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.
And then -- "Yes!" he shrieked as his character shot down another figure. Behind him, three other players whooped victoriously. Two screens down, the loser groaned.
Like most of the other teenagers who hang out at the Ellicott City cyber cafe, Kim 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, 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," Kim 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).
The 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 them 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 game is 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. He compared visiting a cyber cafe with going to a movie theater or video arcade 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 that 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.
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."