Computer games in super size

Alex Pollard, a ninth-grader at Howard High School, and his friend Sean Baynes, a ninth-grader at Long Reach High School, strummed wildly on electric guitars as they tried desperately to match the chords they saw "firing" on the 110-inch projection screen in front of them.

When they hit the chords right, they saw an explosion on the screen. The game is called Guitar Hero.


At the same time, Kendall Turner, 7, of Thunder Hill and his brother Kyle, 12, sat on a couch with their father, Kevin, playing Ghost Recon on a 52-inch, high-definition television screen. Behind them, Ben "Lucky" Sullivan, 18, of Owen Brown played City of Villains on a custom-made computer.

Other teens and young adults played on 15 other custom-made computer consoles. Some were competing against each other, some were linked around the world and some were playing alone.


This wasn't an afternoon in a rich kid's den. It was a recent -- and typical -- afternoon at CyberDen, a computer gaming center that opened in February on Dobbin Road in Columbia.

CyberDen could be called the arcade of the new millennium. The lighting is dim, and the room is quiet. For $6 an hour Friday and Saturday and $5 the rest of the week, customers open an account, giving them access to nearly 200 games and gaming systems, including five Microsoft Xbox 360s, two PlayStation 2s, and a Nintendo GameCube. Gamers can choose from four 52-inch, high-definition television screens and 16 custom-made computer consoles and the 110-inch screen.

Customers probably would call CyberDen a dream come true.

"It's a great place to hang out," said Sullivan. "At home, I have one Xbox 360 and two TVs. Here they have all these computers. You can play with other people at the same time. They have all the latest games. I've made quite a few friends here."

"I love all the games," said Jacob Mann, 13, a seventh-grader at Oakland Mills Middle School. "You can try new games and talk to people."

The center is the result of 18 months of planning and a lifetime in the making.

"It's something we talked about, but we never thought it would actually happen," said Sunshine Stone, 32, of Severn, who started the club with her husband, Peter Stone, 40, and her brother, Jack Farmer, 27, and his girlfriend Jill Snyder, 29, both of Owen Brown.

The idea came up when the two couples, who were living on opposite sides of the country, were at dinner during a family reunion in New Mexico about Christmas 2004. The Stones were living in Northern California, while Farmer and Snyder were in Columbia.


"Jack told Peter he wanted to open a gaming club," Sunshine Stone said.

"We wrote it all out on place mats," said Peter Stone, who had run many dance clubs in San Francisco. When the idea came up, he was working as an information-technology technician for an Anheuser-Busch distributor. Sunshine Stone had just completed a nursing degree.

"I realized I could work anywhere," said Sunshine Stone, who is now a clinical nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her husband was working extremely long hours and didn't see an end in sight.

"We said, 'Let's do it,'" Peter Stone said. "We drove cross-country with everything we owned."

But it wasn't a spur-of the-moment idea. All four CyberDen co-owners have been hooked on video games since they were children, he said.

While growing up in Alaska, Farmer bought his first Nintendo with his own money when he was just 5 years old.


"During the summer in Alaska, it stays light all night," Sunshine Stone said. "We would play Nintendo in our pajamas till 4 in the morning and not even realize it."

"That became our escape from reality," Farmer said.

For Farmer, his escape turned into his reality when his love for games turned into a career. Farmer joined the Air Force and became a Web designer at Fort Meade. While in the Air Force he continued playing online Internet games, often competing in tournaments. After leaving the Air Force, he remained in Columbia and became a project manager for a defense contracting company.

Meanwhile, Peter Stone, who grew up in Los Angeles, also was a computer game fan. At age 12, he said, he would hide under the covers and play Atari 2600 all night. At 15, his love for games morphed into his first job at the Computer Store in Santa Monica, Calif. Before finishing high school, he was offered a job as an Apple II programmer, he said.

Stone went on to develop software for computer games. He wrote music for games. He was assistant sound designer for the MTV animated series Aeon Flux, and he produced the music and sound effects for several Internet series, including the Warner Brothers' Kung Fu 3D with David Carradine and The Probe, an online series for NBC's Saturday Night Live.

"I got tired of programming and stepped into music full time," he said.


That is where the two worlds collided. Stone met his wife while working as a disc jockey at a club.

"I enjoyed running clubs, but I really got tired of the problems that alcohol caused," Peter Stone said.

No alcohol is permitted at CyberDen.

"It's a safe environment for kids," Peter Stone said. "We will never choose games that are extremely violent or sexual in nature. We want to appeal to all ages."

The center has a capacity for about 20 people, but plans are in place for a move to a bigger space in September.

We want to provide a space for high school bands to put on shows. We also want to give kids the chance to be a DJ. We want to create a musical and cultural scene and become a safe club for teens."


CyberDen also offers a unique environment for corporate functions.

"We hosted a recruiting event at CyberDen," said Jeff Weaver, program manager for Chiron Technology Services Inc. "It's a competitive market. The normal route is to set up a booth at a job fair and hope qualified candidates will drop off a resume. We had to do something innovative to find talent.

"We were looking for software developers. Many of those people develop software during the day and play video games at night. This way, we had them come in and play video games with us. We hired two people that way."

CyberDen is at 6490 Dobbin Road, Columbia. Information: 443-200-0025, or www.cyberden. com.