Sunday, June 10

Under the radar: Cybercafe culture



"Oh. My. God. How is he not flashbanged?" A young kid throws up his hands in disgust, staring at his now dead body and a respawn timer. It's Sunday night, and while the rest of Auckland's central city is cold, rainy, and deserted, Mid City cyber cafe's two floors of computers are packed with gamers.

They range from young to old, experienced to noobs. The kid currently whining to his monitor is just finishing up a round of Counter-Strike or one of it's myriad variants - all hardcore shooters where a good player can detect an enemy in the shadows and headshot him at distance. Downstairs a group of young chinese 20 somethings lounge on arm chairs, taking a break and half-watching two flatscreens - one showing a golf tournament, the other a Warcraft 3d animation. WOW (World of Warcraft) is by far the most popular game, a MMORPG set in a huge, diverse universe with a player base over 6 million worldwide. It's combination of fantasy role playing, constant leveling up and rich environments means it's very accessible - and as addictive as crack. Upstairs, two children rush towards me, pushing chairs around, playing hide and seek and screaming. Their dads around - somewhere. A Korean couple take turns watching each others' virtual conquering. With lychee drinks in hand, they're here for the long haul.



I find a friend, sit down, chuck on some headphones and logon. We play Battlefield 2, a large scale tactical battle game - me very badly. For me it's more of a chance to catch up, get out of apartment, and see something different. And I'm not alone. While Korea is renowned for videogames as a social phenomenon, it's apparent, but under the radar, in New Zealand. In Orewa on a Sunday afternoon, two teen girls sit next to each other in another packed cybercafe, updating their MySpace accounts, adding friends, responding to comments. And while some benefits are reported on, most of the time it's negative press for the spaces. Previous headlines have included 'Korean gamer die after marathon session', 'China to set three-hour limit on MMORPG's', and 'Cyber cafes a homeless haven'.

So how many cafes are there, how many people are hitting them? Here it seems no one knows, or no one reports on it. The closest site with statistics was Australian and repeated the finding. "There is no global or national register of LAN cafes. Authoritative directories or guides are unavailable. Many cafes do not use large-scale print/electronic advertising, instead relying on word of mouth. Some are short-lived." Yellow pages reports 18 entries in the “Internet Cafe” category for the whole of Auckland. I'm guessing the real number is at least 3 or 4 times that. If cyberculture exists under the radar in most of the West, it's seems almost invisible here in New Zealand.

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The Death of the Ancients (DOTA) expansion for Warcraft 3 is popular at cafes as well.

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