I'll take care of your kids!
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."
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.
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Sun
TicketsFri., Sep. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Rising Football Club vs. Seattle Sounders 2
TicketsSat., Sep. 2, 7:30pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
Phoenix Mercury vs. Atlanta Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
Phoenix Rising Football Club
TicketsWed., Sep. 6, 7:30pm
"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.
The PC room is the skater park of the pocket-protector clique, a true revenge of the nerds. Pulsing with the sound of digital gunfire and relentless techno music, and cast in the neon hues of glowing monitors and eerie black light, the PC room looks like a junior high computer lab as redesigned by MTV. This is not your mother's Internet cafe. This is what Vans would look like if only the computer geeks could beat up the skater boys.
Even the sodas the young gamers drink are an extreme version of the refreshments they sip while typing up their homework on the family Dell. One of the most popular drinks is a highly caffeinated 10-ounce bombshell called Bawls. Sold in a cool blue ribbed bottle and packed in a case featuring screen shots from PlayStation 2 games under the slogan "Grab Your Bawls and Run Like Hell," Bawls transforms the computer nerd's old standby cola fix into something cool and forbidding.
"Bawls really is high-octane Mountain Dew," says the Florida-based company's president, Hoby Buppert. "It's just packed with caffeine. About triple that of Coca-Cola. But it's easy to drink, particularly at these LAN parties that start on Friday afternoon and end on Sunday. If anything, you can drink more Bawls than you should, because it doesn't have that heavy flavor so you don't realize how much caffeine you're ingesting."
A group of four 10-to-13-year-old boys given a few free samples at a north central Phoenix PC room snicker at the borderline-naughty slogan on the box and take turns reading the caution label on the bottle, "Warning: This product contains high levels of Caffeine," each with a more menacing inflection. Bawls is like everything connected with the PC room culture: It gives a cool and dangerous edge to something that would normally be considered pretty geeky.
Buppert believes the image makeover is long overdue. "People have this belief that computer gamers are all these pimply-faced 15-year-olds," he says. "And yeah, there are a lot of those guys playing, but computer gaming is much bigger than that now. It's bigger than most extreme sports. When people think extreme sports, they think snowboarding, or skateboarding, or surfing, or whatever. But computer gaming is bigger than all those."
CompUSA knows it. The nation's leading retailer of personal-computer-related products recently signed on as a sponsor of the Cyberathlete Professional League. CPL is an online tournament league with more than 90,000 registered gamers who compete in 25 different gaming divisions, playing games such as Counter-Strike, Battlefield 1942 and Unreal for online rankings -- and for cash at gargantuan LAN parties. The CPL Summer 2003 Event, scheduled to be held at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas on the last weekend in July, will feature the world's largest Counter-Strike World Championship with a take-home purse of $200,000. Spectator passes are already being sold for $20 per person.
"You can actually make a living at it, if you're good enough," says Lock Langdon, 23-year-old founder of LanCamp, the clan acknowledged by most local gamers as the city's largest with 50 registered members. "This guy who goes by the name Thresh pulled down, like, $55,000 gaming last year -- and he's only 20 or something."
No joke: Some of these geeks have already become sports stars. Johnathan Wendel, a hard-core gamer better known by his "call tag" (gaming screen name) Fatal1ty, was featured in March on an episode of MTV's True Life, which followed the then-21-year-old Kansas City gamer through practice, travel and competition in an Unreal Tournament championship, where Wendel ultimately took home the $10,000 first prize. Wendel is now the Tony Hawk of the Pentium crunchers, a professional gamer with his own company, Fatal1ty Inc., lucrative sponsorship deals and that rarest of all things in the PC gaming world: chicks.
Haters on gamers' message boards have flamed Wendel for bringing his girlfriend along on LAN tournaments as what they call "a lucky charm." The truth is, a lot of the diehards in the male-dominated PC gaming world would rather not have girls around while they're fragging counterterrorists or fiddling about in Starcraft spawning their Zergs.
"When I started playing, it was really difficult for me, because everybody picked on me and wanted to aim for the girl," says Petra Niesten, a pretty 16-year-old who hangs out at Allied Games, a 20-station PC room at the Arrowhead Towne Center. "But I've been playing Counter-Strike for over a year now, and my friends back me up when I get somebody. They'll send messages saying, Dude, you just got owned by a girl!'"
Of course, a lot of the young males who log long hours in PC rooms -- especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when they're the busiest -- have become attached to their computers precisely because they have trouble talking to girls anyway. But that's okay -- the female-challenged camaraderie is actually part of the draw among preteens. Think about it: For young boys still grappling with the onslaught of puberty and the fear that their brains will soon be at the mercy of their hormones, it's comforting to hang out in a room where there's a handful of older dudes they know would also still rather blast away a few enemy snipers than ask a girl to go out dancing.
But the stereotype of the dateless game geek may be changing, too. Niesten has already let a few of her girlfriends in on the secret that the PC room is the ultimate place to meet guys.
"Rachelle, Danielle and Trina all play Counter-Strike now, too, and we all like to come here," she says. "I have AIM -- AOL Instant Messenger -- and I have about 15 girls on my Buddy List. But on my guy' side, I have over 50." She laughs. "And some of 'em I've met, and they're not too bad!"
Langdon and his fellow LanCamp leaders, 31-year-old Todd Christiansen and 35-year-old Rob Gordon, are proof that sun-shunning game junkies can grow up to live normal, productive lives. All three now work in well-paying tech-related jobs, and the older guys are even married with little gamers of their own.
"It's good that gaming is finally being recognized as a kind of sport," says the hefty, bespectacled Christiansen, speaking with the experience of a Commodore 64 vet who knew the sting of the word "nerd" before Bill Gates turned it into a kudo. "Because that gives kids who are maybe only good at computers, and maybe nothing else, a little respect from their peers."
All three have relished the smiles on young middle-schoolers when they're high-fived by college dudes for annihilating the other team's last standing player. "It's a scene where it doesn't matter how old you are, how big you are or what you look like," adds Gordon. "It's all about the skills."
In South Korea, where the whole PC room craze started, the broadband gaming scene is already ridiculously huge. PC baangs (pronounced, appropriately, "bongs") can now be found on virtually every street corner in Seoul, and an estimated 30 corporations, such as Samsung Electronics, shell out millions in salaries, housing and support to sponsor teams of pro game players who compete in televised tournaments. On one popular show, viewers call in and cast their votes for their favorite Starcraft player, à la American Idol.
Not surprisingly, many of the first PC rooms to open in the U.S. popped up in the Asian neighborhoods around Los Angeles and other urban centers. Fueled by hopes of duplicating Korea's scene here, the first American PC rooms were largely the dream start-ups of transplanted Asian entrepreneurs.
Around Phoenix, Gamerz Lounge, a now-defunct PC room once located where the Sea of Green health food shop now stands near Mill Avenue on University Drive in Tempe, was the closest cousin to the Korean baang to be attempted here.
In an atypically airy, windowed environment, gamers battled away on rows of 50 computers in the back while, up in the front of the store, a striking young Asian woman who answered only to the name Pony served up refreshing glasses of pearl tea and Yoyo drinks. Across from the bar, bleary-eyed gamers could take time out to chat on plush couches and chairs and, when they got hungry, enjoy some nice vegan muffins at one of the tables out on the front patio.
The business folded within a year.
In retrospect, Pony, who still handles operations at an L.A. store, admits that trying to duplicate the Korean model of the PC room in the U.S. was the wrong approach. "In Asia, it's a big social scene," she says. "People don't just come to play games; they also like to hang out and meet others." In Korean cafes, the layout is typically designed to encourage social interaction. Many booths are set up with love seats facing opposite PCs, so guys can rub elbows with their girlfriends while building up their Protoss Robotic Support Bays in Starcraft. In Tempe, Pony contrasts, it was hard to get anybody besides waiting parents to use the couch.
She also discovered an important cultural difference in gamers' eating habits. "Gamers here don't want to eat a muffin while they're playing games," she chuckles. "They wanna eat chips, they wanna eat candy bars -- junk food."
For a while, it appeared the PC room was just another Asian phenomenon that would never fully catch on in the States, like Pachinko arcades, or the 80-hour workweek. Early adopters of the trend got used to showing up at their favorite haunt only to find its doors locked, its rows of computers vanished.
But then, in home offices and teen bedrooms, young American gamers with new cable modems began creating their own model of the perfect gaming room, inviting their friends to haul their computers over, getting their IT dads to network the machines together, and staying happily entertained for hours with nothing but a couple of key games, loud music and a fridge full of Mountain Dew.
The smart mom-and-pop business daredevils, like Greg and Darlene Martin of northwest Phoenix, took a look at what their sons were doing and pondered: If only they had a dollar for all the newfound friends who were constantly knocking on the door itching to play Diablo . . .
"Greg had just left one business and couldn't really decide what he wanted to do next," recalls Darlene. "And during that time, my oldest son, who was about 14 then, started really getting into computer gaming. We had just gotten DSL, but we found he was still tying up the phone lines, because he would call his friends who were also into gaming and put them on speaker phone so they could hear each other play."
By summer, her son's friends had moved their computers over to the Martins' house and had networked them together. This arrangement freed up the phone lines, only now it was emptying out the refrigerator. "So then I had a house full of teenaged boys, with the volume on their computers blaring, playing these first-person shooter games and yelling at each other," Darlene sighs. "After a few months of that, I was like, Okay, they're eating me out of house and home!' So I moved them into the garage."
Having their own space, as it turned out, only made things more inviting for all the neighborhood frag-monsters. "Now half the neighborhood was coming over to our house. They were staying up all night, and it was really getting just a little too popular."
Greg, meanwhile, began finding himself drawn into the games, too, and decided there was a booming business in his own garage just waiting for him to exploit. A fast-tracker by nature, Martin bought a store in a Peoria strip mall, leased 20 computers from CompUSA, and had The Front up and running within a month and a half.
He left the interior design up to his son and the Martins' younger twin boys -- and it shows. With its walls splattered in camouflage paint and toy machine guns and ammo boxes propped atop the box-encased computer monitors, the game room at The Front on 94th Avenue and Cactus looks like a Counter-Strike fight zone come to life. To make it even sweeter, the room also features an XBox, a PlayStation 2 and a Nintendo GameCube hooked up to three 51-inch TVs -- not to mention a microwave, a soda machine and, of course, an adjoining rest room. If there's a phone call from mom, Darlene comes in from the next room (the front desk is, conveniently, walled off from the game area) and personally hands the cordless phone to the kid. "When they're playing games, they don't want to move," she explains. It's every game-crazed boy's fantasy bedroom.
That may explain why, while other PC rooms have been coming and going every six months, The Front has already expanded to five locations since October 2001, and the Martins have plans to franchise 10 more before the end of the year.
"I think the key was the kids' involvement," Darlene says. "Greg let the kids make a lot of the decisions, as far as the decor goes, what kind of chairs to buy, and what needed to be in there. He basically let it be their thing -- instead of his concept."
About the only thing hampering the Martins' chain of PC rooms is location. Most are tucked away in anonymous-looking strip malls, sandwiched between nail salons and insurance offices -- hardly the primo traffic areas for male teens. ("We're called The Front, but we're in the back," quips one franchise owner.)
Allied Games, on the other hand, looks to have everything going against it except for location. Lit in blinding white fluorescent light and paneled with a row of mirrors on its walls (the terrorists can see where the counterterrorists are hiding! Omigod!), Allied's interior design clearly violates all the rules of cool PC room decor. Yet it's also the only gaming center in town with a waiting list on the weekends to use its 20 computers. It may look like it was a barbershop in its previous life, but Allied is a smash with teens for one very simple reason.
"'Cause it's in the mall!" answers Justin Gunther, Allied's baby-faced senior vice president, clearly squelching the urge to add an indignant, "Duh!" Bankrolled by his dad but pretty much run by Justin and his buddies, the store, enviably located on the lower level of Arrowhead Towne Center right next to Dillard's, is less mom-and-pop than it is cool-older-brother. Gunther's clan hangs out at the store, and some of his buds, like 19-year-old Michael Gratto, have already become such permanent fixtures they've been given jobs. "I'm here so much I don't even worry about upgrading my computer at home anymore," Gratto says, grinning. "All my friends come here, and we're all on the team together. It's the coolest job."
On the other side of town, Mike Martin (no relation to Greg and Darlene) is also banking on location to draw in the gamers to his newly opened Lan Gamz, occupying part of the building once belonging to the Changing Hands bookstore on perennially hot Mill Avenue. The son of the Cold Stone Creamery founder, Martin hopes his PC room -- located just across the street from pop's long-standing ice cream shop on Mill -- will draw in enough foot traffic from Tempe's artsy artery to cover the exuberant rent.
Not that Martin & Son will be waving at each other across the brick-lined boulevard. "My dad doesn't really work -- he's the founder," Martin says, laughing. "And he's kind of guiding me on what to do and how to be as big as he is. So that maybe eventually I won't have to work either!"
Now that's the American way to start with a baang.
It's midnight on a Saturday, and Ralph Baldwin, a kindly, retirement-aged storekeeper who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Varney's Ernest, has just locked the doors of his store -- with 12 young boys still inside.
Outside the store, in the quiet, near-empty parking lot blanketing the winding strip mall, loud gunfire and tortured screams can be heard coming from behind the glass. Inside, none of the boys will move, except to go to the rest room, for another 12 long hours.
Round about noon on Sunday, the parents will drive up, pay Baldwin $25, if they haven't already, and take the boys home for some long-overdue sleep. But not before thanking him for providing a rare night of peace and quiet.
"We call this a lockdown," Baldwin explains. "It's an all-nighter. And parents love it! Because they know where their kids are at, and they know I lock the door, and really, they feel pretty secure about it."
Baldwin runs a franchise of The Front at 43rd Avenue and Bell; like the Martins' flagship store, Baldwin's is also heavily decked out in camouflage and combat gear. In a novel attempt to attract female gamers, Baldwin's PC room also features a Dance Dance Revolution floor pad hooked up to a big-screen TV in the back -- although there are no girls to be seen tonight.
But that doesn't matter. These boys aren't here to dance. Most of them are in the thick of battle playing Counter-Strike, Diablo II or Blackhawk Down. And they're not ready to quit just yet -- even though some of them have been hunched behind a computer here since noon.
"We usually need 10 or more kids to do a lockdown," Baldwin says. "If I've got enough kids who want to keep playing, we'll stay overnight. I'll lock the doors, and they don't leave until the following morning."
It's a scary-sounding concept for an alternative baby-sitting service, to be sure. A national tragedy-in-waiting the first time a kindly looking psychopath decides to open a PC room franchise.
But most of the parents Baldwin deals with seem startlingly unconcerned about leaving their young teens in his care. "They kind of get to know me before they let their kids stay overnight," he says. "But they like it because I'm a cheap baby sitter, and they know the kids will be sitting right there behind the same computer when they come back to pick 'em up."
Certainly the kids themselves don't fret over the situation. "Most of them manage to stay up all night," Baldwin marvels. "Some of them curl up under the desk or bring a sleeping bag, crash out for a bit. But really, most of 'em are still standing when I'm throwing 'em out of here the next morning."
Like a lot of older observers outside the gaming culture, Baldwin is mystified as to how the players can stay at it for hours, sometimes days, at a time. "I think it's the friendship, the fun of playing with others," he guesses. "Because a lot of the kids can play these games at home. Most of them probably have fast Internet access -- although maybe not as fast as here. So there has to be something else to get them to leave the house."
For Nate Davis, a 16-year-old Counter-Strike fan who frequents Cyber Zone, another PC house just two miles south on Thunderbird, speed is the thing. "At home," he says, "if you're playing on the Internet, you can get a lot of lag" -- gamer-speak for connection interruptions. "But when you're here, playing right next to each other, the computers are hooked up together and you never get much lag."
His friend Glen Gordon, 17, and Glen's 15-year-old brother Alec come to Cyber Zone simply because they'd rather not fight over the family PC. "Sometimes it's good just because you can't get on the computer at home," he shrugs. Davis chimes in: "They only have one computer for the whole family." Glen and Alec bow their heads sadly.
For Nate Porter, a twentysomething gamer who runs the PC room at Elite PC, a custom computer manufacturer in Tempe, the camaraderie is the draw. "This is a place where you can get together and talk trash," he says. "When you're sitting at home, playing on the Internet against someone, I mean, it's all right. But when you've got all your friends down here and you're all sitting beside against each other, it's more fun. 'Cause then it's like, I'm shooting Craig!'"
There are a variety of reasons gamers offer for why they'd rather be at the PC room than at home. But Erika Solomon, a 17-year-old reporter for the syndicated Youth Radio program who followed the exploding PC room scene around her home in the L.A. suburb of Glendale for two years, believes there's often something else beneath the surface that drives her peers out of the house for so many hours.
"It's not something that I'd say they're open about," Solomon offers. "But after months of spending time with them, I would just kind of hear about certain things going on in their homes that didn't seem to me like great things to be living through. I'd hear about abusive siblings or parents, or just not the greatest home life. Things that don't happen in my home, anyway. It just seemed to me that a majority of them had, like, a reason for not wanting to be at home."
Darlene Martin has heard more than her share of adolescent woes, too. "So many kids tell me that they'd rather be here than at home, for a number of different reasons," she reveals. "And they get into detail about their family situation. I mean, one of the first things I tell people who are looking to franchise is, You're gonna be part child psychologist. Because you will hear it all.'"
Martin, a rare motherly figure in the largely male-run PC room business (her sons and her 18-year-old daughter often help out in the store), seems a particularly approachable ear for many of the more troubled kids. "There's a lot of latchkey kids in this age group," she says. "And a lot of kids who just don't get much attention. So when they come in and you're like, Oh, Tony! Where have you been?', that means a lot to them. I mean, you only have to give them a crumb."
PC rooms also get a good amount of kids from divorced parents who are unhappily shuttled between houses on the weekends and who'd rather let that time fly by in front of a computer. One 12-year-old boy at Cyber Zone, who preferred not to be identified, says he loves those Saturdays when his dad buys the all-day pass because that means he's assured at least half of the weekend where he won't have to spend time with dad's new girlfriend.
"It's a needy group, a very needy group," Martin agrees. "Just because they're adolescent boys. I don't care what kind of home they come from. Adolescent boys, especially today, they just need attention."
Night has just fallen on Mill Avenue, and already the Valley's hippest half-mile is bustling with the usual Saturday night strollers. A trio of college girls in tight-fitting graphic tees and body suits bring the already slow traffic to a standstill. Beneath the Hooters balcony, a 50-ish man plays a mean flute and dispenses pearls of wisdom for spare change.
And just up the street from Starbucks, Mike Martin opens the front door to his brand-new PC room and waits for the traffic to flood in. With about 16 gamers already battling it out on the 25 computers up and running, and the Beastie Boys blaring loudly on another computer set up solely as an MP3 jukebox, it doesn't take long for intrigued passers-by to start ducking in.
One couple in their early 30s, sipping on fashionable Boba drinks from a shop down the way, saunters in and asks Martin what sort of business this is. "Oh, I hear these are really big in California!" the woman says excitedly, as the man circles around peeking at everyone's screens but declining to play himself. "I don't know anything about this stuff," he confesses. "These kids would kill me in a second!"
The younger, more initiated customers just look the place over, nod "Cool," and take Martin up on his offer to grab a seat and test the games out for free, tonight only. It's Lan Gamz's grand opening special -- and also a crafty way for Martin to check if everything's working up to speed using real, demanding gamers. "I've been here since 9 a.m. getting everything hooked up," yawns the amiable ice cream heir, who only received delivery on most of the computers the previous night and is still opening boxes, readying another 14 PCs in two smaller rooms. "Eventually we'll have lots of tournaments here, and we'll use the separate rooms for competing teams."
Tonight, however, it's an informal party, with Martin playing the host to the coolest geek bacchanal on the block. "Is everyone ready for a new map?" he calls out to the dozen Counter-Strike players at the front of the store, getting ready to restart the match on another virtual playing field. "Hey, why don't you guys join our game?" he asks a quartet of Battlefield 1942 diehards, reluctant to abandon their tanks, planes and helicopters for Counter-Strike's foot-soldier combat.
With the enthusiastic entrepreneur luring the curious street-strollers in for a free trial, it's easy to cast Martin as a kind of insidious Pentium pusher, hooking unsuspecting kids on an addicting habit that will eventually cost them $5 an hour, at least at his high-rent store. Solomon, who insists she never got tugged into the lifestyle herself, has nonetheless seen the booming California PC room scene take its toll on a number of friends. "I had some friends who would wake up in the mornings every weekend, go to the PC room, and they wouldn't come back until really, really late at night," she says. One boy she got to know bought the all-day pass every day of his spring break, doing neighborhood yard work in the mornings just to feed his $100-a-week monkey.
Fortunately for the addicted, there should be no shortage of PC rooms in the near future. Mark Nielsen, executive director of iGames, a San Francisco-based trade association of PC rooms, estimates there are close to 1,000 centers in the U.S. already, nearly double what it was only a year ago. "And a lot of owners are already opening between three and five new locations," he states.
The gamers themselves are a fickle lot, switching loyalties from one PC room to another whenever word spreads of a center with newer games, a faster connection or better video cards. "A lot of owners make the mistake of investing a lot of money into computers but not upgrading them every year," says Mike Smith, operator of Combat Lans in Tempe. "You gotta keep your hardware and software cutting-edge, or they'll just migrate somewhere else."
As for the Valley's newest entry, Mike Martin has an ingenious idea to keep his gamers coming back.
"All of our customers will have a roaming profile,' which will save all your personal settings, items and progress for every game you play," he explains. "Everyone has different ways that they like playing, and sometimes just setting up the keystrokes the way you like can take up to five minutes on these higher-end games. But when you set up your keystrokes the first time here, those settings remain in your profile forever. So every time you come back, you just log in with your password and all your keys are already there, along with whatever games you were playing. So if you were at level five in Warcraft III, you pick right up at level five when you come back."
It's a tempting extra to offer gamers, and one that fits right into the mobile lifestyle that's developing among the 'tweens and teens who frequent the PC rooms.
These are, many of them, kids quietly hiding out from their less-than-desirable family environments, who share a growing sense of "home" as the place on the Internet that stores their personal player data. Others, like 13-year-old Justin Reckler, are ping-ponged properties of divorced parents, shuttled between weekday and weekend domiciles, whose PDAs, feature-rich cell phones and Internet home pages now store the identity-stamping items that used to get tacked up in bedroom walls.
"My dad still has a Pokémon poster up in my room at his house," groans Reckler, taking a short break from playing Unreal Tournament 2003 at Lan Gamz. "But that's okay, 'cause I got all my favorite stuff right here."
He opens Explorer and clicks to a Web page he designed himself where he launches a slide show that pulls up pictures of his Scottish terrier, his new iMac and a sexy shot of TV's Lizzie McGuire that he quickly clicks past.
Chances are the young computer geek is still a bit too shy to tell Dad that he'd rather gaze at Hilary Duff than Pikachu when he's lying awake in his alternate-weekend bedroom. But in his roaming electronic home, his world is easily updated.
"I've been meaning to delete that one," Reckler gushes when a friend pokes fun at his choice of JPEG pinup. "I'm more into Jennifer Garner now."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.