I'll take care of your kids!

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"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.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern