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Computer Cafes and New Risk

Technology: Recent violence near game centers translates to tighter restrictions.

June 16, 2002|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The portal to Calvin Williams' world, at least the one where he spends most of his waking hours, is tucked into a nondescript storefront in a Garden Grove strip mall.

Inside iNET, one of several cyber cafes in the city, the lanky Anaheim teenager can be found 10 hours a day, most days of the week, slouched in a chair, his fingers a blur of motion over a computer keyboard and mouse.

He wears headphones to better immerse himself in the virtual reality on the screen.

"This," the 19-year-old said, "is my second home."

Williams is playing Counter-Strike, a cyber version of cowboys and Indians in which terrorists and counter-terrorists armed to the teeth score points by blowing each other away.

Like Williams, countless teenagers and young men around the globe spend an extraordinary amount of time playing the game. Thanks to computer networking technology, several players can connect to a single machine and test their skills against each other, sometimes across continents.

The popularity of Counter-Strike and other interactive computer games is credited with sparking the recent growth of cyber cafes around the country, also called PC rooms or Internet cafes.

But some officials are becoming increasingly concerned that the violence on the screen is spilling into the real world.

In the early hours of June 8, Edward Fernandez, 14, was followed from a Garden Grove Internet cafe and shot to death. Four suspects have been arrested. There is no word yet on a motive, but the crime has prompted the City Council to consider putting more restrictions on cyber cafes.

New Security Measures

Several cities in the state, fearing that cyber cafes are magnets for troublemaking youth, have begun limiting the number of hours such businesses can stay open, usually until 2 a.m. Some require security measures such as video surveillance and guards. In Garden Grove, Diamond Bar and Lakewood, minors are not allowed in PC rooms during school hours or late at night.

Many Internet cafes do operate safely, officials say, and in some places parents and their children often play together. The Costa Mesa City Council declined to pass cyber cafe restrictions this month, saying the two businesses in that city have had no such problems.

But the mix of violent interactive games and youthful bravado concerns law enforcement. Disputes that arise within the games, between players, are sometimes settled with real fists and more dangerous weapons. Officials are also concerned because cyber cafes attract minors who will play into the night if allowed.

"They lose track of time and reality," said Tim Kovacs, a Garden Grove Police Department gang unit officer. "It seems almost feverish, the level of anxiety inside some of these places. When you have so many locations open at late hours catering to juveniles, you are bound to have problems."

Garden Grove, with 23 cyber cafes, has had more than its share of crimes associated with such businesses. In November, a dispute between gamers escalated into a baseball bat-swinging melee.

Just outside the same establishment a month later, a 20-year-old was stabbed to death. Kovacs said many of the customers inside were not even aware there had been a murder.

"Not only were they oblivious," he said, "they continued to play after they were told. They seemed more annoyed by the inconvenience."

The young men and boys--and they are overwhelmingly young men and boys--who become engrossed in this digital world say the amount of violence is overblown by a handful of highly publicized cases.

At iNET, Jorge, a 16-year-old, echoes other players when he says cyber cafe confrontations are no different from scuffles at a pickup game of basketball. Wherever boys and competition meet, he said, there is always some amount of conflict.

"Those who take it over the limit have no business playing," he said while puffing on a cigar outside. "It is just a game."

It is 11 p.m., three hours past city curfew for minors on a weeknight, but Jorge says his parents would rather see him inside an Internet cafe than on the streets. No one in the cafe has bothered to check his age.

Inside iNET, a handful of players are busy conquering virtual worlds and killing off video terrorists and counter-terrorists. In the dim light of the cafe, with about 35 computers, players' faces glow in patterns of multicolored flashes.

On the wall, a white board announces the top players in the house, with monikers such as BomBerMaN and NerD. Four of the top five players belong to a group calling itself the TS clan. Clans are teams of players that circulate among Internet cafes challenging other players for cyber supremacy.

Playing All Day, Cheap

Williams, who practically lives at iNET, is ranked eighth, Mr. FIXIT. He belongs to no clan, preferring to fly solo. He said he took a year off after graduating from high school. Most of his time has been spent at cyber cafes. With rates ranging from $1.50 to $2 an hour to play, it's a low-cost pastime.

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