Game Boys

Krisztian Katona's inviting smile hints at his unhindered optimism. Nothing seems to bother the 25-year-old with the wire-rimmed glasses, thin goatee, and wave of brown hair that crashes gently around his head. He speaks with a slow eloquence that gives his Eastern European accent a soothing rhythm.

"Krisztian just likes to hear himself talk," a friend says of him.

Another adds: "Everybody likes to hear Krisztian talk."

In the western suburbs of Broward County, Katona has found his home. It's a long way from Hungary, which the young man describes with a shrug of his shoulders: "I've still got some family there."

Katona's first memory of his native land involves school grades. Despite his best efforts, he did poorly on one of his early report cards. He didn't know how he was going to tell his parents or how they would react. On the walk home, he rehearsed what he would say, gathering the courage to be honest. He opened the door and then saw their faces. They already knew. Because of his marks, they'd just been demoted at work. "I never got bad grades again," Katona explains.

His last memory of Hungary involves vacations. Every year, he and his parents would travel to Austria on tourist visas. Once, when he was 10 years old, he left school to find his parents parked outside, waiting for him. "We're going on vacation," his father told him.

The family drove four hours to the border and parked along a deserted patch of fence in the middle of the night. At that spot was the entry to a short tunnel. "It was the hole everyone used," Katona says. "Everyone seemed to know about it." Katona and his parents crawled under the fence and simply walked into Austria, becoming citizens of nowhere.

Soon, the family moved to South Florida, where Katona attended high school and received a degree in information technology from Florida Atlantic University. He landed a gig at a company that e-mails x-ray charts to doctors around the country for second opinions. Katona made sure the technology worked. "It was a great job," he says. But it didn't last. Nine months ago, the company laid him off. He's been unemployed since.

Now, Katona wants to make it as a pioneer in an industry that has taken off in Asia and California but so far has found a lukewarm reception in tech-unfriendly South Florida. Succeeding won't be as easy as crawling beneath the Iron Curtain.

It's 3:30 p.m. on May 17, and Katona has been setting up tables, hauling in computers and monitors, and stringing together computer networking cables since late last night. Yet he has more on his mind than computer hardware. He's thinking about fragging terrorists. Despite his amicable disposition, Katona can be a cold-blooded killer when he straps on his World War II helmet and winds his fingers around a laser mouse.

He goes by the name "NecroPhilic." His specialty is Counter-Strike, which pits a team of terrorists against counterterrorists in missions that include rescuing hostages and planting bombs. Katona navigates maps on his computer screen as if he were walking through his apartment. He knows every bomb site and myriad ways to get there. In the buildings and landscapes that shoot across his monitor, he knows where air ducts lead and where every ladder will take him. He can tell you which munitions penetrate brick walls and which can put a hole in your enemy's head and then kill his partner. He's a wicked predator.

Today is the eighth time Katona and his business partners have held their monthly LAN (local area network) party, called "The Event," in the large community room of the Lofts, an Oakland Park townhouse complex. Inside, 20 gamers in their late teens and early 20s are fragging away from behind monitors. Nearly every computer is modified and souped-up as if it were an Acura or Honda. Inside each computer glow pink, green, and blue lights, all cold cathodes that do not increase the temperature inside the metal boxes. Keeping heat down is essential. Most of these gamers so overwork their machines that they need a thermostat linked to a digital readout. If the computer gets too hot, they flip a switch and turn on a high-speed fan that sounds like a small lawn mower. It cools everything in seconds.

Vincent "Pyrophilic1" Garcetti, age 24, Katona's clan colleague and partner in the Event, sits in front of his black computer. The left side of his machine is Plexiglas, so you can see lights shining down on the motherboard that make it look like a small city. In the center of the PC is a fan adorned with skull facing outward.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson