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March 18, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Blake Mallory fights Nazi zombies with precise aim and a quick trigger. The other members of his battalion can’t compete, his personal body count already totaling 105. Although he keeps finishing them off, infinite numbers of the living dead advance into the abandoned, rundown house where Mallory has set up his team base. Zombies already have killed the rest of his group.
If Mallory were in this predicament in real life, he’d be screwed. Luckily, he’s in the gamer sanctuary known as the Virtual Arena. Regarded as a mecca by local gamers, the Virtual Arena is a reinvention of the arcade. Equipped with 20 next-generation consoles hooked up to their own high-definition monitors, a library of new games and a DSL modem, it offers a unique video gaming experience.
“Some people isolate themselves when they play,” says David O’Neil, owner of the Virtual Arena. “That’s not what video games are about. Play in a social environment — there’s an energy about it.”
From the outside, the Virtual Arena, located at Vandiver Square, looks like an empty strip mall shop. There is no giant “Virtual Arena” sign, just a small name on the door. The storefront windows are covered in black, as are the walls and ceiling inside. Outside light rarely shines upon the industrial gray carpet.
When guests enter, they first see O’Neil’s makeshift desk, fashioned from two foldout tables. Behind the desk sits a plastic cabinet with drawers full of various candies, chips and other goodies that would make a dietitian cringe.
On this Friday night there is plenty of the energy that O’Neil tries to foster in the Virtual Arena. A blend of regular customers and partygoers put their thumbs and fingers through the rigors of gaming.
On the wall a router flashes rows of green LED lights as middle schoolers unleash a virtual arsenal in a group game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Arguments build up, along with the Skittles wrappers and Mountain Dew Code Red cans. The Marine team discusses strategy over the artificial sound of exploding shells and expelling cartridges. As players bow out, they vent their frustration with a few choice words.
“Why didn’t you cover me?”
“Man, you’re terrible. Someone change places with him.”
Sitting in no-man’s land, between the two battling regiments, 19-year-old Corey Casto is quietly living in the world of Middle Ages China. He’s on a mission to decapitate 50 hunchback rats in an online multi-player PC game called Twelve Sky. Casto claims to play video games for 23 hours a day and has been a regular customer of the Virtual Arena for more than two years. Casto’s tattered, dirty sweatshirt and unshaven face corroborate his claim. When the Virtual Arena closes at midnight Casto says he will go home, catch an hour of sleep and play his Xbox until the Virtual Arena opens again.
“This setting is cool,” gamer Zeke Rachow says. “It’s a nerd paradise.”