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Bounty hunters right Internet's wrongs

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?

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 their foes and smash them electronically every time they log onto a Net game.

"It only ends when we say it ends," Vengeance bragged.

Ingernet gaming is relatively new.

"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 games."

The most successful titles are the fast-shooting, trash-talking, gore-splattering games that fascinate kids _ the ones that inevitably lead to concerns about the erosion of values. In a game called Diablo, for instance, players chase after killer skeletons, eerie demons _ and, often, one another.

But as the audience started to grow, say the people who created these games, something odd began to happen.

"We started seeing bullies popping up everywhere," said Bill Roper, a game producer for Diablo. "We'd get mail from (new players) complaining that they got ambushed, or that someone had cheated and killed their character. It was funny, because people kept calling for some type of retribution."

Bounty hunters tend to be older than the player-killers they pursue. But they share the love of fantasy and role-playing. Hunters often explain the joys of roving around 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 teenagers _ 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. "If I get killed, the only thing that really dies is my pride."

Alfonso acknowledges that there is a code of honor among the players 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.

"There's a vast difference between computer-controlled monsters and human-controlled players," he said. "Humans are so unpredictable. That's the challenge."