(ran PW, PS editions)
The growing "DC Clan" of computer gamers is based in Dade City. But members hail from across the country and around the world.
By day, Jeff Marler is a city building code enforcer. By night, he's just an enforcer.
Marler and his international Internet band of cyberwarriors blast their way through online landscapes with high-tech weapons of destruction as part of the growing "DC Clan" of computer gamers banded together through the group's Dade City headquarters.
In their Internet world, members of the Clan meet for battles royal in everything from one-on-one shootouts to militarized versions of team capture-the-flag games.
What separates the evolving world of online gaming from the old arcade and home computer standbys is the interactivity with real people.
The mechanized creature stalking one hero through a creepy dungeon might be a 10-year-old boy from Iowa. The teammate standing side by side with Marler on an alien rampart might be a businessman from England.
"When you're playing the same game against a computer, it gets dull. You get to know what it will do," fellow Clan gamer John Yager said. "You've got a real brain in there. They could do anything."
When Marler and Yager, along with friends Brian Kirkley and Roger Van Dussen, started getting together in the half-real world of cyberspace in 1998, they realized they were on to something, Marler said.
"It's a team sport, and you're working together as a team, but you can be miles apart," he said.
DC Clan _ the name used to stand for "Dade City" but has been changed to the more worldly "Destruction Crew" _ is a way for gamers to get together on the Internet and organize matches, chat about new technology and share experiences.
All while blasting away with grenade launchers, steroid-enhanced shotguns and tank-busting space blasters.
In tournament play, DC Clan members even have headsets that allow them to talk to each other _ via Internet voice technology _ on channels that only they can hear.
"You can tell someone, "Look out behind you,' or "Watch that corner' while you're playing," said Marler, a code enforcement officer for Dade City. "It's a huge advantage.
The interactivity with real people in an unreal world is what makes the new generation of cybergames so enticing, he said.
As he demonstrated one game, Marler inserted his character _ a medic _ into a battle under way in a space-age castle.
He ran up to two warriors laying mines in anticipation of an attack, and Marler noticed one of the fighters was wounded.
He applied some space-age first aid, and the fighter's health meter soared.
"Thanks, medic," the warrior messaged.
"That's another person somewhere," Marler said. "He could be anywhere."
Marler, 31, said organization is the key to advancing the online gaming hobby.
"I think you're going to see more and more evolution. Eventually, this will be like professional ball games, a real spectator sport," he said.
"This is a sport to me," Yager said. "You're an athlete in there. It's like archery or car racing; it's a skill, but it's open to a wide range of people. You can be anyone in there, but the results still depend on your skill and your brains."
Players frequently get together at what are called LAN parties _ short for Local Area Network _ where scores of gamers link their computers together at one central location for a weekend of competition, Marler said.
Gamers find each other through Internet links such as http://www.lanparty.com and Hillsborough County-based http://www.wastelan.com, but they also find each other by joining online clubs.
The DC Clan has 62 active members, including a 28-year-old firefighter from Missouri, a 14-year-old boy from Birmingham, Ala., and a 56-year-old legal secretary from San Francisco who calls herself "Calamity Jane."
Marler said the DC Clan is free, but members must be willing to tell everyone a little about themselves and must agree to behave. He doesn't put up with trash-talking or language that would be considered offensive or inappropriate for families.
"We have members all ages, but if kids want to join, I insist on talking with their parents a bit first, making sure it's okay with them," Marler said. "And if their grades start to slip, that's it. It's only a game; you can't stop going to school."
But fun is big business, too. In the past year, the DC Clan has enjoyed sponsorship from some high-tech companies, including software company 3dFx, Ping Tool, Plantronics, MadCatz and the Roger Wilco! voice communication company.
The companies provide equipment that Marler and the DC Clan give away to other gamers and show off at tournaments to boost sales. It makes them plenty of friends.
"A lot of people say the Internet is pulling us apart, but for me, the Internet is bringing people together," Yager said. "Since I got out of school, I've had the same group of friends, and a lot of them I just don't see as much, as they move away.
"But online, you meet new people all the time," he said. "I've met a lot of people out there that I would call real friends."
_ The DC Clan can be found on the Web at http://www.dcclan.com.