It's 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night, the U.S. is at war with China, and I'm in the Marine Corps. Alpha Company has dropped me near an enemy bunker somewhere in a rural part of China. I look out over the muzzle of my rifle at some trees on the bank of a river. All around me, soldiers run and fire their weapons. I hear them shouting.
I'm supposed to find and kill Chinese soldiers, but before I can even figure out how to fire my gun, a sniper picks me off. I hear the bullets whizzing past and my own agonizing groan as I fall. Luckily, in 15 seconds I respawn for another go.
Such is my halting entry into the virtual world of Battlefield 2, a first-person-shooter videogame available at Algebars. Burlington's new videogaming lounge opened on the second floor at 70 Church Street, near the corner of Bank, in mid-August.
Algebars is not an arcade, like Pizza Putt; players don't wield plastic toy guns surrounded by sirens and blinking lights. They sit quietly at minimally lit, glass tables before sleek, top-of-the-line Alienware PCs. It's quiet, except for the sound generated by the lids of automated wastebaskets that open when someone walks by.
The gaming stations are complete with ergonomically correct chairs -- black, of course -- miked headphones and titanium mousepads. Each of the 24 set-ups -- clustered in circular pods of four -- costs about $5000 a pop.
The view of Church Street from the rounded second story windows is spectacular, as is the picture on the 50-inch, flat-screen plasma TV perpetually playing movies in the far corner. But those perks are no match for what's on the smaller screens. Videogames like Doom III and World of Warcraft are so advanced they're almost as visually compelling as movies. Software companies might spend $10 or $20 million developing one game, and hire teams of writers and artists, as well as programmers, to make them interesting. Thanks to the Internet, you and your friends can play together in an endlessly fascinating virtual world. Movies end; the action in these games can go on forever, and you get star billing.
At $5 an hour for game time -- less if you buy more hours in advance, more if you include a pizza or some caffeinated drinks -- playing here seems like a sweet deal. To the gamers, anyway. Algebars is one of two gaming lounges in the Burlington area; the other, a utilitarian gaming and office center called Elite Online Access, is tucked away on Dorset Street in South Burlington. Gaming lounges haven't exactly taken off in Vermont the way they have in places like Florida and Texas. The state is about 10 years behind the tech-savvy times.
Gaming and gaming lounges are even more popular abroad. While it's estimated that roughly half of Americans play videogames, they're a national sport in South Korea, where 70 percent of the population has access to a broadband Internet connection. That country has three cable-television channels that broadcast online gaming matches. Gamers there play in tournaments for up to $4.4 million in prize money. Construction is now underway on the world's first e-sports arena, to be completed in 2008.
Not that you need a stadium to play videogames. Most people access them on computers or Xboxes and PlayStations at home. But, as Algebars co-owner Lauran Burrell explains, "Most people don't have the kind of computer you need to play these games well." Burrell and her husband Ross are hoping that gaming in a clean, hip, urban environment might be more appealing to the area's players, most of whom are between 18 and 30 years old; nationally, the average age of gamers is 30.
The fortysomething husband-and-wife entrepreneurs moved here from New Zealand five years ago. They opened Algebars -- the name refers to a star in Lauran's favorite constellation, Orion -- because they thought this college town would appreciate an alcohol-free gaming hangout. Eventually, they hope to establish a chain.
Both Burrells are computer geeks; in their commanding corner office, they also run the Global Business Dialogue, or GBDe; Ross is the executive director, Lauran communications director. The organization helps various companies, including Hitachi Ltd., Hewlett-Packard and Deutche Bank, navigate the changing technological landscape. The Burrells' work requires travel: In the last few years, they've been to Cairo, Taiwan and Kuala Lumpur. This week, they're headed to Brussels.
Neither of them has much spare time -- Algebars is open from noon to midnight, seven days a week, and they're usually there. But given the chance, they like to play some of the 40 games Algebars offers. In particular, Lauran likes World of Warcraft, or W.O.W., which debuted last November.
W.O.W. -- a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, or MMORPG -- is a universe unto itself. Unlike Battlefield 2, which anyone can play, W.O.W. requires users to buy their own copies of the game, and pay a monthly fee for an account; you can't just walk into Algebars and play it.
To understand the game, you need to watch the trailer-like video that explains the back-story. Lauran uses her W.O.W. account to queue it up for me on one of the game terminals. I put on a pair of padded headphones, and listen to the deep-voiced narrator speaking over an epic score. Elaborate shots of the characters and maps of their imaginary homelands fade in and out on the screen. "The tenuous pact between the Horde and the Alliance has all but evaporated," says the narrator, his voice full of chilling gravitas. "The drums of war have sounded once again."
W.O.W. is one of Algebars' most popular games. Several of the 10 or so male customers this afternoon are playing it, as is Sydney Simoni, the 21-year-old woman with long, pink fingernails behind the front counter. Her undead warlock -- a member of the Horde -- is flying to Gadgetzan on a wyvern, which looks like a flying lion. It takes awhile to get there, so Simoni clicks onto another screen while she flies, and takes a payment for game time from Brian Whitney. The 18-year-old American Apparel employee is here for a few hours before he heads to his second job.
As they chat, Simoni reaches her destination, where she's promptly attacked by an Alliance character whose screenname appears in red above his head; this is another actual person, playing somewhere else in the world, who has decided to attack her from behind. "That jerk," says Simoni, as her warlock respawns. She flips through the list of her W.O.W. guild -- her friends who also play -- to see if anyone else she knows is online and can help her.
As Whitney sits down at his computer, he asks Simoni who attacked her. "Some knight elf," she replies.
"I would come and help you," he says, "but I have no interest in going to Gadgetzan."
This kind of interaction bolsters the Burrells' claims that videogaming -- long stereotyped as a solitary pursuit -- has actually become a very social activity. Players make connections online with people all over the world, and use games to develop real world and online relationships.
The Burrells have some personal experience in this department; they met in an online chat room in 1996, when Lauran was a lawyer in Chicago. After a few months, she moved to New Zealand to live closer to Ross, and the two married in 1999.
But the pastime's detractors charge that videogames are too violent and often unsuitable for minors. Witness the recent Grand Theft Auto controversy, which inspired Senator Hilary Clinton to call a videogame-violence inquiry, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign into law a bill criminalizing the sale of violent games to minors.
Algebars carries GTA, but only allows gamers who are over 18 to play it. The Burrells have also created a parental consent form, downloadable from their website for underage customers who want to play games the industry rates T (for Teen) or M (for Mature).
Gaming addiction is also getting some long-overdue attention. Many of Algebars clients freely admit they have a problem. Brian Whitney refers to gaming as "my addiction," in the same half-embarrassed, half-boasting way that college-age binge drinkers talk about theirs. He says he once played W.O.W. for 36 hours straight.
Such sustained play can be dangerous -- in August, a South Korean man collapsed and died after 50 hours of gaming; he was the second man there to die this way. And Korean psychologists have warned that they're treating many more cases of game addiction. This summer China announced new restrictions on gaming. After a few hours of play, gamers there will see a message that says, "You have entered unhealthy game time," and the benefits they accrue in the game will begin to decrease.
Amanda Crispel, assistant director of Champlain College's EGames and Interactive Development Program, says addiction is a real problem, especially for American college kids. "It affects more students than I think most people realize," she says. "It's not just my gaming students. It's just part of this culture, this generation."
Crispel says she has encouraged the newly-formed gaming club on campus to hold a discussion about addiction. Learning how to shut the computer off is apparently an important part of students' education.
Crispel, 40, enjoys a little gaming herself. The former programmer, who worked for software company Broderbund, helped develop educational games such as Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego. She recently let her students introduce her to W.O.W. "I'm now a giant cow who's a Druid," she says. "It's part of my role here," she adds, somewhat sheepishly.
For his part, Ross Burrell says he hasn't noticed anyone at Algebars "shaking, or sort of rushing to get a computer," he says. If he did see someone in a game-addled state, he wouldn't hesitate to boot them. "Just like any other responsible vendor . . . we like people as customers, but we don't need them that badly."
He says he hasn't gotten any complaints from parents yet, except for the ones who don't want to have to fill out consent forms.
These fast-paced thrill-rides are alluring even to a PC-gaming newbie like me; I haven't gotten hooked on a videogame since I had to plunk quarters into a machine to play one. I didn't really know what I was doing when I played Battlefield 2 last week, but every new discovery seemed to compel me to keep playing and try again. Even when I got tired, I kept shooting, sometimes firing at my own soldiers, just to see what it was like to make a kill. When my screen went blank, and the computer told me my hour had expired, I was almost relieved. But I might go back for more.