Shawn Gilbertson is a pudgy 20-year-old with the eerie pallor of one who seldom sees the sun. He's dressed in a black T-shirt that reads "rm-rf/bin/laden" -- computer code for "Remove Bin Laden." But today he hunts more modest game: friend Brett Adamik.
Using his keyboard, Shawn steers through an artfully rendered WWII army base of crumbling concrete walls and coiled barbed wire. His right hand stays poised on the mouse, sweeping each room with his crosshairs, ready to open fire with the click of a button.
Suddenly, bullets whiz past his ears. Shawn's been ambushed. Brett's strafing him with a Thompson machine gun. A bullet slices into Shawn's soldier. The screen's image quakes with simulated pain.
From the sound of the bullets, Shawn identifies the direction of the gunfire and runs the other way. He finds shelter, breathes relief, and takes stock: The bullet sapped his health by about 30 percent. He can't survive another firefight. He'll need surprise.
Luckily, Shawn knows this base well. He navigates its drab gray corridors with the proficiency of a trained lab rat. Moments later, he pops up behind Brett and squeezes the mouse, unleashing hell from his flame-thrower.
Yellow and orange fire washes over Brett's soldier. He collapses to the ground, a charred husk.
"Ah! You got roached!" someone howls at Brett.
"He toasted you!" jeers another.
Then someone fires the ultimate gamer putdown: "You got owned!"
Shawn stares at his monitor from inches away, absent-mindedly chewing the cord to his earphones. He barely takes a moment to smile in victory. In the time it takes to press a button, he's immersed in combat once again.
About 145 million Americans play video games, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association, but that includes battalions of office workers killing time with electronic solitaire. Shawn is what the industry calls a "hardcore gamer" -- meaning he plays 10 or more hours per week.
In fact, Shawn is among the most hardcore of the hardcore. During marathon weekend sessions, he plays for 48 hours straight, juiced on caffeine, junk food, and shit talk. When he isn't playing, he's tweaking his custom-built computer, trying to trim precious seconds from its processing time.
In his bedroom, as in his life, the world of the microchip crowds out other interests. A stack of computers and networking equipment the size of a free-standing ATM dominates the room. The heat it gives off can raise the room's temperature past 100 degrees in the winter. The bookshelf is crammed with dozens of games he has already conquered. His bed is but a bare mattress, wedged against the wall.
By day, Shawn studies networking and works as a cook at Casa D'Angelo, an Italian eatery. But what he lives for is in his parents' basement, better known as the Geek Cave. It's headquarters for the Northeast Ohio LAN Gaming Association -- NOLGA, for short.
Shawn and his friends are what is known as a gaming clan -- people for whom video games are not so much a hobby as a life.
It's easy to see the appeal. In the real world, Shawn and his friends are not the strongest, the fastest, or the best-looking. But on the computer screen, they can be gods.
In 1992, Wolfenstein 3-D revolutionized video games. It allowed players to see through the hero's eyes. They didn't just control a character; they were the character -- in this case, an Allied soldier slaughtering Nazis with weaponry that would make Donald Rumsfeld blush.
The genre came to be known as "first-person shooters," but it didn't fully take off until a year later with the release of Wolfenstein's sequel, Doom. The graphics and gore were ratcheted up -- a chainsaw could be used to dismember enemies, for example -- and players now hunted snarling demons instead of mere Nazis.
More important, Doom allowed players to compete against each other via a local area network, or LAN -- the same technology used at offices to connect co-workers. What was once a solitary game could now be played as a four-way deathmatch. Players beseeched game designers to take it even further and allow for internet action.
Designers complied with Quake, which effectively launched the online gaming revolution. In its heyday, upwards of 80,000 people could be found happily fragging each other online.
Quake also ushered in a forum for competitive gaming: LAN parties. Players lugged computers to daylong geek fests to test their killing skills. The first massive LAN party, QuakeCon, was held in Dallas in 1996 and attracted about 150 players. Last year's convention counted more than 3,000.
With competitive gaming's burgeoning popularity, it was only natural that it take on the trappings of professional sport. In 1997, Dennis "Thresh" Fong became gaming's first superstar when he won the Red Annihilation Quake tournament and drove home a cherry-red Ferrari.
Thresh would go on to net more than $100,000 in winnings and endorsement deals with companies like Microsoft. Salon.com dubbed him "the Michael Jordan of electronic gamers."
About the same time, former investment banker Angel Munoz launched the Cyberathlete Professional League, hoping to do for video games what the NBA did for basketball. This summer, the league will host a Counter-Strike championship in Dallas, featuring 128 teams competing for $200,000 in prizes.
Video games became a team sport thanks in large part to Counter-Strike. Formally released in 1998, it divided players into competing sides: terrorists and counter-terrorists. That spurred the formation of gaming clans -- groups of players who practice and compete together.
Clans are such a new phenomenon that not even the computer industry is sure what to make of them yet, says Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association. There are hundreds of clans across the country, but they are just beginning to take off in Middle America.
Shawn and his friends hold no illusions of becoming the next Thresh. They're too busy blowing each other's heads off to organize into a cohesive team. But what they lack in aspiration, they make up for in dedication.
The Geek Cave's ceiling is a spiderweb of power cords and Christmas-tree lights that provide what little illumination there is in this dark, cluttered room.
On one wall is a quote borrowed from Saturday Night Live's Jack Handey: "I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they'd never expect it."
NOLGA formed while most of its members were attending Nordonia High School. They were drawn together because they were outsiders who shared a love for computers that bordered on obsession.
Dan Taraska, a tall, gregarious 21-year-old who was among the clan's founding members, boasts that he once beat Doom without throwing a single punch or firing a weapon, except to kill the bosses at the end of each level. To this day, he knows Doom's levels as intimately as the floor plan of his own house.
A friend tests him: "Doom 1. First episode. Second level."
"Second level has 52 monsters, 108 textures, and the par time is 3 minutes, 26 seconds," Dan fires back.
Most of the clan members were average students, but they got by on technological savvy. "We're the kind of kids that go through school helping teachers with their computers," says Dan, who wrote his first program, a maze game, on a Commodore at age six.
But when they felt disrespected, they didn't hesitate to use those same skills for revenge. Some of their exploits they won't discuss -- the statute of limitations has yet to expire. But Dan is particularly proud of one hacking operation.
The clan favors thrift-store T-shirts and anything black. Yet one of their teachers reacted like Joan Rivers on Oscar night. "We dress different than normal kids, and he made fun of us for that," Dan explains.
So they remotely monitored the teacher's computer activities. They gathered evidence that he was having an affair -- transcripts of chat-room sweet talk and photos of online paramours -- then mailed it anonymously to his wife.
"We destroyed his life," Dan's sister Diana says gleefully. "It was beautiful. The guy was such a pervert, he deserved it."
The clan members would graduate to college and work -- mostly computer-related -- but their real life is here, in the Geek Cave.
It is stuffed with computers assembled, Frankenstein-like, from parts salvaged from dumpsters. "Companies throw out stuff they think is bad because a pin is bent, and you just bend it back," Dan says.
The clan eschews preassembled -- i.e., "corporate" -- computers the way movie snobs avoid Rob Schneider flicks. Shawn and Dan boast that for one LAN party, they built a computer using a cardboard box as its shell. They got laughed at, but the damn thing worked.
The clan builds high-end models too. Shawn's brother Kevin proudly shows off a computer with a Plexiglas window and green neon lighting to illuminate its boards and wires. It is the geek equivalent of the hot rods in The Fast and the Furious.
Clan members test their mettle every other month at LAN parties -- battles between the best and the brightest of Northeast Ohio's geek world. At these contests, casual gamers are like Chihuahuas thrown in a ring with a pit bull. At one recent LAN party, a team composed of Shawn, Dan, and Kevin swept a Return to Castle Wolfenstein tourney without losing a single round.
"We tore it up," Dan says. "In the terms of geek, we owned."
At another LAN party, a non-NOLGA player made an especially slick kill and crowed, "Why am I so good at Counter-Strike?"
"'Cause you have no life and live in your mother's basement," rejoined Eric Fuhrman, a clan member who plans to join the Marines in September.
As the clan retells the story, Kara Rusyniak, one of the few females in the group, makes an ironic aside: "That doesn't apply to us at all."
"Hey, I live upstairs!" Kevin says, taking mock offense.
"Quote of the month!" Kara announces, seated behind a computer and reading her e-mail. "'You know the world is messed up when the best golfer is black, the best rapper is white, the tallest basketball player is Chinese, and Germany doesn't want war!'"
The joke draws chuckles from the clan. It's 8:10 p.m. on a Friday, and they're eating the second of three large Donato's pizzas. Today Shawn's black T-shirt reads: "No, I will not fix your computer."
The clan has set up four additional computers in a room adjacent to the Geek Cave. They're expecting a full house tonight -- about 10 people -- for a marathon test drive of Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, a game in which players work together to take down terrorists.
The clan begins by selecting weapons -- silenced rifles and smoke grenades -- then prepares to invade a London bank, where terrorists have taken hostages. One agent blows open the bank's door. The clan rushes in. Seconds later, they're all dead.
The clan quickly diagnoses the problem: Being in two different rooms, they can't communicate. Their on-screen agents blunder into each other like Keystone Kops.
Diana is sent to fetch walkie-talkies from Shawn's car. A few minutes later, she returns, clutching the radios. "Dude," she tells Shawn. "Your car smells so weird."
The assault begins anew. Dan's virtual agent tosses smoke grenades through second-story windows. Brett detonates charges, knocking the door off its hinges.
The first agent rushes in. "He's gonna get popped! He's gonna get popped!" Dan warns. Moments later, the agent lies in a pool of blood. "Toldja," Dan says.
A few harried minutes of combat later, Dan comes to a startling realization. "Oh my God," he says. "Am I the last person alive?"
Upstairs, John and Theresa Gilbertson watch TV, trying to ignore the chaos in the basement below. He's a 51-year-old technical analyst, who wears his long gray hair in a ponytail; she's a 46-year-old accounting clerk who looks every bit the suburban mom.
About 13 or 14 years ago, John brought home a computer for his sons. Little did he know that computers would become their obsession.
"I don't know about the rest of the clan down there," John says, "but our kids don't get out enough and socialize."
Indeed, Shawn hasn't had a girlfriend since the one he met online two years ago. That relationship ended badly when, one week before he went to visit her in Alabama, she let drop that she had a son. Shawn wasn't ready to play online stepfather.
When John installed a high-speed internet connection in the house, fast online access gave birth to the Geek Cave, making the Gilbertson home the clan's de facto clubhouse. The parents claim not to mind.
"If it gets too loud, we communicate here," John says, stomping his foot on the floor.
Shawn charges upstairs. "What?"
"We were just demonstrating," Theresa explains.
Downstairs, the gaming continues. At 11 p.m., Dan talks about taking a break. "My head's swelling," he says. But he keeps playing.
A half-hour later, Brian Flauto, a 20-year-old with a wispy mustache and the excited voice of someone five years younger, says, "I think I'm done playing video games." He quits Rainbow Six, but immediately starts a game of Quake.
A few minutes after that, Diana puts a bag of Kettle Corn into the microwave and presses start. Suddenly, the Geek Cave and the adjoining room go dark. She's blown a fuse.
Brett shrugs. "That's just God's way of saying you need a break."
The Geek Cave seems to exist outside of time. There are no windows and no clocks, beyond the tiny ones at the bottom of computer screens. Minutes and hours pass unnoticed. Even hunger and calls of nature can be forgotten in the heat of battle.
Scientists who study video games say this trance-like state can be as euphoric as any narcotic. But this can also create problems.
In 1981, a 19-year-old earned the unfortunate distinction of being the first casualty of video games, after suffering a heart attack while playing an especially frenetic game of Berzerk. A 24-year-old South Korean man died last year after gaming for 86 hours straight.
But those incidents are considered flukes. For most gamers, the danger isn't death; it's not having a social life.
At about 12:30 a.m., the clan starts playing Rainbow Six again.
"Don't worry," Brett tells Diana. "It won't take us that long to die."
"You promise?" Diana asks.
"Whelp, I'm dead," he says, then starts again.
Though some have been awake since 6 a.m., no one seems sleepy. This night is a walk in the park for these marathon gamers. Sometimes they'll stay up two days straight, amped on BAWLS Guarana, an energy drink marketed to gamers which tastes like Sweet Tarts soaked in tonic water.
Others need no caffeine. "I'm an insomniac," Diana says. "I would read five books a night and wouldn't go to sleep. And then I would go to school the next day, and everybody would be looking at me."
The party finally ends at 1:45 a.m., when Dan shoots and kills the last of 30 terrorists, conquering another level for the clan. Gatorade bottles are thrown away, computers disassembled and loaded into cars. Outside, the sky spits rain.
Dan stretches. "I got a big squishy bed waiting for me," he says happily.
But the break won't last long. Earlier, someone asked about Kevin's plans for the week ahead.
"This," Kevin replied, pointing at the computers. "Work. This. Sleep. This."
The clan arrives at the Hickory Lake Inn in Newbury on a Saturday morning. Today, Shawn is wearing a black shirt that says "I read your e-mail."
It's a beautiful, sunny day, and the inn is nestled on a placid lake ringed by a grove of trees that show the first buds of spring. But the clan will see little of it. They plan to spend the next 12 hours living inside their computers.
They have come for a LAN party organized by one of the few other gaming clans in Northeast Ohio, TACCOMG, short for Tactical Combat Gamers. They're guys in their 20s and 30s, led by a Mr. Clean look-alike who calls himself Q-Ball. They've been together six years, having also started out in a basement.
The party is held in a hall normally used for wedding receptions. Flowing white netting decorates the ceiling. Wooden tables and metal folding chairs have been set up amid a tangle of power cords taped to the carpet. Windows are papered over to cut glare.
For the first eight hours, Shawn's clan mostly keeps to itself. They play a strategy game that involves advancing a civilization from the Renaissance era to modern times. NOLGA might as well be at home in the Geek Cave.
At 7:53, one of the organizers announces the start of a tournament. The game is Medal of Honor, a first-person shooter set during World War II. NOLGA member Denver Craddock, a 19-year-old who wears a perpetually mischievous grin, can't contain his excitement. He flails his hands and whoops like a linebacker psyching himself up for the big game.
"You guys ready?" the announcer asks. "3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . ."
Twenty-four players simultaneously press buttons to connect to the server. "Come on! Load, baby, load!" someone yells.
When the game begins, the action is like the scene of the Omaha Beach invasion from the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Kevin is cut down by a machine gun. Then Denver is killed. Both are immediately reborn, or "spawned," to continue fighting.
The tournament is an every-man-for-himself race to 50 kills. Dying matters little, except that it temporarily prevents players from killing more people. A number in the top right of the screen tracks the leader's progress toward victory.
The players, who just moments ago were chatting casually, are now rigid with concentration. The room is filled with the distinctive clicking of mouses and keyboards, punctuated every few seconds by groans and yelps.
Denver finds himself out of the hunt early. He is killed, resurrected, and then killed again in seconds. "That sucked," he says. "Right off the bat, spawned and died." Then it happens again. "Spawn and die, spawn and die," he sings, as if it were some morbid nursery rhyme.
Kevin makes a play for the lead. He seems hopelessly behind, with just 28 frags to the leader's 40, but he plays with ruthless efficiency. He takes out three guys, then shoots another player in the back. Soon, he has notched 37 frags, while the leader has stalled at 45.
Then the leader breaks his slump. He racks up two more frags in rapid succession. He reaches 48. Then 49. The leader gets his last kill, and the game suddenly ends. Rankings appear on the screen.
"Second!" Kevin cheers.
The leader, as it turns out, was one of the party organizers, and it would be bad form for him to take home prizes. When the scoreboard is adjusted, Kevin comes out on top, and Denver finishes third with 26 frags.
Both head to the prize table. It is crowded with computer equipment, BAWLS energy drinks, a glowing CD tower, Swiss army knives, and an array of mouse pads, stickers, and visors, all provided by TACCOMG's sponsors in exchange for having their logos on the clan's website.
Denver picks out a computer carrying case. Kevin selects a half-case of BAWLS. He hands a bottle to Denver and they toast their success.
The next battle pits six members of the TACCOMG clan against several from NOLGA, as well as a motley assembly of nine unaffiliated players.
Denver looks at Kevin. "Time for me and you to kick some ass."
The game starts, and Kevin goes on a fragging spree. "I just killed three people in a row!" Kevin cheers. He squeezes the trigger and racks up a fourth. "Denver, stick with me!"
Denver immediately gets shot. "I tried to," he says. Moments later, he busts open a door and blasts a German with his shotgun.
"One below you," Kevin warns, moments after getting killed.
Denver hustles downstairs, but Kevin's killer has already escaped.
Kevin spawns and gets shot immediately. "Spawncamper!" he yells, an insult roughly equivalent to a "cherry picker" in other sports. He gets revenge by killing Q-Ball and a guy named Meatshield in rapid succession.
A seven-year-old kid one table over is having a tantrum. "So you wanna kill me, you stupid German? You guys are stupid! Stupid!" the kid yells.
When the tournament ends, TACCOMG has emerged victorious -- in no small part because they had more targets to shoot.
As the night wears on, Kevin and Denver take up residence in the winner's circle. Kevin seems modest about his success. "I did better than I expected I would do," he says at one point. But as his victories accelerate, it starts to come off as bragging.
Shawn brings his younger brother down to Earth: "You do realize that shows you have no life?" he asks.
Kevin begins to stammer a defense, then stops. A new game is starting.
By the end of the night, Kevin and Denver are the money leaders. Together, they've racked up about $120 in prizes. Not bad for a $10 investment to attend.
After midnight, the LAN party finally clears out. Everyone packs their computers into their cars. They linger in the cool night air of the parking lot, savoring victories and talking like vets at a VFW meeting.
"We owned," Denver says with a grin.