I'll take care of your kids!

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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."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern