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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Pod People: Indico Gaming's dotcom-mod décor gives way in gamers' minds to the virtual battlefields of Counterstrike.

Game Boys

Local Access Network gaming centers offer players the chance to battle one another onscreen. Is this socializing?

By Allie Gottlieb

PHIL ALAMPI'S formal education stopped en route to a bachelor's degree in business. What commercial acumen he possesses he acquired by slogging up the entrepreneurial ladder. Since 1980, Alampi counts among his life experiences a failed health food restaurant, an unsuccessful cannoli cart and something so terrible he will only describe it as "the job from hell."

But Alampi, a 46-year-old father and ex-husband whose silver-licked hair grows "out, not down," is up and at it again. In February, Alampi opened the Indico Gaming center in Sunnyvale. A low-slung, 4,000-square-foot building that squats alongside a computer bookstore and a couple of sit-down restaurants on a sterile strip of Lawrence Expressway, Indico features 24 Dell computers wired into a Local Access Network (LAN) and a roster of 30-plus multiplayer games. Customers pay a fee and log onto games as single players or as part of a team, competing against others logged onto the same game sitting across the table or on the Internet.

Gaming centers like Indico are beginning to dot the highways 280 and 101 corridors. They represent a new incarnation of the video-game parlor, but instead of pumping fistfuls of quarters into Area 51 and aiming a plastic gun at so-so graphics and predictable action sequences, LAN gaming offers players graphically sophisticated games like Counterstrike and Desert Combat at hair-blowing high speeds and the thrill of competition against real-life players in ever-evolving strategy sessions and childish trash-talking/typing matches.

Four years ago, only one retail place in the valley offered Internet access for multiple game players. Now an informal survey turns up BCC, Matchplay, Cyber Hunt, G Zero, Rapid Fire, Beat Internet, Rivalution (1 and 2), Intraplay, Nemesis, Gravity, Euphnet and Indico.

The idea behind these gaming centers is brilliant, like selling tap water. Charge people to play a game that they can play on their home computers over the Internet for free--if they are among the one in every 10 Americans who own a home gaming system. Once they come, sell them pepperoni pizza, popcorn and Bawls caffeinated beverages. Then sit back and let the computers--and the furrow-browed game players--do the work.

The question, of course, is what do customers get in return that would transform the gaming center fad into a lasting entertainment option? Why would anyone want to pay $5 an hour when they don't have to? And how can a business based on the cafe society model overcome the infamous geek misanthropy?

Let the Games Begin

According to the Entertainment Software Association, the industry's top business and government lobbying group, half of all Americans over age 6 play video and computer games. The ESA says that people over 18 bought 92 percent of the games sold last year. Most gamers are older than 18--in fact, 41 percent of Internet (nonconsole) computer gamers are over 35. What's more, industry figures peg women as constituting 39 percent of game players.

Yet computer gaming continues to do battle with its image as a violent teen distraction, a solitary male pursuit that, if it doesn't make you go blind, might certainly impair your eyesight and your social skills.

Paul Hurley, Indico Gaming's "technology director" (although he doesn't have an official title), has been playing video games since he was about 8 years old. Now 30, Hurley plays computer games over the Internet from home an average of six hours a day.

He got his job at Indico when he posted a disparaging comment about Phil Alampi on Indico's website feedback board, complaining that Indico's owner didn't know enough about games. Alampi responded by inviting Hurley to help him with the technical aspects of the games, while Alampi handled the business end of things.

Hurley, who wears a tan button-down shirt and khaki pants, jokes that he's the house geek. But he protests that he's not representative of Indico's customer base.

"Our customers are social," Hurley insists. "They have a life. ... Coming in, I would have thought we'd have a lot of geeks, but we don't."

On a Wednesday afternoon, Indico's brightly colored, dotcom-chic main room houses Jason, 26, and John, 34. They don't want to be fully identified, because they don't want their bosses to know how they spend their lunch hours. Jason and John, who swing by Indico every day with other co-workers, always play Counterstrike, a war game that pits two teams--the terrorists and the counterterrorists--against one another in competition for the most kills.

Jason, who calls his game player "I'm Your Daddy," pauses to explain the appeal of Counterstrike. First, however, he fires off a series of successful shots and yells to members of the opposing terrorist team seated across the table: "I killed you, fool! I killed all of you. Did you like that? If your back is turned, I'm gonna kill you."

Finished with that bit of bravado, he turns to address the question. "It's the closest you get to realistic SWAT," says Jason, who has no actual SWAT experience.

Hurley dismisses Jason and John as not representative of Indico's usual adult customers. "Those guys were weird," he admits. "Usually kids play Counterstrike. Adults play Desert Combat."

Both Counterstrike and Desert Combat involve the use of guns, grenades, bombs, hostage situations and assassinations. Counterstrike's manufacturer, Vivendi Universal, cautions that it is not intended for players under the age of 17.

Desert Combat, a Gulf War-themed strategy game, appeals more to the PowerPoint types. Hurley gives an example. One team of rather novice Desert Combat players came into Indico recently to prepare for a gaming tournament against a group in Plano, Texas. Players, calling themselves the Wake Island Elite 8, practiced every day at Indico for a few weeks before the tournament.

They also came in toting three laser-printed sheets outlining "Operation Plano Pound," a game plan complete with graphics that one of the team members took the time to craft.

"Phase 1," it reads, "Marks/Hulderson spawn in the destroyer and each enter their own Zodiac. ... Connolly/Clowers spawn at base: jump in Jeep and head to village. Get in Tank and head to airfield."

The plan continues through the next phases of attack, detailing how team members should tackle their opponents.

The Elite 8 group was badly beaten by the other team. But, if nothing else, their preparation impressed Hurley.

"I just play," he says, still holding the game plan packet that features the words "eyes only" emblazoned on the front page. "This is all like a planned orchestra."

Virtual Gaming, Real Gloating

"These are social worlds, not just mindless shoot-'em-up games," says avid gamer and academic J. Talmadge Wright. Wright, a 53-year-old former San Jose State University sociology professor who now teaches at Loyola University in Chicago, co-authored a research paper with a colleague on video games in 2002. He says that gamers are widely misunderstood.

"Basically, our argument is that playing video games, either solo or on the Internet, is a social thing," Wright explains. "Just because [a computer-simulated player is] not a real person, doesn't mean [the game is] not social."

Wright, who expanded his professional focus from poverty and homelessness, says he became fascinated by the sociology of computer games after encountering what he calls "the spatial metaphor." By this he means a social connectedness that occurs when people play computer games with each other. In fact, he says, playing games is more social than other, very ordinary activities.

"The difference," explains Wright, "is that when you watch TV, you have no control over who does the production. The only control you have is the remote. When you're playing [a video game] interactively with a spouse or a lover or a friend, you're making choices of how you consume or play that game. You're both occupying a virtual space in addition to the space you occupy in the room. In other words, you both have a unified space. It's almost like a conversation. When you talk to people, you talk, you listen, you talk, you listen. You're affecting others, not like TV."

Meanwhile, he says, the gamer is a complicated animal. "Players are becoming more complex as they get older, and they're demanding more," he says. "It's not like the old Doom game, where you just shoot, and the monster is dead."

Bill Marks, a 34-year-old Network Associates employee, might be an example of Wright's theoretical gamer. Marks spends about two hours a week at Indico. He's married, but he says with a deep laugh that if he were looking to meet ladies, "I certainly wouldn't do it at Indico."

Marks, who remembers playing Pong as a kid, fell in love with Battlefield, a variation on Desert Combat. The game "struck a chord" with him and five of his co-workers. "Everything's interactive," he explains. "They don't force you into particular story lines. There's a lot of variation. There's nothing there just for scenery--if there's a tank, you can jump in and drive it."

Marks says he plays from home as well as from Indico and that there's no difference in the game play. "I think the draw is the live interaction with the people you are playing with. A good kill is way more satisfying when you can mock the opposing player."

Although they may be no more aggressive than sports, games like Counterstrike and Desert Combat seem like odd ways of bonding. What's more, the violence associated with computer gaming isn't always virtual. As game centers have proliferated in Southern California, so have reports of fistfights. Last January, a 17-year-old boy was shot inside a gaming center in Vancouver, British Columbia, reportedly after gloating about winning a game of Counterstrike.

But as industry lobbyists and free-speech proponents consistently explain, research into the real-life impacts on kids exposed to video-game violence yields nothing concrete.

"Current research evidence is not supportive of a major public concern that violent video games lead to real-life violence," the Washington state Department of Health concluded in a recent report, Video Games and Real-Life Aggression: Review of the Literature.

The federal government also can't seem to find any proof that virtual violence makes kids act out. The U.S. surgeon general issued a report on youth violence in 2001 that stated, "The overall effect size for both randomized and correlational studies was small for physical aggression and moderate for aggressive thinking. ... The impact of video games on violent behavior remains to be determined."

Professor Wright blames routine criticism of video-game violence on a "Mary Shelley-Frankenstein fear of machines. ... The fear is that somehow we'll lose control of our own destinies."

It's Not the Game, It's the Gamer

"Beat and Indico are the ones that keep me up at night," 48-year-old game center general manager/senior partner Mac Cuerdon answers when asked about his competition. "They get it. They get that it needs to be a comfortable social environment."

Cuerdon runs two gaming centers, Euphnet Versions 1 and 2, in Sunnyvale and San Jose, respectively. The Sunnyvale location opened in August 2002, and the San Jose center premiered on July 4. "We've been cash positive since October," says Cuerdon, dodging the "How's business?" question. "We're bringing in more money than we're paying out."

Before Euphnet, Cuerdon handled marketing for Silicon Valley Graphics. Like Alampi, Cuerdon is a small business owner understandably obsessed with market figures and customer psychology.

"Gamers are very critical," he assesses. "The ones who come in three or four times a week are very sensitive to performance. You either 'suck' or you 'rock.' They don't mince words. And if you suck they don't come back."

Proudly couching the news as "an exclusive," Cuerdon said that on Sunday, Oct. 19, Euphnet would unveil its "Kickass Kickoff" campaign, featuring free memberships. Usually local game centers charge between $2 and $5 to play for an hour, in addition to a membership fee that runs from $10 to $25.

"We've been studying this since June," Cuerdon says, reporting a trend that Southern California computer gaming centers are dropping their membership and hourly costs to compete in a similarly dense market. "It's going to happen up here," he predicts.

Indico's Alampi agrees that the growing popularity of multiple-player game centers is bound to create price cutting, but he says he's ready. "You can't run a business just knowing how to play games," he announces, poetically.

With about $150,000 from an investor pool that included his brother, Alampi says he's about halfway to breaking even. But he keeps actual dollar figures close to his vest. Indico, whose name resulted from a web search of Latin words relating to "battle," has a fight ahead of it as it attempts to create a viable business model in a still-unknown market.

Women are a case in point. They're supposedly a generous customer demographic, with the ESA's estimated 39 percent female share looming over the gaming centers' mostly-male demographic. Game center employees and frequent players say attempts to lure female players fail.

"Ladies nights," where gender discrimination works in the female favor, only attract the same few customers who frequent gaming centers anyway. Indico's Paul Hurley sees only four or five women come in regularly. Industry members continue to hunt for new consumers.

"I'm not here to make games popular," Alampi says. Obviously he wants to make a profit. In fact, half a year into the career of his first outlet, he already plans to open a chain of Indico gaming centers.

But he's got another agenda. When asked about the geeky gamer kid stereotype, Alampi points out three times that he's a social person. He wants to rid the world of the stigma stuck on computer gamers that they're all acne-scarred and hopelessly introverted. Alampi smiles, makes eye contact and animates his points with hand gestures. He likes talking with people.

"What I'm doing is providing a place for adults to go and play them," he says. "This isn't centered around the game. This is centered around the gamer."

A Guide to the Valley's Gaming Salons

Beat Internet
4334 Moorpark Ave.
San Jose

124 Great Mall Dr.
In the Great Mall

612 S. Mary Ave.

Indico Gaming
540 Lawrence Expwy.

560 Showers Dr., Suite 4
Mountain View

Rapid Fire
6065 Meridian Ave. #70 (at Redmond)
San Jose

Rivalution Network Center 1
254 N. Capitol Ave.
San Jose

Rivalution Network Center 2
4424 Pearl Ave.
San Jose

4666 Meridian Ave.
San Jose

Tricky Question

SO, are video games social? An upcoming exhibition and conference at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center argues that, in fact, "computer games are among the newest vehicles for telling stories and creating virtual worlds" and proposes that they "represent the emerging narrative form and communication medium of the early 21st century." Titled "Fictional Worlds, Virtual Experiences: Storytelling and Computer Games," the exhibition promises to be interactive, featuring a live projection of a networked, "massively multiplayer" virtual world. Interactive game stations will allow visitors to influence the "narrative" of the multiplayer game, while, the press release entices, "challenging them to contemplate the history and the future of virtual gaming."

"Fictional Worlds" opens Nov. 12 and runs through March 28 at the Cantor Arts Center, on the Stanford University campus off Palm Drive, at Museum Way. Hours: Wed-Sun 11am-5pm. 650.723.4177; www.stanford.edu/dept/ccva. Admission is free.

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From the October 23-29, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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