LA latest to zap gamers with curfew
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LA latest to zap gamers with curfew

Modesto Bee | August 22 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Six days a week, teens crowd the Blue Screen Gaming cybercafe to hunt each other down with assault rifles inside virtual worlds created by a network of personal computers.

They sit for hours, eyes fixed on their flashing monitors, their headphones trapping the racket of simulated gunfire so only random clicks on keyboards are heard -- until the storefront salon erupts in triumphant yelps and laughter.

"Ooh! That was beautiful," hoots Ricardo Gama, 16, after a friend lobs a grenade to kill three opponents playing the terrorist-fighting game "Counter Strike: Source Beta."

At gaming cybercafes the world over, pixelated warfare is joined and nobody gets hurt. But real-life episodes of violence at several such businesses in Southern California have prompted municipal crackdowns; Los Angeles is the latest, and largest, California city to impose restrictions.

Beginning Saturday, an ordinance mandates that the city's 30 Internet gaming parlors enforce the city's long-standing curfew for minors and pay for in-store surveillance cameras. There are other restrictions, among them limits on how many computers each business can operate and the prohibition of dark window coverings.

Cybercafe owners are chafing.

"There may have been problems with certain individual locations, but those could have been handled another way other than with blanketwide legislation," said Ernest Miller, a spokesman for San Francisco-based iGames, which represents about 500 PC gaming parlors in the United States and abroad.

California municipalities are alone in passing specific laws covering Internet gaming parlors, though some cities have sought to apply existing arcade zoning laws to the gaming cafes, Miller said.

Several shootings near cybercafes in 2002, two of them fatal, prompted the LA ordinance, which passed last month.

In addition, a Los Angeles police analysis found that 86 percent of the 134 people arrested at cybercafes were minors, most for curfew and truancy violations. Officials became convinced that the cafes tend to be gang havens.

Miller takes issue with the theory that cybercafes are more of a magnet for gangs than any other place at which youths might congregate.

"A haven for gang activity can be any location where people gather -- corner liquor stores, pool halls or cinemas," Miller said.

Jarod King, owner of The Nexus cybercafe in downtown Modesto, said many cybercafes purposely locate in rundown or low-income areas because they know they can attract teenagers who aren't being supervised by their parents.

"They run the cafe and collect as much money as they can before they get shut down," King said.

Another problem is cybercafes originated in Asia, so they are popular among Asian gang members, he said.

"When I opened The Nexus, I had heard about all the gang problems at the cafes in Los Angeles," he said. "The problem with cybercafes is they are still relatively new, so there's no good role model for operating one."

King is trying to change that. He doesn't allow profanity or harassment of the customers at his Modesto cybercafe.

"We are strict," King said. "I know we had one gang member come into our business, and I told him right then that we aren't going to allow any trouble. He never came back."

Since Los Angeles began mulling its own ordinance more than a year ago, there have been no reports of serious crimes associated with cybercafes, said Los Angeles Police Lt. Debra A. Kirk.

"They realized they had to clean up their own act," Kirk said.

The Los Angeles regulations are "very reasonable," Miller said, compared with some earlier ordinances such as one enacted in Garden Grove. That city passed an ordinance requiring businesses to log customers, have an adult and security guard present, limit hours and videotape their premises.

Diamond Bar, Santa Ana and Orange Grove also have regulated the cafes.

For teen devotees of the cybercafes such as Gama, the regulations may just end up curtailing their fun.

The Culver City teen was disappointed to hear he might be asked to stop playing after 10 p.m. if he's not accompanied by an adult.

"Sometimes we stay in other places until 2 a.m.," Gama said. "If I can't stay until the time I want, well, what can I do about it?"

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