I'll take care of your kids!

For troubled 'tweens, forget the parents: Nothing beats the hip techie uncle with the PC room

Dwarfed behind the computer monitor at station 37, 12-year-old Mitchell Swift barks out commands to his fellow Counter-Strike players like a Gulf War II commander trash-talking his troops.

"No camping, bitch!" he yells at the screen to the character represented by his older brother Josh's friend Jesse, who's sitting just three stations to his left. With a circle of his mouse, Mitchell's on-screen alter ego waves a Sig 550 sniper rifle at Jesse's camouflaged counterterrorist, cowering behind a crate in an abandoned village. "Josh, turn on friendly fire so I can just blow his ass away myself!"

"God, why did you bring Mitchell?" Jesse grumbles to Josh, navigating his character out into an open area under a bridge -- where both he and Mitchell are immediately ambushed by the other team. On the opposite side of the room, three 15-year-old boys exchange high-fives and clank their Red Bull cans together in a victory toast as the game's computer-generated narrator announces, "Terrorists win."

The Front's owners left the interior design up to their three sons -- and it shows.
Emily Piraino
The Front's owners left the interior design up to their three sons -- and it shows.

Mitchell tosses his small frame back in his chair and lets loose with a string of expletives that, coming from the kid's high-pitched, pre-adenoidal vocal cords, sound a little like Scarface as done by SpongeBob.

"Hey, you kiss your mother with that mouth?" asks Il Baek, owner of NetArena, the west Phoenix PC room where Mitchell, Josh and Jesse have been occupying their weekends for the past seven months.

"Shit! That reminds me!" Mitchell says, grabbing the cell phone out of his brother's shirt pocket. Suddenly Scarface is a younger Ferris Bueller. "Mom?" he asks sweetly. "Josh and me were wondering if we could stay through the night. They got an all-weekend pass for $25, and that would really be a good deal, especially since we've already been here four hours. Please? No, don't worry -- I think they're getting pizza delivered here as part of the deal."

Baek just smiles and shakes his head, stepping outside for a breath of fresh air -- a necessity working long hours around the dim black lights and cathode ray glow of the PC room. "That's the toughest game in here," Baek jokes, a wide grin stretching across his full, round face. "Talking mom into letting you stay a few more hours."

Scolding foul-mouthed seventh graders isn't exactly what Baek had in mind two and a half years ago when he quit his IT job and came to work for a custom computer manufacturer called 201 PC, eventually persuading the company to launch its own game room using the high-end computers they were selling. In his native South Korea, such "PC baangs," as they're known there, have been a Starbucks-like phenomenon for the past seven years -- 26,000 of them at last count. In West Coast cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, broadband gaming has already erupted into a full-fledged teen culture where battling teams -- or "clans" -- duel to the digital death in round-the-clock, amp-fueled frag-fests that occasionally spill over into real-life brawls.

But in Phoenix, at least so far, the scene has been drawing a somewhat younger, less group-affiliated crowd. Here, parents don't worry about their kids hanging out in PC rooms, like many now do in L.A. In fact, many of the soccer moms who drop off their kids and their friends "by the carload," in the words of one Tempe PC room owner, often act as if they've discovered the perfect antidote to the stress of raising demanding young males. It's the parenting tip Family Circle won't tell you: The PC room is the perfect dumping ground for computer-hogging preteen boys.

"I don't mind being used for that," Baek shrugs good-naturedly. "I mean, what other place will baby-sit your kid for $3 an hour? And they don't whine. All you have to do is give them the day pass, which allows them to stay all day, and just give them enough money for a meal, and they're happy. They won't complain."

Parents don't complain, either. Many arrive in full evening attire to drop off their hooligans, knowing they're buying some serious private time by parking the kid behind a computer with all the latest games. Parents depositing their young Warcraft addict for an all-night binge at the cyber cafe don't ask about child-care references or look for CPR training certifications. Instead, they let the kid ask the relevant questions: "Do you have P4 processors? GeForce FX or ATI Radeon 9800 video cards? DSL, T1 or T3?" If the young cyber-athlete flashes the thumbs up sign, mom's Saturday night date is on.

"We make sure their parents are okay with it," Baek assures. "Like, the kid we just saw in there? His mom knows he comes here all the time. She drops him off. And when we have LAN [Local Area Network] parties over the weekend, she actually calls to let us know, I'm gonna leave my son here over the weekend. Please watch him. I'll pick him up in the morning.'"

Inside, Mitchell apparently has just won another battle with mom. "Yes!" he shouts victoriously, shoving the cell phone back into Josh's shirt pocket. "We're in!"

On the linked computer monitors, Mitchell's masked Seal Team 6 player trains the barrel of his Sig 550 on an unsuspecting German GSG9 soldier as he punches down on his computer's mouse, unleashing a deadly 30-round stream of slugs into his enemy. "Take that, bee-yatch!" he cackles.

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