Joe Kim at Digital Fusion cybercafe — Photo by Keith Beaty / Toronto Star via Getty Images
The New York Times — The Cybercafe Lives, by Virginia Heffernan, Nov. 7, 2008
“The Gran Cyber Cafes in Tokyo are on high floors of buildings in dense, flashing commercial neighborhoods. When trying to imagine a comparable business in the U.S. — an urban space where you pay by the hour for use of superb technology in a communal atmosphere that is nonetheless compartmentalized — it never occurred to me to look in New York’s East Village, where at street level a cafe called Web2Zone has been thriving since Sept. 9, 2001.
So what’s an American media-immersion zone like? From the street, Web2Zone, which is owned by the Korean company Samsung, looks like a standard-issue college-crowd cafe (it’s close to New York University). An outfit called Fusion Wraps keeps a few tables and offers a menu unusual only for featuring bulgogi. From the sidewalk, you can peer through Fusion Wraps to the dark yonder: all told, 10,000 square feet of floor space with rows of workbenches with computers on them.
This is the musty business model of the Internet cafe, allowing patrons to rent time on its computers. Web2Zone was even named ‘Best Internet Cafe’ by The New York Press, though that honor takes on a slightly different hue when you realize that the category has been facing obsolescence for more than a decade. Most recently, the rattiest old cybercafes in Queens have been shut down, following too-frequent fights among hotheaded video-game patrons. And the once-glamorous @Cafe in Manhattan was already boarded up by 1998! ‘The notion of a cybercafe — a place for Net surfers to socialize on a tide of gourmet coffee — is at odds with how most people want to use computers, even in their leisure time,’ Michel Marriott observed that year in The New York Times. ‘Those who Web surf, read e-mail, write or program or do just about anything else on a computer often do so in solitude.’ Today, with superpowered handhelds, we imagine digital life as something that no longer requires devoted surfaces, mouse pads or uninterrupted stretches of time.
But that’s not true if you’re a gamer. At Web2Zone, more than half of the house is devoted to games — multiplayer, interconnected games, most visibly, whose cinematic images play across the site’s best equipment on computers situated in clusters on round tables.
On any given day, young men — ‘from around,’ a manager told me, implying something about class I couldn’t entirely pinpoint; ‘not local or N.Y.U.’ — can be found sitting close to the front of the house and the natural light. (Regulars apparently choose their machines and stick with them day after day.) The table near the stairs and the cafe — not the more private tables, way back in the murk — seems to fill up first, and the guys sit together, though they could easily spread out. The lofty acoustics of Web2Zone half-swallow the game sound effects, and the ambience is hushed and overcast.
The most popular games at Web2Zone include an oldie called Counter-Strike and, of course, the ne plus ultra M.M.O.R.P.G. (massively multiplayer online role-playing game): World of Warcraft. It’s not clear whether Web2Zone regulars, absorbed in their games, are competing against people in Seoul, in Chicago or at arm’s length.
The staff at Web2Zone gets most excited about the tournaments held there. The tournaments are sponsored by companies like Blizzard Entertainment, which makes World of Warcraft and the rest of the Warcraft series. On a recent weekend, 14 major gamers — young men with managers and expense accounts — were flown in from around the world for a showdown. Typically, gamers pay about $35 for the day to participate, while others pay $5 to watch the games, mostly on monitors downstairs.
Why do the tournament gamers show up in person, when the cafe’s almighty LAN connection (Web2Zone is the largest LAN center on the East Coast) exists entirely so that people don’t have to be face to face to compete? Andrew Ko, who has been a manager at Web2Zone for two years, half-laughed when I asked. ‘You have to defend your reputation,’ he said. Which also means, I guess, descending from the game’s wonderfully Norsey universe of Azeroth to greet your earthling mates.
Web2Zone seems to have nice crowd; the manager tells me they only occasionally tell loud gamers to cool it. Customers regularly tell surveys they don’t need any more privacy than is offered by the workbench layout; they don’t seem to crave the cubicles and capsule rooms with bucket seats that are the pride of such spaces in Japan and Korea. ‘Half of the people who come here don’t have computers, or they have bad connections,’ Ko told me. ‘The other half, they just like being in a public place. They like having the cafe within reach. Our regulars know each other.’
Participants in social networks and any kind of massive-multiplayer-online existence often feel suspended between total isolation at their screens and howling online crowds. The next incarnation of the cybercafe should take into account that people will pay not only for coffee and online minutes but also for the reassurance that in their cyberjourneys they might find traveling companions whose faces — in line for a Red Bull or a margarita? — they might even see. Finding a way out of isolation and into productive fantasy and social connection, without being eaten up by virtual swarms, may be the video game we’re all playing.