At $3 an hour, players taste future of arcades

Games: These faster, noisy `PC bangs' are hot in New York and Los Angeles, and they're fast catching on in Maryland.

January 13, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Counter-terrorist Tony Seo was dying a miserable death, slowly bleeding out after being ambushed by his enemies in Glen Burnie. Worse, they taunted him as they ran from the scene.

"They knew where I was," Seo grumbled as he slumped in his chair, wincing at catcalls from the other end of the room. "They must have looked at my screen."

Seo was dying in the world of "PC bangs" - noisy, garishly-lighted late-night PC game rooms equipped with high bandwidth Internet connections and violent game action. These faster, darker arcades are hot in New York and Los Angeles and fast catching on elsewhere across the country. At least three have opened in Maryland in the past year.

Instead of playing video games at home, patrons say they would rather pay up to $3 an hour to play at a PC "bang." (Bang means room in Korean.) "It's much more fun when you know the person you've shot," Seo explained.

Most players are young Korean-American men between 16 and 25 years old. But growing numbers of other young people are discovering the rooms, which experts say offer the kind of high-tech social interaction likely to lure PC-addicted kids out of their bedrooms in the 21st century.

"It's just a taste of the future," said Jim Denn, of the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research, a group that studies technology and the Internet.

PC bangs "are the way people will play video games in the future. Gaming is becoming a more social event. It's not just sitting in front of your own computer playing by yourself," said Angel Munoz, founder of the Cyberathlete Professional League.

Some critics don't like the future they see.

In Howard and Anne Arundel counties, parents fret about the long hours the PC bangs are open and fear the video games are addictive.

"I don't like the atmosphere; it can't be good for children," said Young-Chan Han, of Ellicott City, who has barred her son from the rooms.

Elsewhere, the rooms have become magnets for violence and gangs. In late December, a 20-year-old man was fatally stabbed in front of a Garden Grove, Calif., bang.

"We didn't anticipate that these businesses were going to be such a problem," said Sgt. Mike Handfield of the Garden Grove Police Department.

Amenities

Game Spot, the Glen Burnie PC bang on Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard, where Seo, 20, and his friends were playing last week, is a video game aficionado's dream.

It's open until 5 a.m. on weekends, and at center stage are 20 powerful game-equipped high speed Internet-linked computers lined up along two long tables. Off to the side are several swivel chairs and two couches that can be used to take a break, a cot in the back for a nap, and a refrigerator full of soda.

And, best of all, it has Counterstrike, the most popular PC bang game on the market. Players can be terrorists who have planted a bomb, or counter-terrorists, who are trying to defuse the explosive. Once the bomb explodes or all the players die, a new round begins.

Gamers can play one on one or join teams called clans to play other clans.

"It's basically running around and shooting each other," shouted Seo over the sounds of machine gun fire, as he typed furiously at the keyboard, maneuvering his counter-terrorist alter ego through a maze.

"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," he chanted under his breath, eyes darting over the screen as he puffed on the cigarette dangling from his lips.

There! Seo saw movement and unleashed a stream of AK-47 fire and ran forward.

After a manic round of gunfire, Seo's character could be seen splattered on the video wall behind him.

"Damn," Seo said, slumping back again and exhaling a plume of smoke. "Who did that?"

"How'd you like that, baby?" asked Seo's assassin, Nick Gardner, seated a few chairs down.

Gardner is one of a minority of whites who play at Game Spot. While many of the conversations swirling around him are in Korean, he said he doesn't consider it a "Korean place at all."

"Everyone likes to play video games," he said.

Gardner didn't know Seo before he began playing at Game Spot, but now the two have become "semi-personal friends." They constantly tease each other and will even begrudgingly congratulate well-placed shots.

"When you play with someone all the time, you can't help but get to know them a little," Gardner said.

PC bangs can foster such inter-ethnic relationships, said Timothy Tangherlini, a folklore professor at UCLA who has studied PC bangs.

"There's the potential for a great mixing bowl [of races] there," he said.

But Tangherlini also pointed out that "the mixing bowl comes with AK-47s" and that some youths play too much.

`Addicting'

For most players, Counterstrike's combination of realism, violence and noise can be summed up fairly easily.

"It's addicting," said Seo, who estimates he plays about two hours day.

"It can be kind of addicting," echoed Gardner, who plays about 20 hours a week.

"Yeah, it's pretty addicting," said David Song, a 21-year-old Army private stationed at Fort Meade.

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