Fremont Steps into the 21st Century 

City leaders ditch a Pac-Man-era arcade prohibition that drove cybercafes underground and left the owners watching their backs.

It's nine o'clock on Saturday evening and, as with most weekends, Martal Johnson is engulfed in battle. Crowned by a black Yankees cap turned backwards, the thirteen-year-old gamer peers through wraparound specs at his monitor, eyeing an ever-changing display of graphs, firepower, and all-around carnage. His pupils fixed and hyperfocused, Johnson works keyboard and mouse effortlessly, brandishing weapons and navigating complex terrain. PC speakers fill the dimly lit room with machine-gun fire, whose hot staccato roar can be heard nearly a block away.

It's a typical weekend night at Fremont's Hypernet, where Johnson and other die-hard gamers vie for a spot at one of twenty terminals and the chance to play Counter-Strike on the establishment's breakneck T1 server. "Up to fourteen people can play at once," Johnson says, swapping out weapons between kills. "There's nine of us playing right now." For those not indoctrinated into the world of communal PC gaming, the idea behind Counter-Strike is simple. Players log onto a network, divide into two teams -- terrorists and counterterrorists -- and battle in a variety of arcade settings.

In the war-torn tundra of Ice World, Johnson, a terrorist, spots a lone counterterrorist separated from his squad. His prey tries to escape by diving into a wintry underwater channel, but it's no use. "Get out of the water, you fool!" one of his comrades shouts, as Johnson fills the poor sod with a clip of cyberlead. "Terrorists win!" a voice booms from the speakers, eliciting jeers, catcalls, and promises of swift retribution.

To hang out here on a weekend night is to witness an innocuous, if spirited, portrait of suburban teenage existence. Gamers talk trash, trade scores, and litter the floor with fast-food detritus. Most are teenage boys -- at least until 10 p.m., when Hypernet hosts an eighteen-and-older crowd. It's friendly and safe and, until just last week, completely illegal.

Back in the Pac-Man age of 1983, Fremont city officials adopted an ordinance that banned arcades in areas that were largely residential -- like the one that houses Hypernet. Dubbed "neighborhood commercial districts" by city officials, these areas boast a comfortable balance of residences and businesses -- as long as those businesses aren't too unsavory. "They're neighborhood communities," notes Vik Slen, who works in the city's planning division. "These are the quietest areas."

The thought of Asteroids and Q-Bert as corrupting influences seems ridiculously far-fetched today, particularly after watching the gut-spilling gunfest at Hypernet. But when Michael McClosky proposed opening an arcade at 40645 Fremont Boulevard in November of '82, his application met with unexpected resistance. "It was recommended for denial by the staff," Slen recalls.

At the time, the city was hearing complaints about arcades operating under the radar. "The number of illegal arcades was far greater than the number of those approved," the planner notes. Predictably, the underground video-game venues drew the ire of locals, who complained of litter, vandalism, truancy, loitering -- issues that probably wouldn't have plagued the sort of legitimate establishment McClosky was proposing.

But Fremont officials weren't satisfied simply by denying McClosky's application. In April 1983, they enacted their ban. There were allowances, of course. Certain types of businesses could operate up to five machines without being considered an "arcade." Some, like bars and movie theaters, were pretty predictable. Others, such as beauty salons and barber shops, seemed a bit capricious, even odd.

Whatever the case, there was no way Fremont city officials could have anticipated the PC gaming craze that would emerge two decades later. So when Jimmy Lee opened Hypernet in March 2002 in a plaza on Decoto Road, it seemed like just another software outlet. That's the line the city bought for a year, anyway.

So how did Fremont officials uncover Hypernet's ruse? Was it the deafening roar of simulated machine-gun fire emanating constantly from within? Or that it was the only software outlet that stayed open until 1 a.m.? Possibly. But more likely it was the repeated incidents of bad behavior that drew the attention of local police, and eventually blew the joint's cover. "We had six reports in 2003 and one in 2004," recalls Detective William Veteran of the Fremont Police Department. Among the earliest violations, he notes, were possession of marijuana for sale, petty theft, and arrest warrants. More-recent incidents -- battery, stolen vehicles -- made things a bit more serious, lending a sense of danger to the cyberpunk set.

"These infractions probably could have occurred in the parking lot," Veteran says. "Whether they're attributed to Hypernet, I don't know. That's a little high for a small retail store, but when you have a place that attracts young people, you're inherently going to have some problems, especially if you're open late at night."

In March 2003, Hypernet came under scrutiny from Fremont's Code Enforcement Division, which after a number of complaints investigated and found various violations -- low lighting, faulty electrical outlets, and twenty computer gaming stations, for which Lee had no permit.

One need only set foot inside Hypernet to see that its classification as a computer retail outlet is misleading. But enforcing the city's anti-arcade ordinance proved problematic. Because the law was adopted in 1983, it was unclear whether PCs met the city's definition of an arcade terminal. Hypernet did, after all, offer Internet access, a service no one could have predicted twenty years ago. So in July 2003, city officials agreed to let Lee petition to have the ordinance changed. "We want to steer away from the stereotype that the city council sees us as strictly a gaming center," says Tommy Vo, who along with partner Vince Pham is in the process of purchasing Hypernet from Lee. "We have a lot of avenues to offer."

Having weighed those avenues against potential problems for more than a year now, the Fremont City Council voted unanimously July 13 to amend its zoning laws to legitimize communal PC outlets such as Hypernet. Although such establishments will still have to apply for a permit with the city (application cost: $2,400), the vote effectively brought an end more to than two decades of antigaming paranoia in Fremont.

And yet, it's not as though Hypernet was the only underground gaming establishment in Fremont. Gamers seeking thrills on the wrong side of the law could opt for Cyber Cave on Washington Boulevard or Sovereign Networks on Fremont Boulevard, two "computer stores" city officials suspect are illegal gaming dens. And those are just the ones the city knows about -- there are certainly others.

While Vo and Pham say they've given Fremont's finest the heads-up, even promising to offer an after-school program, there was something intrinsically cool about kids flocking by the dozens to underground cyber arcades, something mildly illegal, yet illegal nonetheless. At Hypernet, for better or worse, that sense of danger will be a thing of the past. "It's summertime," Vo says. "Kids have nowhere to go. I'd rather have them in here than roaming around causing a ruckus."

Hear that, Counter-Strikers? You've just been Q-Bertized.

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