Frag or Be Fragged

Mike Gorman

The Gods of the Internet have truly blessed the geeks of Parker. They've bestowed onto local gamers a physical location where they can get their fix of virtual violence and computer camaraderie. It fell from the sky, they say, a little more than a year ago, landing with a dull thud onto an empty lot of prairie just off Mainstreet and Dransfeldt. It's in a strip mall not unlike any of the other hundreds of retail tar pits in Douglas County, a limestone facade encircled by a baffling rat's maze of interconnected parking lots. By 8 p.m., the little-used sidewalks are abandoned and most of the storefronts are dark and silent.

Except for the Parker Cyber Station. Each time the Internet-gaming cafe's glass door is pulled open, the sounds of modern warfare escape out into the quiet suburban night: rapid-fire shots, rattling explosions, knives plunging into enemy flesh and, yes, the ecstatic yelps of teenage boys.

SUVs and mini-vans pull up in succession, as guys too old for Disney movies but too young to shave leap from the back seats. They give a nod or a short wave to their parents. No one looks back. Everyone is stoked on an entire night away from each. The kids walk toward the entrance carrying grocery bags that bulge with Chee-tos, Twizzlers, Pringles and twelve-packs of Mountain Dew or whatever other caffeinated concoctions will keep them in top form. They need all the instant energy they can get.

This is the Cyber Station's monthly lock-in, where parents shell out 25 bucks a pop to have their kids take part in the all-night game-a-thon. Playing starts at eight, and the fragging (gamer speak for 'killing') doesn't stop until seven the next morning. In case they need to conk out for a while, participants are encouraged to bring sleeping bags. No one does, though. Walking in with a pillow and blankie dog-tags you not only as a complete amateur, but also as a pussy who can't hang with the real gamers.

Proprietor Darrell Moskowitz definitely has the chops to hang -- although, from a fourteen-year-old's perspective, his bristly mustache and glasses make him look more like someone's dad who might sell, like, tractor parts or something rather than run this cutting-edge digital playground. A process engineer for LAN Research, Darrell's day job has him developing computer chips for corporations like IBM and Intel. But at night he walks between the long rows of terminals watching as the gamers speak to teammates via headsets -- "Watch out, sniper on the bridge" -- and shout taunts across the room at opponents.

Darrell has been playing computer games for years; his favorite is the Tom Clancy-based game Rainbow Six. He gets just as excited about playing as he does hopping on a computer and describing how Cyber Station's thirty PCs are linked together by a local area network that allows players to battle each other in real time. "The games are interactive, and we have all different kinds," he says. "There's the strategy games like Diablo, where you have your armies and you move around and try to conquer the map. There's also role-playing games like Camelot and EverQuest."

But the most popular games by far are the "first-person shooter games," such as Day of Defeat and the infamous Counter-Strike, which allow players to see the virtual world from the eyes of their characters. Out of the thirty or so kids at the lock-in, all but six are playing Counter-Strike, which is the most popular -- and violent -- game on the Internet today. At any given time, more than 60,000 players worldwide are plugged in as either terrorists or counter-terrorists.

Nathan is one of them. His fingers nimbly clack between the key commands but then pause. Crouching behind a shipping crate, the twenty-year-old slowly raises his G3/SG-1 sniper rifle and focuses his sight on a stone archway. A bearded, bandanna-wearing terrorist suddenly darts out from the doorway holding an AK-47. With one quick click from Nathan's mouse, the man's head explodes in a trajectory of blood and his body falls limply into the dirt. Nathan bursts out in a high-pitched hoot, "Got ya."

But a moment later, he gets blindsided by a spray of bullets.

"Ahh! Anubus, you bastard!"

Nathan looks four computers down at Ryan, the Cyber Station's resident hotshot.

Anubus smirks in mock sweetness back at him.

"Will somebody please kill Anubus for me?" Nathan shouts.

The actual Counter-Strike battlefield is located on one of Cyber Station's two servers. Kind of like a pickup basketball game, anyone from a remote location can hop on to the server and join a team. One single well-placed sniper shot and someone, somewhere, is digitally dead. They could be cursing in Filipino from Internet land or sitting purse-lipped right next to you. Either way, they know that their ass just got fragged.  

"Even if we had only one person in the store playing all by himself," Darrell says, "he's not really by himself. There are people in our server 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it's almost always the same people playing, so everyone gets to know each other. It's like a little community."

Darrell and his wife, Lady Oak, opened the Cyber Station in August 2002 after she was laid off from her job as a sales engineer at a local high-tech firm. At first they thought about opening a flower shop, but competition in the area was stiff. So Lady Oak's cousin suggested a type of Internet cafe common throughout California that caters less to e-mail-checking bohemians and more to the serious computer camp.

"In [South] Korea, they call them PC baangs," Darrell says, enunciating, "PC baaaangs. Like a room. Baang means 'room'in Korean."

A mix between a college computer lab and a nightclub, the cafes began sprouting up in South Korea in the late '90s. Now, with more than 26,000 PC baangs in South Korea alone, the concept has traveled to the U.S., sucking in digital troopers like a black hole. A local gaming room is like a second home for many of these gamers; it's a place where everybody knows your screen name. But unlike cities such as Miami, Dallas and L.A., all of which boast dozens of gaming hangouts, Denver has been relatively slow to catch on. Other than the Cyber Station, the Denver area has just five game centers.

"The Colorado scene isn't that big," says Kenny Pallotta, who has owned FragNet in Westminster for two years. "A lot of people still don't know about them or know what they are." But his lock-ins are always filled to capacity and have been stepped up from four times a year to once a month.

"Parents love the lock-ins," Darrell says, "because they're clean, they're safe, and they know we have adults here." And if parents feel any midnight twinges of paranoia, they can watch from home courtesy of a Web cam that holds its unblinking gaze the whole night.

By 2 a.m., the Cyber Station is in full-on mode. There are still five hours to go, and the gamers, their pale faces crimped with concentration, show no signs of slowing down. Occasionally someone will stand, stretch and maybe go to the restroom, but mostly they save all of their energy for the battlefield. The subwoofers mounted above each computer thump rhythmically with explosions and the recorded phrase "Fire in the hole!" To avoid crashing on the tail ends of their caffeine highs, many gamers begin alternating between Dr. Pepper, orange Gatorade and little paper cups of water.

But the most popular drink at this time of night sells for $2.50 each and comes in a slender, cobalt-blue glass bottle. It's called Bawls, and for a few gamers, it's the only thing they'll drink all night. They remove their hands from their mouses just long enough to take long chugs of the fizzy, fruity drink that goes down much easier then Red Bull but provides just as much of a face-slapping boost. Bawls is derived from the guarana berry, which contains a form of natural caffeine that is two and a half times stronger than the caffeine found in coffee. Crank for computer nerds. The name itself even provides fuel for this crowd as a joke with an endless string of ever-hilarious variations: "Hey, keep your hands off my Bawls!" a pimple-faced fifteen-year-old titters.

Abandoning ship long ago for their beds, Darrell and Lady Oak left twenty-year-old Eulogio Sanches and 21-year-old Forrest Garcia at the helm. A hard-core gamer since he was thirteen, Forrest has worked at the Cyber Station since its opening. He sits at the main desk at the front of the store, his long, dark hair pulled into a tight ponytail.

Forrest, who goes by the tag "Schinder," is also the leader of his own clan. Kind of like street gangs of the Internet, these organized teams of gamers battle for turf and notoriety. Some of the best clans have endorsement contracts and earn thousands of dollars a year in tournament prize money. Forrest's clan, named Strostruem, has sixty elite members from all over the world.

At 3 a.m., he stands and announces that there will be a one-on-one Counter-Strike tournament. The champion wins a free four-hour pass. Eleven gamers rush to the desk and sign up, including Shawn, a skinny, energetic fourteen-year-old with a head of floppy red hair.

"It's cool to be able to play with your friends and show them up," Shawn says wide-eyed. He says his dad thinks the lock-ins are great and wants to start entering him in tournaments. There's a lot of good money in gaming right now, he adds, and his dad thinks he has a lot of potential to go far because he practices often. "I've been gaming like this ever since I've been able to think straight," he says.  

His friend Adam turns in his chair and through a mouth full of braces utters, "So, like, since last year, you're saying."

"No, since I was like eight or nine, stupid," Shawn retorts.

Shawn's dad, Tom, works as a computer animator and thinks it's good to foster and encourage his son's interest in gaming. He believes that anything that will advance computer skills will pay off later. "But do I think it's all he should be doing? No. He should get out more and do other things, too," says Tom, who has his own affinity for Battlefield 1942.

The Counter-Strike tournament finally ends at 6 a.m. Forrest announces the winners; Shawn managed to tie for third place. The gamers swivel in their chairs and give each other high fives. Some begin yawning. Their computer terminals are a desolate war zone of empty soda cans, Twix wrappers and discarded Funyuns bags. In an hour, the SUVs and minivans will begin returning, tooting a horn or simply idling in the cold air. And the gamers will emerge, weary but triumphant, into the startling morning light. But for now, their eyes are red-rimmed and glossy and remain fixed to the blitzkrieg of images flitting on the screens in front of them. No matter. They're young, resilient and occupied with the vast virtual landscape of the future.

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