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Games Help Fort Bragg Soldier, Brother Stay Close

When Graham and Garrett Staples were kids growing up in Portland, Maine, they bonded while playing the PC game "Counter-Strike."

Today, they're adults, and they're still bonding over video games. At 8 p.m. on a recent Friday evening, the two played "Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City" on XBox 360 at Elite Zone Gaming Lounge in Marketfair Mall.

The two don't live in the same city. Graham, 21, is a private first class at Fort Bragg. Garrett, 23, is passing through Fayetteville on his way to Fort Lee in New Jersey, where he's a specialist.

Video games have been a pastime for the brothers, and Elite Zone seemed like a natural place for them to spend time together.

Sure, they could play games at home. But modern arcades like the 24-hour Elite Zone offer another way to be social, much like going out to drink at a bar.

Modern arcades are sprinkled all over the country, but owner John Larson strategically placed three locations near military installations. One employee estimates 70percent to 80 percent of the customers are military. Some drop in on their lunch breaks or right after work, still dressed in BDUs to play for a couple of hours.

The Staples brothers were still wearing their combat boots with civilian clothes. Graham Staples said most military guys are too tired after a day of work to do anything active, so gaming is really popular.

The pair said they usually play "Call of Duty," the game you'll see most often on screens at Elite Zone.

Elite Zone offers discounts to military customers, including 2-for-Tuesdays, where military gamers can play for two hours for only $2. Games are usually $3 an hour. Elite Zone also sponsors events on post through MWR.

Larson got the idea for his business during a trip to California. He visited a PC gaming business there and thought the concept would work here. But he decided to focus on XBoxes instead, as there were large crowds around the four XBoxes at the California establishment.

When it was time for Larson to open his own business, he limited the number of PCs and opted for 49 XBox 360s.

Fayetteville was his first Elite Zone, opening in 2009. He has since opened arcades in Jacksonville, near Camp Lejeune, and in Columbus, Ga., near Fort Benning.

Larson has enjoyed seeing the positive interaction between military and civilian customers. Larson says the time interacting with one another has given some customers a new perspective on military life and even sparked some to enlist.

Daniel Carter, 21, moved to Fayetteville from Nebraska because of the military. He's playing "NCAA Football 12" with Fayetteville State University student William Hunter on a Thursday night.

The two have completely different lives during the day but find a common bond over the college football game, frequently facing off on Elite Zone's big-screen TV in the front.

Hunter, a Philadelphia native, said he could have stayed on campus to play video games but says he enjoys getting out and playing around new and different faces.

Hunter and Carter are locked in a tight contest. Carter, playing with Oklahoma State, was ahead 24-7 at halftime, but momentum has completely shifted to Hunter, playing with LSU. The two trade trash talk as the game proceeds.

The tight game has even drawn in people passing by on their way to and from the Marketfair 15 movie theater, to the discontent of waiting significant others.

From the front door of Elite Zone, you can barely see the row of PC gamers lining the back wall under black lights.

Walking inside the arcade, everything is dark, except for glowing neon on the walls and TVs. The soundtrack was diverse, with music from Too Short and Skrillex to Queen and Pitbull. But most gamers were too locked in a zone to even notice.

"One of my favorite things is to look at someone's face when they walk in and you can just tell that they're blown away by how things are," Larson said.

The game selection is broad, from popular new releases to old favorites, spanning genres from "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" to "NBA 2K12" or "Madden NFL 12." Customers decide how much time they want to play, pick a title and are pointed toward an open station.

One of the operating hassles is keeping all the games, screens and machines in working order, but Larson still hopes to expand to a dozen or so locations throughout the country one day.

In the meantime, battling the reputation of the Marketfair location has been one of the hurdles for Larson since opening. But he thinks the bigger challenge is just to get gamers out of the house. Larson says that initial visit is the hardest part, but most gamers end up returning for more.

The business also helps gamers who don't want to play at one of their stations, fixing scratched games for free with a drink purchase.

"It's been hard to get people to even give us a chance because most people think about gaming at home," Larson said. "Usually it takes word of mouth, but once they see the place, a gamer feels that they've found a home, and it's not a problem for them to come back."

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