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Virtual Brothers 

Gaming centers bring -- gasp! -- socializing to the video game world

With the Carolina Panthers in the lead, fans had their eyes glued to the big screen TVs when the Patriots suddenly rallied and scored a touchdown, bringing them within 8 points of the Panthers late in the fourth quarter. The Patriots then tried an onside kickoff, but Carolina recovered it and, after the last seconds of the game ticked down, the Panthers emerged victorious, 29-21.

OK, maybe the real Super Bowl didn't turn out that way. But the Panthers will always have bragging rights as the champions of the ninth annual "Game Before the Game," a celebrity event in which players from the AFC and NFC championship teams face off in NFL GameDay, a Playstation football video game produced by Sony's 989 Sports. This time around, Steve Smith of the Panthers and Tony Brown of the Patriots went head to head (or thumb to thumb) at the Hotel Icon in Houston three days before the big game. Tragically for Panthers fans, this was the first time in eight years that the winning player's team didn't go on to win the real-life Super Bowl.

It's fitting that a video game now serves as a precursor to one of the biggest sporting events in the world. One day, it may be the other way around. While no one was watching, the video game industry has conquered music, movies and TV to become one of the most dominant forces in American pop culture -- not to mention that it's a $30 billion industry.

No longer just for pimply-faced junior high school geeks, video games have become a favorite pastime for the rich and famous and, apparently, nearly everyone else. On MTV's Cribs, rap and rock stars, pro athletes and movie screen idols are sure to show off their Playstations or Xboxes along with their big screen TVs. And both new and established musicians are scrambling to get their tunes on video game soundtracks, knowing that millions of kids with plenty of disposable income will be listening (Korn, Filter, and KRS-One are just a few).

These days, movies are continually revamping their special effects to remain competitive with the mind-blowing advances in video game graphics. In fact there's been a glut of movies in recent years based on video games, including Resident Evil, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat.

Then there's the subculture of hardcore video game enthusiasts known as gamers -- people (the majority of whom are male) who dedicate tremendous amounts of time and money to playing video games. The explosion in the number of gamers has led to the newest trend in the industry, gaming centers. These businesses, with multiple computers and "platforms" like Xboxes where enthusiasts can compete against their buddies and other gamers from all over the world, give gamers a place to gather and do their thing. Three such businesses have popped up in Charlotte since December.

Unless you've been in a cave (or too busy playing video games), you know that controversy has accompanied the games' growing popularity. We've all heard the criticisms that video games are anti-social, unhealthy and instill violent tendencies in impressionable players. Nearly everyone knows at least one video game zombie who's reduced to grunts and mumbles while plugged in to his game of choice. Defenders of video games, however, dismiss those criticisms and argue that playing the games helps develop reflexes, concentration and computer skills and actually qualifies as a form of self-expression.

While the video game industry is certainly creating a cultural change, just what kind of new culture is emerging? A good place to start looking for an answer is with Larathiel the Death Elf.

Behold the Death Elf
The gamer called Larathiel the Death Elf is co-captain of the Kore clan, and, as he will tell you, he is feared across cyberspace as a ruthless and cunning techno-gladiator who frags and smites without mercy. Kore is one of thousands, if not millions, of clans across the globe that compete in online gaming tournaments. As a Kore captain, Larathiel's duties call for him to update the league rosters, mediate problems between players, and schedule matches with other clans. ("At least that's what good captains do," he explains.)

At one time, Kore had over 50 members, but Larathiel says they're down to about a dozen, ranging in age from 16 to 38. "Things are kind of slow right now as we're waiting for the newest version of Unreal Tournament to come out," he says. "We've been around for over five years, though, which is pretty long for a gaming clan. We all consider ourselves friends, which is why we don't let just anybody in. Our foremost concern is having fun with the games and each other."

Any female Kore members?

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