We’ve come a long way from Pac-man… Digital Lifestyle Center at the vanguard of video game revolution

by Brian Clarey

Brendan Russell is a killing machine. With a Magnum in one hand and a submachine gun in the other he sprays a hail of bullets, taking down two of the enemy and leaving them sprawled in the dirt. He uses his rocket launcher to neutralize a small cluster near a pillbox and then he heads for high ground, where he shoulders a sniper rifle and picks off a couple more. He moves back to a low-lying area and advances through an underground tunnel, creeping forward slowly with a shotgun in his hands. But then he’s ambushed by an enemy crouched low behind a corner. The killing comes quickly and his body goes limp.

And now he’s pissed.

‘“Did you see that?’”

‘“Yeah,’” his friend says, sitting on the couch next to him in the darkened video entertainment parlor. ‘“That’s bullshit.’”

They’re riding the leather sofa at the Digital Lifestyle Center, tucked inside Quaker Village, but also they’re riding the cutting edge of video entertainment just by being in the room.

The place, owned by Victor Huot, John Reeves III and Mark Steinberg, will shortly see the end of its first business year and it would take a whole website to explain all the different kinds of things they do. Steinberg worked for Apple Computers in the ’70s, and among him and his two partners they’ve pretty much got all your computer needs covered.

‘“Anything you want to do on a computer,’” he says, ‘“we know how to do it.’”

So they’ll come to your house and set up a home network. They’ll teach you HTML. They’ll archive your data or create a media campaign or show you why you can’t send e-mail. The desks in the storefront office teem with flat-screen monitors, wireless mouses, wireless keyboards, wireless headsets and even a few wires. They’ve got the tools and they’ve got the talent.

But the big business here is playing around.

The lounge at the rear of the Digital Lifestyle Center is a vidiot’s Valhalla ‘— a wide-open space humming with blue glare and enough computer gaming equipment to run the defense ministry of France.

It’s clean and busy with gamers hunched in front of PCs and big screens, and their ages range from young teenagers to their middle-aged parents with a healthy grouping of twenty and thirtysomethings in between.

Three banks of sofas line one wall, each positioned three feet or so from a giant television set with an Xbox appendage. A counter displays new game releases, chips and candy bars, a list of membership fees and a refrigerator case of sodas and not-so-soft energy drinks. A brand named ‘Bawls,’ packaged in a blue glass bottle with grip nubs on the sides, is displayed most prominently ‘— it’s available only in gaming centers like this and is reputed to have five times the caffeine kick of a cup of coffee. A low wall constructed by full cases of Bawls divides the room. On the other side of it they keep the big guns ‘— 16 Alienware CPUs with AMD FX 53 processors, sleek and menacing machines with a creepy, green-eyed logo and enough memory to simulate real time, necessary for all of today’s high-tech games whether they involve slaying medieval foes in a quest for potions and stones, dueling intergalactic rivals or going commando on a camp full of hostiles.

They’ve got more computer power on these tables than most offices and some colleges. You can’t play the games without the juice.

Video games in fact are what drives the technology to be smaller, cheaper and faster. But they were once quirky offshoots of the burgeoning computer industry, going back to when Willy Higinbotham invented a rudimentary paddle game displayed on the tiny green-tinged monitor of an oscilloscope in 1958 as a diversion for bored visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratories in New York where he worked. Higinbotham, by the way, never patented his device, leaving the door open for Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn, who mass-marketed a similar game called ‘Pong’ in 1972. Bushnell, who had invented a game called ‘Spacewar’ while a student at MIT more than 10 years earlier, went on to co-found Atari and then Pizza Time Theatre, a video game and pizza emporium that eventually became Chuck E. Cheese.

All this happened amid efforts by Coleco, Mattel, Magnavision, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, Magnavox, Radio Shack and others to contain the video-game market, which was itself in hyperdrive.

The products quickly segregated into those played on home systems hooked up to family television sets and individual games placed in huge cabinets and marketed to bowling alleys, bars, pizza joints and a new kind of retail business: the video arcade, a predecessor to the Lifestyle Center in a similar way that the pay phone is precursor to the cell.

The Center has very few similarities to the modern-day Chuck E. Cheese ‘— no giant mouse, for one, certainly not any playground equipment and no photo booth. No tokens, either. And there is none of the thug element that pervaded some of the arcades in the ’70s and early ’80s and even earlier, on the boardwalk midways and bowling alleys and bars and pool halls where stand-alone games of skill have their roots. In here the gamers generally cooperate, showing each other secret moves and hidden areas. There’s a Starbucks in the same strip mall, along with a few restaurants and a gym. And they have a webcam posting images online so parents can check on their kids.

It all may have turned out differently if Namco had gone with their original name for the phenomenon that became Pac-Man. They initially wanted to call it ‘Puck Man,’ but a forward-thinking executive reasoned that vandals could scratch off a part of the ‘P,’ forming a slur and making the game unattractive for businesses, perhaps even changing the nature of the arcades themselves. After all, Pac-Man was an important part of the culture back then.

This was in 1980, the year that saw the debut of the Intellivision home gaming system, the genesis of Activision (the first third-party console gaming software company) and the formation of an American division of a Japanese playing-card company that was founded in 1889 and renamed ‘Nintendo’ in the ’50s. Two other stand-alone games debuted that year: Space Invaders and Defender.

You can still buy these titles at video game stores today, though nowadays they’re bought and played mostly by people old enough to remember the early days and their kids, who laugh at them with the same spirit they use to ridicule the special effects in the original Star Wars movie.

Today’s games are more complex, more involved, and immensely more satisfying to play. At the Digital Lifestyle Center they get the new titles as they are released and are sometimes chosen to host sneak previews of new games for their members.

The hot-ticket item right now is ‘“Halo 2,’” a first-person shooter that came out last Christmas and also the game of choice for Brendan Russell, the 16-year-old rising junior from Western Guilford High and aforementioned killing machine. Before there was ‘“Halo 2’” there was ‘“Halo.’” There is also a Halo series of sci-fi books, Halo beanie caps and hoodie sweatshirts, Halo action figures, a Halo soundtrack, Halo notepads, water bottles, beer steins, magnets, keychains and luggage tags that make up one of the biggest franchises in an industry bigger than Hollywood.

That’s right: In 2004 video games made more money than box office and DVD sales combined.

Budgets for big-name games now rival those of Hollywood blockbusters and take nearly as many people to produce. Newly released titles often sell before they hit the shelves, bought for the most part with allowances and birthday money but also picked up by adult gamers in on the movement.

‘“’Battlefield 2’ comes out in two weeks,’” says Huot, leaning back in his chair in the offices of the Center. ‘“It’s gonna take up most of my time for the next year or two.’”

A kid breaks in from the gaming room floor.

‘“Hey,’” says the kid, ‘“is there any way we could use different maps? Nobody knows these maps.’”

Victor turns to his computer to remedy the situation.

It’s tournament night for members of the Center and the game is ‘“Counter-Strike: Source,’” a team-based first-person shooter with a scenario that pits a cell of terrorists trying to plant a bomb against a platoon of counter-terrorists acting to stop them or at least defuse the bomb. It’s very much like Capture the Flag and yet so, so different.

Two teams of five members each take their stations at the computer consoles, don their earpieces and each places their hands on a keyboard and mouse. For this event it’s not necessarily about the prizes, which run towards video-game swag and free energy drinks. But some of these tournaments bring out some of the best gamers in Guilford County.

Mitch Rumsey, a rising senior at Southwest Guilford High, stretches his lanky frame on one of the couches and burns up some of his anytime minutes. He’s a ‘“Halo’” guy ‘— the original version, not the sequel, which he considers to be sub-par.

‘“[‘Halo 2’] is still a good game,’” he says, ‘“but it’s more about weapon control. There’s a lot of teamwork and strategy [involved]. That’s where we messed up in Orlando.’”

Orlando was his first professional event, a tournament by Major League Gaming that he and four of his buddies from school played after winning the regionals here at the Center.

He says they reached the semi-finals, adding: ‘“We practiced for about a month or two’…. I spend a lot of time on it, but with school and everything I’ve got to get good grades or [my parents] will cut me off.

‘“I play sports,’” he adds. ‘“I’m not a nerd or anything.’”

Many of them here tonight practice for another event, the 2005 World Cyber Games, an international competition with preliminary rounds held at the DLC and 150 other gaming centers around the US as well as online, a national championship in New York City and a main event in Singapore held in an arena filled with spectators, who will watch the action on big screens.

The competitions focus on eight different games with names like ‘“Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War,’” ‘“WarCraft III: The Frozen Zone’” and ‘“StarCraft: Brood War.’” But also they’ll have a soccer game and a driving game and everything a good tourney should have, including cash prizes: the finalists in the US bracket will share a $34,000 prize pool, including $5,000 for the winning ‘“Counter-Strike’” team. Winners of the finals in Singapore can expect to pocket much more. There’s even a controversy for this year’s tourney based on favoritism for old versions of new games.

‘“The original ‘Counter-Strike’ is seven years old,’” Steinberg says, ‘“but it still has this huge following today.’” For the WCG tournament they’ll be using the original game, known by its fans as ‘1.6.’ But in the ‘“Halo’” category, Mark explains, they’ll be using the newest version, ‘“Halo 2.’”

‘“People who like ‘Halo’ don’t necessarily like ‘Halo 2,”” he says.

The DLC has already held three preliminary local events ‘— the next one, a ‘“Counter-Strike’” tournament, will be on Saturday, July 2 and they hope to be chosen to host the regional events as well.

Spencer Clemmons, a 14-year-old rising freshman at Western Guilford High School, has tried unsuccessfully to advance in the tournament with his team, a five-man ‘“Counter-Strike’” team made up mainly of friends from school.

Clemmons, in a distressed Carvel visor and a retro-style T-shirt that says ‘Poker King’ across the front, eases into the couch and says, ‘“We didn’t do too good. One of our guys wouldn’t show and we had to scrounge around [for a replacement]. And [the replacement] didn’t know the levels that good. We just need to practice.

‘“I’ve been playing for five years,’” he adds. ‘“I’m pretty good.’”

His father agrees.

‘“That’s the best ‘Counter-Strike’ player around,’” says Don Clemmons, here in the Center tonight not just to give his kid a ride home, but also to try to rack up his own virtual body count before bedtime, though he admittedly possesses only a fraction of his teenage son’s military prowess.

‘“[Spencer]’s like a hundred kills, ten deaths and I’m like ten and ten,’” he shrugs. ‘“People think he’s cheating.’”

Don came of age in the Pac-Man years, and he’s old enough to know that when it comes to video games youth will usually win out.

On the couches by the Xbox set-ups a middle-aged reporter sits on the couch next to Jesse Steinberg, the two of them engaged in a lightsaber duel. Jesse, the 12-year-old son of center co-owner Mark, is taking the reporter to school, executing in the guise of Anakin Skywalker devastating kick-flips, saber swings, special attacks and manipulations of The Force that send Mace Windu careening off the walls of the Jedi Council area, leaving his power meter below the bottom fifth.

‘“Watch this,’” he says before each maneuver. ‘“Watch this,’” and ‘“Wanna see another one,’” and ‘“Here’s a cool one’” and ‘“Are you just pushing buttons or are you really trying?’”

The reporter, from the generation and crowd that most certainly would have committed vandalism on a machine called ‘“Puck Man,’” is more comfortable steering frogs across busy streets and ponds than with real-time lightsaber duels and he grimaces at the kid as he gets his ass kicked again and again.