I'll take care of your kids!

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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."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern