Night Crawler

Games People Play
It's 7 on Saturday evening. From outside, Club-i looks relatively quiet.
Truth be told, Club-i is quiet. Though there is a good crowd inside the cybercafe, no one is speaking.

There's too much at stake.
At the first bank of network computers, a group of gaming journalists is purposefully analyzing the flickering pixels that constitute a new 3-D shooter game called Recoil. Clad in black leather pants and dark baseball caps with methodically shaped bills and grim patches, they swivel with casual authority from their keyboards over to their complementary beverages and back again while representatives from Westwood Studios patiently await their appraisal near the cafe counter.

In the center of the room, a slightly apprehensive group -- comprised of 19 slender young men and one woman clutching a box of Kleenex Cold Care and a mocha Frappaccino -- sits around a cluster of tables, intently studying the 64-page glossy manual for Lands of Lore III, a soon-to-be-released Westwood role-playing game. Some jot notes on clipboards, others stare fixedly at the "Hot Key" page, as if committing it to memory; each has in his possession an eye-catching name tag that declares him a "Racer." The racers were chosen in a random drawing the day before to compete in tonight's 24-hour marathon gaming session. The first racer to complete the game gets an all-expenses-paid trip for two to explore medieval castles in Germany. Everyone gets a copy of the game and the opportunity to play before its market release -- no small incentive in the gaming community.

In preparation, 28-year-old Club-i regular Allen Huffstuffer (handle: Tengaar) made sure he got a solid 10 hours of sleep the night before and ate a good meal this evening. His longest continuous gaming time is 19 hours -- while playing Final Fantasy -- but he assures me the self-compelled marathon was forcibly cut short by the pesky intrusion of school. As a safeguard, he has scheduled a day off from his current management job at Walgreens and plans to "really push" himself. Huffstuffer's confidence level is high and Red Bull is coursing through his veins; he is physically and mentally prepared.

Twenty-four-year-old Josh Adams is not as well primed. He was out the night before, tearing it up with a childhood chum until 2:30 a.m. At 7, he got up to take his wife to the airport, and he hasn't slept since. On the upside, Adams is a game writer for Playstation, and he once spent three days playing Adventures of Link with only sporadic shut-eye and no food. (Here, at least, the eats are generous: brie in brioche, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, spiced chicken wings, pears topped with kiwi and creme fra”che, with sandwiches and coffee throughout.)

Twenty-three-year-old Chris Reynoso, a sweet-faced computer student at Napa Valley College, hasn't ever spent more than 12 hours in one gaming session, and he's exhausted tonight, but not enough to stay home. A big fan of Lands of Lore I, Reynoso is terribly eager to play the newest rendition before its release date.

"OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] is not a disease," says 21-year-old Nathanial Bray (handle: Deekoo L.), "it's a job skill." Bray -- whose inclination, if not vocation, is code -- came to Club-i on the off chance one of the first-string racers wouldn't show up. He's in luck, and is granted the opportunity to play for more than 20 straight hours.

"I can't explain what happens when you've been playing for a very long time," says Bray, whose nervous tics and fragile good looks are hidden behind a wavy fall of light brown hair. "Your language doesn't have the words to describe it."

Aaron Cohen, a Westwood representative, has the words to describe what will not happen: "You cannot go to sleep. If you fall asleep, you will be considered a dropout. If you leave your contest chair for more than 30 minutes, you will be considered a dropout. If you leave the building for any reason other than a cigarette, you will be considered a dropout."

The racers move toward their terminals and situate themselves, anxiously await-ing the signal: "Are you ready?! RPG!" The screens roar to life, and the room falls silent.

Twenty-five-year-old Alden Wong pulls a pair of headphones out of a duffel bag at his feet and plugs into the computer.

"There he goes," says his girlfriend, Cindy Hwee, a sumptuous 24-year-old who has brought a friend and a video camera to record her beau's progress. Wong props a photo of him and Hwee against his competition monitor. "He's got to have headphones. He likes to play his audio really loud. Sometimes, at home, I can't hear the TV over the computer."

Now, everyone wants headphones: Left hands shoot into the air, while right hands continue manipulating the mouse, carefully guiding "Copper Le Gre" through the land of demon-plagued Gladstone, carefully choosing guild affiliation -- warrior, wizard, cleric, thief -- and determining character strength. Aside from an occasional synchronized outburst ("See the world, they said!" or "Healing's for pussies!") from Blair Reynolds (handle: Houston) and Tim Smith (handle: Smythe) of the Bay Area Network Gaming Group, the room is again silent as the 20 competitors stare into their animated screens.

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