NERDS... GEEKS... cyber-junkies, computer game players have long had a bad rap. Ever since Pacman and Space Invaders gave way to labyrinthian adventures such as Dungeons And Dragons, players have been stereotyped as pallid-faced youths, shoulders hunched over keyboards and joysticks for hours while living a hermit-like existence with a computer as their only friend.
Two deaths in the past 15 months have hardly helped boost this image. Ng Man-fai, 28, and Lai Pui-sun, 17, were both found slumped over tables in separate cyber cafes after long stints playing Diablo II. Both were apparently healthy and had no drug habits, causing some medics to suggest that long-term exposure to flashing lights from the screen may have triggered their collapse.
So it comes as a welcome surprise to meet Hong Kong's computer gaming champions practising for this October's third World Cyber Games in South Korea and discover seven sensible, well-rounded and fashionably dressed youths. The players, aged 16 to 22 and including straight-A students, will take on 600 competitors from 56 countries for a share of US$350,000 prize money and global kudos. The stakes are high, but the players share the view that online gaming is for fun, not for life.
'People in Hong Kong always have a bad impression of computer game players because they think we only play and think of nothing else,' says Jason Lam Sui-kei, 18, a Year 13 international school student who scored six A grades at GCSE. 'But the problem is not about computer games, it's about self-discipline.'
All seven finalists say they play games for just a few hours a day and enjoy sports and other hobbies. 'Some game players think computer games are more important than school,' Lam says. 'They usually won't do their schoolwork until they've finished playing.'
Lam is one member of a five-strong team, iChor, that won the Hong Kong and Macau preliminary heats of the game Half-Life: Counter-Strike at this month's Samsung Digital Challenge, securing a place in the finals.
Half-Life: Counter-Strike is a gory shooting game. Players slip into mode as virtual reality special forces, frantically pressing cursors to zap dangerous terrorists. Although the game is high on blood and violence, it is popular with both sexes. Players can link up with friends online to form a team.
'It's an addictive game. Luckily, my schoolwork has not been affected too much,' says Lam's teammate Andrew Tsoi Yan-hang, 19, who scored seven As at GCSE level and plans to go to university in Britain. 'This game involves skill and thinking,' Tsoi points out. 'It also requires teamwork and strong communication skills. We each have a microphone plugged into our computers, so we can talk to each other in and out of the game.'
All five players met online. The other three are Year 13 student Jason Tsui Ru-kang, 16; form five student Huson Chow Tsz-ho, 16, and Eric Lo Pui - the odd one out since he's a 22-year-old businessman who owns a web-hosting company. 'Counter-Strike links us as friends,' says Chow. 'We chat with each other about everything, even our secrets. We also organise fun events outside the computer world.'
The teammates say they have six to seven hours' sleep a night, though they confess they play till late at night during school holidays. 'It's easier to get hold of online games than doing group activities,' says Lam. 'We don't have to leave the house and we can play, talk and have fun with our friends.'
The team hopes to make the quarter-finals in South Korea, but say they're happy just to be taking part. 'It's a good pay-off for our hard work,' says Lam. 'We practise two hours on average every day and four to five hours before a competition.''
For non-gamers, the names of the other two official games in the World Cyber Games may also leave you scratching your head. Age Of Mythology and Warcraft III: Reign Of Chaos are real-time strategic war games where players create their own armies.
Warcraft's official website says: 'Being 'massively multiplayer', the world of Warcraft allows thousands of players to interact ... form friendships ... and compete with enemies for power and glory.'
It has bonded Form Six student Tony Wong Lik-yan, 17, and computer-diploma student BM Wong Kwok-wai, 20, who have been friends for six months since they met playing the game online. Their friendship now extends beyond the game and they meet regularly. Although Tony beat BM in the regional final, it is friendly rivalry.
'We don't have any expectations,' says Tony of the Korea trip. 'We just want to broaden our horizons.' Both will skip school for a week to take part, with no objections from their parents. 'They don't oppose it,' says BM, before Tony chips in: 'And they don't support it.'
The pair think it's worth missing one week of learning. 'We play three to four hours a night and we never allow it to affect our studies,' says Tony.
In the world of Warcraft, it's about power, glory and friendship. In the real world, things aren't much different. Gaming critics say you don't make real friends in cyber space. But as the members of team iChor have proved, sometimes you can.