As the sound of electronic gunfire ricocheted around the darkened room, the teenage boys stared intently at their computer screens.
Thirteen-year-old Isaac Kim slouched in his cushioned chair, his fingers on the keyboard his only movement. For minutes he said nothing as his on-screen character loaded a machine gun and maneuvered through a rocky maze.
Andy Shin, 18, above, checks out comic books at the PC Games & Comic store in Ellicott City. Below from left, Herbert Yoo, Howard Quach, Danny Cheung and Paul Yun, all 22, have a laugh outside the store. Video game cafes, with fast connections and comfortable chairs, have become teen hangouts that, in some parts of the country, are becoming worrisome.
(Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)
And then -- "Yes!" he shrieked as his character shot down another figure. Behind him, three other players whooped victoriously. Two screens away, the loser groaned.
Like most of the other teenagers who hang out at the Ellicott City cyber cafe, Isaac has a personal computer at home that connects him to his friends and allows him to play games such as Counter-Strike with anyone around the world. But at least twice a month he comes to PC Games & Comic in the Normandy Shopping Center to play video games -- and most important, to hang with his buddies.
Gloating about a win is better in person, after all, than in an instant message.
"At home, you're just by yourself," Isaac said. "Here you're with friends. It's different."
With high-speed connections, comfy chairs, and soft drinks and snacks for sale, cyber cafes such as the one in Ellicott City have become a meeting place for this generation's teenage boys (and a few girls).
Video game cafes first became popular in tech-crazed South Korea, where most Internet service is fast and cheap. Korean immigrants brought the business idea to suburbs such as Ellicott City, which has a large Korean population already familiar with gaming cafes. Those students then introduced the cafes to friends.
PC Games & Comic, with 28 computers, started four years ago. Other gaming cafes have popped up in Anne Arundel, Fairfax and Montgomery counties, as well. The largest cyber cafe in the region, Music House, with 70 computers, is in the heart of the Koreatown section of Annandale in Northern Virginia.
For $3 to $5 an hour, players get access to high-speed computers that are hooked up to the same network so they can be used in the same game. The most popular games are Counter-Strike, in which "terrorists" battle "counter-terrorists," and role-playing games such as Diablo, in which players create characters for themselves and battle obstacles.
Kyung Kim, a 30-year-old Korean immigrant, who is not related to Isaac Kim, said he started the Ellicott City cyber cafe primarily so he could play, too.
"I love the games," he said. Visiting a cyber cafe is comparable to going to a movie theater or video arcade, he said, because "people want to have fun with their friends."
But as the gaming cafes become more popular, they've also sparked worries. Some academic experts say the games are addictive and encourage violent behavior, while others argue that the games have that effect only if the young person is emotionally vulnerable. In New York and California -- where cafes opened first in the United States -- some lawmakers are discussing stricter regulations. Fatal stabbings have occurred in Orange County, Calif., and in Brooklyn in New York. Some of the rules under consideration would require cyber cafes to log all customers, limit their business hours and videotape their premises.
Locally, authorities have not reported gaming cafes as being trouble spots with violent crime and gang activity. Business owners say they keep a close eye on customers. Some businesses have signs saying that anyone younger than 16 isn't allowed to play past 11 p.m. on a weeknight or during school hours.