Game Boys

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Professional sport or not, first-person shooters are fraggin' huge.

It's May 14, a half-day at Broward County schools, and since 1 p.m., PCBaang! has been operating off a waiting list. In the front of the narrow space of strip mall on Atlantic Boulevard in Coral Springs, a cash register rings up sales. Behind a rope that separates the door from the computers, four kids wait for gaming machines -- actually souped-up PCs -- to become available.

In the rear, adolescent boys sit in front of the 35 computer gaming stations. Most of the kids are divided into small pickup clans of three or four as they move from four-minute round to four-minute round of Counter-Strike. Each boy is trying to pop off as many mouse-wielding opponents as he can before his luck runs out and he catches a sniper bullet in the skull. None of the kids moves -- their eyes are all fixed on the monitors as index fingers click the left mouse buttons over and over to unleash torrents of high-caliber bullets.

At last count, there were 26,000 PC baangs in Korea, which is widely considered the video-gaming capital of the world. The rooms function as cafés turned arcades, where Koreans compete and socialize and where top gamers garner groupies and followings generally reserved for rock stars. PC baangs are the next generation of video arcade, a sort of malt shop for the 21st century where kids can be with others but socialize only if they want to. The trend has caught on out west, where fragging has become a popular pastime for kids living in the hills of Los Angeles' suburbs.

But the venues haven't yet blossomed in South Florida. Kathy Hammond, a Boca Raton business consultant, is a pioneer. A friend from Los Angeles gave her the idea for the Coral Springs location last year. "Have you heard of these PC baangs?" she asked Hammond. "They're huge here."

Hammond, a pretty 46-year-old who walks with long elegant strides, talks with the strike-while-the-iron's-hot enthusiasm of a New York stock trader who just downed her third café latte. "As I started looking into it more, I saw that [the baang industry] was completely untapped in the United States," she says. "I went out to L.A. and went to several game rooms and thought, 'Hey, this is what we need in Florida. '"

Hammond opened PCBaang! in January. Her stepson helped decorate the walls, which are painted black and adorned with neon lights and pseudograffiti. Along each side of the room, kids sit in cushy leather chairs that face computer screens. A shelf juts out from the desks to give players easy access to keyboard and mouse. On a shelf above the desk, speakers blare to create a symphony of gunfire, grunts, and explosions.

That Hammond's business is smack in the middle of Broward's sprawling, traffic-gnarled suburbia is no accident. "We're surrounded by five area high schools," Hammond says, speaking loudly over the tap-tap-tap of terrorists' AK-47s and the clunk-clunk of shotgun shells hitting the computer-generated ground. "That's 25,000 children."

The gamers attracted to PC baangs are younger than the ones who play at Katona's LAN parties. Most of the kids Hammond sees are teens and early teens. All prepay their $3.25 per hour, assumedly with Mom and Dad's money. But Hammond adds breathlessly: "We're not baby sitters."

At 5 p.m., Hammond yells out to the adrenalin-pumped kids: "Can I have everybody's attention, please?"

Her young assistant screams out behind her: "Everybody turn your speakers off. Speakers off, please."

The sound of gunfire dissipates quickly, but the kids continue playing. "OK, everybody," Hammond says, "it's time for the drawing." When PCBaang! opened, Hammond started a raffle to give the first customers an opportunity to win a new AMD Athlon computer system like the ones used in her PC room. "The winner is going to be selected by a very special guest," Hammond continues. "This is Trevor from the New Times newspaper."

On the spot, I reach into the bag and select a card. Across the top of the orange piece of paper, in hurried handwriting, is a scribbled name.

"John Schwartz," I announce. "John Schwartz."

No one moves. No one makes a sound. Hammond looks around curiously.

Then, immediately to her left, she spots 13-year-old eighth-grader Schwartz and two friends playing Counter-Strike. They hadn't heard a thing. "John," Hammond says, lifting the headphones from the boy's ears, "you won."

John spins around in his chair and hangs the headphones around his neck. "I won?" he asks, his mouth gaping open. "I really won?"

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson