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.

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Ricky's father is Italian, his mother Venezuelan. He lives at home in Pittsburg along with his younger sister, Rosa, who is twelve, and his sixteen-year-old brother, AJ.

His father likes guns, and has taken Ricky deer and duck hunting. Ricky has also fired guns on a range. The Heckler and Koch MP5 doesn't do it for him, he says. He likes the Desert Eagle, a weapon made by an Israeli company called Magnum Research. "It's loud. It's so powerful and heavy. I love it," he says. He even has a pet name for it: Deagle.

Macy's is okay, but Ricky has plans. "I like law. I might do some of that. I like medical. I might do some of that," he says. He wants to go to Chico State. "Party school!" he jokes.

Ricky doesn't drink, though. He's got other interests, such as the Tolkien trilogy, which he prefers over Star Wars. "Lord of the Rings," he says. "I can't wait for the last one to come out. I'll sit at home with all three on DVD, and a nice big fat hookah. Booooooffffff." He pretends to take a massive bong hit.

Outside again, Ricky bums more cigarettes from the sandwich girl. She wears too much eyeliner, talks about going to Oregon to buy cigarettes tax-free. They pass the mall gossip back and forth. Ricky is procrastinating, avoiding getting back to Macy's. Things will be chaotic at this time of day. Every customer wants his shirts boxed and wrapped. And folded.

And Ricky still has five more hours before he can jump in his Eclipse and head over to the Next Level, where he and his fellow Triads will kill and be killed all night long.

Not long after peeling out of the mall parking lot, Ricky's Mitsubishi speeds around a corner and down Golf Club Drive to Pleasant Hill's resident PC Baang, the Next Level.

"PC Baang" -- baang is Korean for "room" -- is just an exotic way of saying Internet cafe, a space more about broadband than caffeine. These venues first sprung up in South Korea around 1997 as places for teens and adults to surf the Net, play Starcraft, and meet members of the opposite sex. There are now roughly 26,000 PC Baangs in South Korea, where top gamers are treated like professional athletes.

The trend has been late to catch on in the United States, but it's finally gaining momentum as Baangs pop up to replace the defunct mall arcades where Gen X youth once socialized. Besides the Next Level, the East Bay PC Baang circuit includes CyberGlobe in Concord, CyberGame in Richmond, CyberCafe in Oakland, and other joints in Walnut Creek, Fremont, and Dublin.

The Next Level is nestled in strip-mall hell between a skate shop and a hobby store. To block out all sunlight, every inch of its windows is plastered over with game posters featuring gun-toting cyberbabes rendered in 3-D and clad in outfits that look either uncomfortable or nonexistent.

Inside, it's a nerd's paradise. The sizable joint hums with top-of-the-line PCs, PlayStation 2 consoles, and X-Boxes. The black walls and strategically placed gaming stations give it the air of a nightclub that moonlights as an arcade during the day. But the hordes of young men -- and a few female hangers-on -- who pack this place probably seldom muster the nerve to go out dancing. This is the refuge of the young and the unpopular, the boys and girls who don't fit into the gangster-rap chic so popular at their high schools. Here, there's no bullying, no catcalls, no thumping SUV subwoofers. There is only gaming -- pure, unrelenting digital gaming.

These kids don't just play Counter-Strike, they build their social lives around it. And they assume alter egos when they play. Ricky goes by the nickname SataN. "Because I'm evil!" he boasts. "I was playin' real good one day, and someone's like 'You're cheating!' And I'm like, 'No, I'm just good! Good and evil.'"

Gamers even have their own language, a form of keyboard graffiti that involves the swapping of characters and numbers. It's called "L337-speak" -- pronounced "leet-speak," as in "elite." The code was popularized by Quake players to expand naming possibilities for their online personas.

At twenty, Ricky is one of the oldest players here. There are a couple of guys in their late twenties, but they look self-conscious and out of place. Nearly everyone else is a teenager. About half the crowd is Asian American, with the rest an even split between white and Latino. It's not entirely clear why Baangs are so popular with the Asian kids. "It might have to do with Asian owners," suggests the owner of one gaming establishment.

It also may have to do with the tendency of Asian-American kids to socialize in large groups. Counter-Strike, after all, is a group effort. Teamwork is just as important here as it is in a game of baseball or football. And rather than team up with strangers, the most ardent players form clans, which they often give oddball or offensive names. These aren't like gangs, where the rivalries spill onto the streets. But in the virtual world, rival clans would like to spill as much of their opponents' blood as possible -- and brag about it.

Take Ricky, who leads the Triad Family Clan, or Triads for short: Ricky says his boys are the best. Ricky says he once won $1,000 in a Counter-Strike tournament. Ricky says his clan was founded by a bona-fide Asian Triad member from Canada. Ricky is full of shit.

But the world of Counter-Strike, to borrow from Stanley Kubrick, is a world of shit. Your ego is your shield, and players are constantly talking smack. Ricky is a master shit-talker, dishing out lingo like the tough guy on the basketball court. He talks so much trash, in fact, that some of the other players on the cafe circuit loathe him.


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