The darkened apartment conveys all the warmth of a cave. No furniture, an empty refrigerator, a musty bathroom where the last shredded square of toilet paper clings to the roll.
The 18-year-old hacker who lives here, in Irvine, Calif., says he doesn't need much, only a fictional world within the glow of his computer screen.
He goes by the name Vengeance. Or Mr. Vengeance to strangers. He is a digital bounty hunter, a for-hire computer game player who punishes bullies on the Internet.
He picked the name because it suits him better than the one his parents gave him. After all, who has ever heard of a vigilante named Tom Reginald?
"Someone beats you up in a computer game, you turn to Vengeance," said Reginald, who constantly refers to himself in the third person. "Vengeance is a man, a mentor, a killer, a savior."
Driven by ego and machismo, a legion of young men - most of them hackers and expert gamers - have become the digital sheriffs of the Internet's Wild West. Young and inexperienced gamers who get pushed around online can turn to a bounty hunter's Web site, submit a complaint and pay a fee - generally in software, but sometimes in cash.
Once the bounty is accepted, the hunt begins. The vigilantes seek out foes and smash them electronically every time they log onto the Net to play a game.
"It only ends when we say it ends," Vengeance bragged.
Part fantasy, part social evolution, the bounty hunter phenomenon has its roots in the Dungeons & Dragons craze of the 1970s and early '80s. On kitchen tables, in cluttered bedrooms, away from the confused looks of their parents, youths of all ages charted foreign lands with a pad of graph paper. With the roll of a 20-sided die, awkward teen-agers became warriors or mystics on a noble quest played within their vivid imaginations.
The concept has carried over into high-tech culture. By late 1996, a slew of novice computer game players began flocking to the Internet.
"This market is still in its infancy," said Bill Zinsmeister, a multimedia analyst with the research group International Data Corp. "Right now, there are a few million people out there who play online [See Network, Xx] games."
The most successful titles are the fast-shooting, trash-talking, gore-splattering games that fascinate kids - games that inevitably lead to concerns about values.
In "Diablo" by Blizzard Entertainment, players chase after killer skeletons, eerie demons - and, often, one another. Fans build towns and wage war on nearby enemies in the medieval-themed Ultima Online by Electronic Arts. And in the Quake series by id Software, the underlying theme is simple - kill everything that moves.
But as the audience started to grow, something odd began to happen.
"We started seeing bullies popping up everywhere," said Bill Roper, a producer for Diablo. "We'd get mail from [new players] complaining that they got ambushed, or that someone cheated and killed their character. It was funny, because people kept calling for some type of retribution."
Fearful about the impact of violent games on children's minds, family advocates criticize a medium where murder - though only electronic - is hailed as a noble act. But no one knows for sure what impact, if any, such role-playing has on young minds. Most research is based on anecdotal data because the technology is changing too fast to gather statistics accurately.
Instead, psychologists say, parents should hail the emergence of this heroic persona.
"These youth are developing a code of ethics for their virtual life and developing a moral code for their violent behavior," said Amy Kim, an associate professor at Stanford University who studies virtual communities. "If that code is translated from the virtual world and into the real one, that would be a first for our society."
Bounty hunters tend to be older than the killers they pursue. But they share the love of fantasy and role-playing. Hunters often explain the joys of roving online with a single simple phrase: "When I was a kid, I used to play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons."
The player-killers usually are teen-agers - and male. As in any playground, there are bullies. In the online world, these player-killers feed their young egos by trouncing a live person rather than a cold machine.
"You don't get the adrenaline rush beating the computer that you get off another player," said Andrew Alfonso, 17, a player-killer who lives in Toronto, Canada. "If I get killed, the only thing that really dies is my pride."
It's also a way for young males to feel powerful, said Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At a time when they have little control over their environment, these teens get a taste - no matter how fleeting - of having power.
Player-killer Alfonso acknowledges that there is a code of honor and that sometimes he gets a twinge of remorse when he kills a competitor.
"Sometimes I feel sympathy. Something clicks and I think, 'This guy has done no wrong,' especially if he gave me a run for my money."
But don't expect Alfonso to become a bounty hunter. He says he loves chasing humans too much to switch sides.
Pub Date: 5/04/98