Baang! You're Dead 

Clan leaders Ricky Menjivar and Vinh Bui are out for blood. Their battleground: Korean-style cybercafes across the East Bay. Their deadly game: Counter-Strike.

The first floor of Macy's at the Sun Valley Mall in Concord has been ravaged. Everything's on sale, even if it isn't really cheaper than usual, and the clothing department has been a mob scene ever since the store opened at 8 a.m. With only six days left until Christmas, the staff is battle-worn. Making matters worse is the holiday Muzak oozing from circular beige speakers in the ceiling -- staccato horns tooting out "Winter Wonderland."

Appeasing the crowds lined up at the only functioning register in this part of the store is a heavyset young man dressed entirely in black -- socks, boots, slacks, and button-down shirt. The only thing that isn't jet-black is the gold name tag pinned to his shirt just above the left nipple: "Ricky."

Ricky Menjivar stands five-seven with short, spiky black hair and the scent of Calvin Klein's Crave, which he samples from testers in the cologne section. The twenty-year-old sales clerk is perched behind a white rectangular box littered with security tags and sales scanners. The tiny black-and-white screens flash and the speakers beep as he scans Ecko shirts, Hilfiger pants, and designer socks. His arms move quickly, with the grace of a dancer poured into a body too big to pirouette.

Ricky has the scanning system down pat, but he seems to have trouble folding shirts. He stares at a white-ribbed oxford with a look of concentration. "You know, my husband once got a job at a clothing store," says his customer, a spry, white-haired woman. Ricky focuses on the shirt. "Right," he says.

Unfazed by his lack of interest, she continues. "I had to stay up with him all night teaching him how to fold shirts."

The clerk continues to fumble with her purchases. "Right," he repeats. It's close to noon and he hasn't had a break.

Hanging above Ricky is a sign. In its center, there's a bright red star festooned with the happy faces of young people. "The Fashion, the Fun, the Magic," it reads. "Imagine the Possibilities."

Ricky, in fact, is doing just that, except that the possibilities he's imagining aren't quite what the sign intended. They have to do with tactical combat situations, muzzle velocities, grenade detonation timers, and the defensive capabilities of Kevlar. One minute, he's traversing an Aztec ruin or storming a snow-covered office complex; the next, he's hauling ass through the cobblestone streets of an Italian town, lobbing grenades around corners.

Ricky Menjivar's body is folding shirts. His mind is playing Counter-Strike.

Counter-Strike is the most popular action game on the Internet, boasting some two million players. At this very moment, at least 70,000 hopeless addicts are playing it online around the world. The game was devised by ex-Microsoft programmers who aimed to simulate real-world terrorist scenarios: How do you save a cluster of five hostages barricaded inside a building defended by ten armed combatants? How can you stop a squad of terrorists from setting a bomb and escaping to safety? These are the questions Counter-Strikers explore on a daily basis.

Counter-Strike -- created by an avid gamer and later marketed by Kirkland, Washington-based Valve Software (see sidebar "Before the Revolution") -- is what's known as a first-person shooter, in which players view the virtual landscape through the eyes of their characters. The game is designed to be a true representation of combat, and that makes it more challenging than its predecessors. Most computer games feature Rambo-like characters who can withstand multiple hits from rocket launchers, flamethrowers, or nail guns. In Counter-Strike, a single well-aimed bullet will be your undoing.

Players choose sides at the outset: The terrorists' goal is to plant a bomb and defend it until it explodes; the counter-terrorists must defuse the device or prevent it from being placed. If and when the charge is planted, a text message goes out to all players: "Someone set us up the bomb." That's a play on another gaming catchphrase, "All your base are belong to us." Both expressions are botched English translations from the Japanese computer game Zero Wing.

Matches consist of a series of rounds, each lasting five to ten minutes. A round ends when the bomb explodes, gets defused, or when all the counter-terrorists are annihilated. If the terrorists are wiped out, they can still win the round if the bomb goes off before the counter-terrorists can defuse it.

For Counter-Strike fanatics like Ricky, it's more than a game. It's an identity. It's who he is and what he does best. Sure, Ricky will tell you about his vague aspirations, and yes, he pulls in a paycheck at Macy's, but if you want to know what he's proud of, then know this: Ricky is the leader of Concord's dominant gaming clan, the Triads. With a sales scanner, this cat is efficient. But with a mouse and a keyboard, he's straight-up dangerous.

It's raining when the young sales clerk finally gets a break. He stands under an overhanging ledge outside the mall, smoking Marlboro Reds and chatting with a girl from Subway, who then returns to the sandwich joint to build him his favorite lunch: a six-inch Buffalo chicken sandwich with extra sauce and juices. Ricky goes over to the soda fountain and fills half his cup with Mountain Dew before topping it off with orange soda.

He gazes out at the rain while he eats. Despite his heavy build, Ricky eats daintily, his thick ruddy pinkies sticking up even when he holds his drink. But the sandwich soon vanishes down his gullet, and he proceeds to talk about himself -- one of his favorite pastimes.

Ricky thinks he's the shit. He claims he's got his CCNA. That's geek talk -- a Cisco Certified Network Associate is capable of installing, configuring, and operating an alphabet soup of recondite computer networking services and protocols. Ricky also claims he can program in Java, C, C++, HTML, and Pascal. And did he mention that he got second place in his regional high school wrestling league? "I wasn't so popular in high school," he says, "but then I got my Eclipse 3000GT, and people are all like, 'Oh, we wanna hang out with you now.'"


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