Game Boys

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With rimless sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose, Morpheus-style, Garcetti taunts his Counter-Strike opponents as he navigates his pistol-toting counterterrorist.

On the computer image they share, Joe "Yuri" Sagginario, 16, chases one of Garcetti's teammates and blows past without noticing Garcetti crouched in the corner. Sneaking up from behind, Garcetti fires three bullets into Yuri's back, taking him out before he can fire -- an excellent show of skill.

"No!" Yuri says, pushing his chair back, disgusted that he hadn't heard or seen Garcetti.

"Counter-Terrorists Win!" flashes across all the computer screens.

Garcetti bobs his head up and down to the music playing in the background. "Yeah," he says. "Owned."

Then Katona turns away from his computer. Practice is over. At today's party, he expects tough competition. The Boca Raton clan known as South Florida LAN, or SFL, will compete against his clan, Philic, in a Counter-Strike tournament. Just before 5 p.m., he receives a call from SFL leader Jason Vassil. The enemy is down the road.

Katona walks outside and spots Vassil walking toward the building with a 17-inch monitor cradled in his arms. Katona turns, smiles, then intones in Hungarian-accented English, "We're gonna own."

Once all the players are inside, there's no chit-chat, no bragging, no questions. Vassil's five clanmates, 18-year-old John "Billis" Hunt, 20-year-old Lawrence "Scrub" Bower, and 19-year-olds Ross "Fuzzeh" Fusz, Marcelo "Chump" Morse, and Tyler "relyt" Pennel, are here to compete, not socialize. They play Counter-Strike constantly at Vassil's offices in Boca Raton. When Vassil realizes his goal of opening a PC gaming room in Fort Lauderdale, these guys will be the sponsored clan. They constitute a well-trained fighting force. Even while "scrimming" -- short for scrimmaging -- the players shout commands and curse at one another when one slips up.

"These guys live, breathe, and shit Counter-Strike," Vassil explains as Leo Rodriguez, an energetic 15-year-old who's in training for the clan, smirks and nods. Of the five clan members, only one has a girlfriend. Two don't have jobs, though Vassil offered them steady paychecks at his company, NetBoca. They declined. If they had to work, after all, when would they play?

"Look at these guys," Vassil says. "Never go on dates, never meet girls, never go to the movies, never do anything but Counter-Strike. That any way to live?" Indeed, the 31-year-old Vassil is a reminder that socially awkward video gamers can grow up to be successful and have a woman like the clan leader's girlfriend, Charlene. And he's affluent. His company installs high-speed Internet connections in condominium towers, sets up networks for companies, and builds high-performance custom computers.

Garcetti saunters over to Vassil and introduces his friend, Ray M. Douglas, who recently started gaming. Douglas is a big guy with a thin mustache who sells mortgages during the day. The only African-American in the room, he's reserved, even shy.

Garcetti turns to me after introducing his friend. "Seen Full Metal Jacket?" he asks.

I nod.

Garcetti looks around the room twice as if to announce that he's on stage. "Excuse me, ma'am," he says, quoting the movie and gesturing toward Douglas. "What we have here is a magnificent specimen of pure Alabama black snake."

Everyone laughs. That's Douglas' LAN party handle.

All the while, Peter Willis, an 18-year-old from Weston, types away at his computer. On top of his monitor sits a four-inch stuffed animal; it's Tux, the penguin mascot of the free operating system Linux. Willis' black hat reads "got root?" -- another Linux reference -- and his shirt proclaims: "I see fragged people."

He's trying to tweak his computer to run the Windows-based Counter-Strike in Linux. Rage Against the Machine blasts in the background. Willis' legs pump up and down as he types. Every time guitarist Tom Morello's distortion sounds, Willis' left hand rises and scratches an air record, DJ-style. When Willis loads Counter-Strike, the game server immediately kicks him off. "Hey, guys, can we set the server to allow more than just eight people?" he asks. Behind him, Zack de la Rocha goes off: "They say jump/Ya say how high/Ya brain dead/Ya gotta fuckin' bullet in your head."

Garcetti walks over to the center of the room and modifies the server. Willis loads Counter-Strike once more. The server accepts him. "Yeah," he says, heels bouncing to the beat. He joins the game as a terrorist. "Yo peepz," he types to all the other players to announce his arrival.

With an acned face and bloodshot eyes, Willis is a LAN party veteran. He's been to dozens of parties and says he would attend more if it weren't so hard to find a ride. He's also been to enough of these gatherings to know that chances are slim the Event will survive the year. Parties come and go. This is fun, sure, but he doesn't attach himself to any group of gamers. "A LAN party will run for a few years and drop off, and then another takes its place," Willis says with a maturity that belies his appearance. Earlier this month, the organizers of another well-known local LAN party, OurReality.net, announced that their last event would be held June 27 and 28. They couldn't draw enough regular attendees.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson