to distinguish. Yet at both the online gatherings and the expo Thursday, players unite in their love for games and fun.
"I look at this and see a lot of people I can immediately relate to," said Matthew Richardson, a Salt Lake County resident. "Age isn't an issue here. Everyone is familiar and nice."
Richardson, who is 18, and Kahl met at the expo and joined as a team in the computer game "Team Fortress Two." While they are still learning each other's technique and playing style, they were able to talk and laugh like old pals.
Today, both men will be competing in the "Team Fortress Two" tournament for a chance to win prizes and fame in Utah's gaming community.
Alex Wguyen, an E Sports broadcaster, was invited to attend the conference to chronicle the tournament. Like broadcasters at basketball or football games, he calls the plays that the teams use and describes the action for the viewing public online. Expo attendees also can watch the game playing and hear his comments live, projected onto two big screens in the back of the room.
As gaming consoles like the Wii introduce more people to the world of online and console gaming, Wguyen expects North America will embrace the sport with the enthusiasm that Asian countries have. In Korea and Japan, tournaments are broadcast on television, and gamers are treated and respected like professional athletes are in the United States, Wguyen said.
Video games have become more like competitive sports, he said. "It's not just playing a game anymore."
Playing the games also has become a way for people to expand their social networks. The game "World of War Craft" has more than 10,000,000 subscribers in the United States, said John Sloan, a vice president for MediaOne of Utah, the show's organizer. MediaOne handles advertising, production and circulation for the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune.
"I don't play card games like poker, but I'll throw a LAN party," Sloan said. "You build lasting relationships with people because you're participating in games together. Massive multiplayer online role-playing games have a social aspect that is driving their success."
The GEEX Show, which continues through Saturday, has a marketplace where people can buy items such as video games and computer accessories. The expo also has more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space for video games, cell phones, TVs, home-theater equipment and other electronics.
Scheduled speakers today include Shane Smit, who works for Fall Line Studio and Disney Interactive Studios and who will talk about how to become a game developer.Tickets for the show cost $10 for a one-day pass for the general public, and students can attend one day for $5. For more information and a schedule of events visit geexshow.com.