Where Friends Wage Virtual War
Many teenagers have permission from their parents to play. At Cyber Ground in Fairfax County, for example, mothers driving minivans drop off several children on a typical Saturday night.
Yong Chae, 31, who helps watch over PC Games & Comic, said that crime becomes a problem in cyber cafes if they are not monitored properly, not because shoot'em-up video games are being played. He said that the location of the Ellicott City cafe, in a quiet shopping strip alongside a pizza parlor and art frame store, makes it safe.
Chae said that managers also monitor whether middle school students are dropped off by a parent. If not, they ask for the youth's home phone number and make a call.
"The environment makes a difference," Chae said. Mee Kyung Kim, Isaac Kim's mother, said she doesn't like the video games but figures that "one hour a day is okay.
"My son likes computers," she said. "We just limit the time. After homework, you can play video games or watch TV."
She said that she allows her son to go to the cyber cafe because he's with friends she knows through their church, the Korean American Church of Philippi in Columbia.
Austin Cho, the church's youth pastor, said he sometimes plays with the teenagers. "It's no worse than any of the PG-13 movies," said Cho, 24, who often uses video clips of movies such as "Lord of the Rings" to make points in his sermons about friendship and sacrifice.
Cho draws the line at games that he says promote antisocial behavior, such as Grand Theft Auto, in which police officers are targeted. Such games have not been popular at most cyber cafes, including the one in Ellicott City.
But Cho said that as long as students have balanced lives, with caring family and friends, parents shouldn't overreact to video games. "I've played my share of violent games, I've seen my share of violent movies, and I'm fine," Cho said.
At PC Games & Comic, many of the children admit that the games can be addictive. But as with most aspects of teenage life, the amount of time they spend in the cyber cafe is influenced by the cool factor.
Said 18-year-old Isaac An, whose hair is dyed a fashionable orange, anyone who plays too much is a "loser" and "just wasting life."
An, a recent graduate of Wilde Lake High School, said that when he started going to cyber cafes two years ago, he would play three times a week. Now, it's down to once a week.
"It's just about having fun," said An, a member of the Philippi church youth group. "If you play at home, it's not the same. You have all your friends here, you can see what they're doing, and you can talk to them."
Rob Groomes, 19, of Ellicott City, comes to the cafe to play a few rounds of Counter-Strike and surf the Internet.
"These computers are a lot nicer than my computer," said Groomes, who attends college near Dallas but whose family lives in the area.
After an hour, though, he had other plans: He looked up movie times to go see "Shrek 2" and "Harry Potter." Said Groomes: "I get bored easily."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company