In a dimly lit room at a small Alexandria shopping center a group of people huddled over a machine throbbing with blinking lights, and the shreiks and sirens of exploding spaceships and crashing bombs.

"Intruder alert! Intruder alert!" a robot-like voice suddenly boomed.

It's all part of America's love affair with the computer, translated into the world of space invaders and the high-profit video game industry.

But in some Northern Virginia areas, this seemingly harmless entertainment craze has generated controversy over where and under what rules video arcades should be allowed. It is, for some opponents, the modern equivalent of the pool hall. Or to paraphrase "The Music Man," it starts with V and that rhymes with T and that stands for Trouble.

"We're concerned that if these games are close to the schools, lunch money could be spent in the wrong direction," Alexandria Schools Superintendent Robert W. Peebles told the school board recently.

"I have heard that the games are intellectually challenging," said Alexandria School Board Chairman Shirley Tyler, "but my concern is whether they would be a lure for students during lunch time."

With the flexible hours at many local schools, it is difficult to be sure if students are cutting classes to bomb space ships on Space Invaders, but David Dempster, 17, of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, says some of his friends do spend their lunch periods in front of video machines.

"Instead of eating lunch," Dempster says, "some kids go to Dart Drug or Sears where they have machines."

Although drinking, eating or smoking is not permitted in most video game centers, some local residents are concerned that the arcades could be potential trouble spots as gathering places for teen-agers. Others are worried about enough parking spots near the facilities.

"We were concerned about the machines being in the lower King Street area," says Lonore Van Swearingen, a member of the Old Town Civic Association, a group that also has led the fight to limit bars and restaurants along lower King. "It was not the sort of thing that fit in with the general tone of Old Town."

Last month, the Alexandria Planning Commission and City Council rejected two requests for special use permits for video game arcades, after considering citizen complaints and problems such as parking. One proposal was for an arcade along King Street in Old Town, and the other was for a similar center at the Fairlington Shopping Center near T.C. Williams High School.

Owners and managers of video arcades contend that their establishments have not created the problems local residents fear.

"A lot of people frown on them, and think they are bad and rowdy, but it's really a family thing," says Maureen Daniels, manager of the Golden Dome Amusement Center, which opened in March in Alexandria's Pickett Street Plaza.

The Golden Dome, part of chain of video game centers, has 36 machines. The facility is immaculate and Daniels says she is strict about enforcing the no drinking, no eating, no smoking rules.

"We have never had any trouble here," says Daniels, known affectionately as Grandma to many of her teen-age clients. "In England, people gather together to play darts. This reminds me of it. At least here, they can spend $10 and leave sober."

"I haven't seen anything here that looks like drug dealing," says Steve Mathews of Fairfax City, a self-proclaimed video game addict who is one of Daniels' steady customers. "That's not what these places are about. Occasionally you get some foul language, but that's due to losing to the machines."

Alexandria and Arlington allow video arcades only in commercial or industrial zones, although Alexandria requires a special use permit for such facilities. Fairfax County limits the arcades to regional shopping centers, and each arcade must win approval Video Games: Regulating America's Latest Craze By JURA KONCIUS Washington Post Staff Writer II n a dimly lit room at a small Alexandria shopping center a group of people huddled intently over a machine throbbing with I blinking lights, and the shrieks and sirens of exploding spaceships and crashing bombs.

"Intruder alert! Intruder alert!" a robot-like voice suddenly boomed.

It's all part of America's love affair with the computer, translated into the world of space invaders and the high-profit video game industry.

But in some Northern Virginia areas, this seemingly harmless entertainment craze has generated controversy over where and under what rules video arcades should be allowed. It is, for some opponents, the modern equivalent of the pool hall. Or to paraphrase "The Music Man," it starts with V and that rhymes with T and that stands for Trouble.

"We're concerned that if these games are close to the schools, lunch money could be spent in the wrong direction," Alexandria Schools Superintendent Robert W. Peebles told the school board recently.

"I have heard that the games are intellectually challenging," said Alexandria School Board Chairman Shirley Tyler, "but my concern is whether they would be a lure for students during lunch time."

With the flexible hours at many local schools, it is difficult to be sure if students are cutting classes to bomb space ships on Space Invaders, but David Dempster, 17, of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, says some of his friends do spend their lunch periods in front of video machines.

"Instead of eating lunch," Dempster says, "some kids go to Dart Drug or Sears where they have machines."

Although drinking, eating or smoking is not permitted in most video game centers, some local residents are concerned that the arcades could be potential trouble spots as gathering places for teen-agers. Others are worried about enough parking spots near the facilities.

"We were concerned about the machines being in the lower King Street area," says Lonore Van Swearingen, a member of the Old Town Civic Association, a group that also has led the fight to limit bars and restaurants along lower King. "It was not the sort of thing that fit in with the general tone of Old Town."

Last month, the Alexandria Planning Commission and City Council rejected two requests for special use permits for video game arcades, after considering citizen complaints and problems such as parking. One proposal was for an arcade along King Street in Old Town, and the other was for a similar center at the Fairlington Shopping Center near T.C. Williams High School.

Owners and managers of video arcades contend that their establishments have not created the problems local residents fear.

"A lot of people frown on them, and think they are bad and rowdy, but it's really a family thing," says Maureen Daniels, manager of the Golden Dome Amusement Center, which opened in March in Alexandria's Pickett Street Plaza.

The Golden Dome, part of chain of video game centers, has 36 machines. The facility is immaculate and Daniels says she is strict about enforcing the no drinking, no eating, no smoking rules.

"We have never had any trouble here," says Daniels, known affectionately as Grandma to many of her teen-age clients. "In England, people gather together to play darts. This reminds me of it. At least here, they can spend $10 and leave sober."

"I haven't seen anything here that looks like drug dealing," says Steve Mathews of Fairfax City, a self-proclaimed video game addict who is one of Daniels' steady customers. "That's not what these places are about. Occasionally you get some foul language, but that's due to losing to the machines."

Alexandria and Arlington allow video arcades only in commercial or industrial zones, although Alexandria requires a special use permit for such facilities. Fairfax County limits the arcades to regional shopping centers, and each arcade must win approval from the Board of Supervisors for a special exception zoning permit.

Those rules, however, do not govern small businesses such as restaurants, convenience stores, bowling alleys and drug stores that might want to install only a few machines.

But with the proliferation of machines, at least one jurisdiction -- Alexandria -- is considering new regulations that would give local officials more control over the location of video games.

"We are not against the video games," says Engin Artemel, Alexandria's director of planning and community development. "But we would like to control them and make sure there are no adverse impacts to the community."

Later this month, the Alexandria City Council is expected to consider a report from its planning staff that recommends limiting the number of machines allowed in places like restaurants and convenience stores where the machines are not the primary source of business.

"Once an establishment has over four games, we feel we should have a right to say that you should put them in a certain place," says Terry Rixse, a senior planner in Alexandria. "We took a survey and we feel that with more than four machines, after a point you have congestion at the entrance and a fire hazard."

Although one video machine can cost $2,000 to $4,000, it can pay for itself in a few weeks, according to Jeff Starnes, manager of Aladdin's Castle at Landmark Shopping Center. A hot machine, such as Pac Man, can bring in as much as $400 a week with games just 25 cents a pop, says Starnes.

The lure of such quick profits, according to area officials, has prompted a sharp increase in the number of applications to install the machines.

And video arcade managers say they have no trouble attracting customers.

"You get stuck on a game," says Steve Mathews, a computer specialist who goes to the Golden Dome three to four days a week. "I know these machines can be beaten. People program them so people can beat them . . . It's almost hypnotic, it's entertainment, a way to pass time. And I know I'm not spending the afternoon at a corner tavern. So in a certain sense it's healthier, though I don't know what it is doing to my eyes."

Alexandria and Fairfax each have two video arcades. And although local officials concede there have been no problems, in Alexandria, at least, officials want to make sure none develop.

"Both the arcades we have here and the ones in Fairfax County are well run but we want to continue that," says Alexandria's Artemel. "We don't have problems with what we have now but there seems to be a lot of interest and we want to make sure they are well controlled and there are no negative impacts in the community."

"This is a new rage," adds Alexandria planning commissioner William B. Hurd. "Like trampolines, nobody had ever heard of them. But trampolines went away, then we had skateboards, now we have video games. . . . We need a policy as to where they can be located."