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'GameRiot is what you get when you cross a video game with a rave," says Matt Ringel, executive producer of GameRiot, which, according to its website, is "the largest traveling video-game festival and competition in the country." For this third festival, which began in Chicago on June 11, GameRiot's most popular game is Halo 2. "It came out last November and broke all entertainment records by making $125 million in one day," Ringel says. He adds there are currently two million people playing the Xbox video-game system, and "most of them play Halo."

Halo 2, like its predecessor, is a "first-person shooter" set in the future. "What people love about playing this game is being connected and being able to talk to other people [via a headset] while they're playing. Everyone else hears what you have to say; it's very, very social," says Ringel.

"At amateur level, people play this game 10 to 15 hours a week." Regular players of the game "pretty much know everything about it inside and outside." Microsoft has released nine new maps, or scenarios, in which to play. "This is stuff that hasn't been 'played out' in the last ten months. Now there are new places to hide and surprise weapons to find," explains Ringel.

The most well-known Halo 2 player (or, as many refer to him, "the best player in the world") is Matt Leto, a 22-year-old who goes by the name Zyos. Leto will be competing with amateur gamers. "Zyos plays Halo 2 until 6 a.m. every day. He wakes up early in the afternoon and starts playing," says Ringel. Anyone who can beat Leto, who turned pro in 2002, will win $100, an MTV2 jacket, and a Major League Gaming management contract.

Zyos isn't the only video-game superstar. The Fragdolls, a group of seven female gamers who tour together, were featured at GameRiot in Milwaukee earlier this month. According to their website, a "frag" is to eliminate another player and "ragdoll physics" is a part of the computer program "allowing video-game characters to react with realistic body and skeletal physics." These girls have combined the two words to create "fragdoll," which is "a female gamer with the skills to dominate in multiplayer shooters," or "a lady with the sass to use the laws of physics to her incontestable advantage."

"There's a whole movement of female gamers afoot," says Ringel. "[The Fragdolls] really have a lot of attitude, and they trash-talk the guys. They're also really good." Fragdoll members go by the names Eekers, Jinx, Katscratch, Rhoulette, Seppuku, Brookelyn, and Valkyrie, and each has her own blog and style as distinct as the Spice Girls.

Along with the gaming celebs, aspiring rock stars compete in GameRiot's Battle of the Bands. The ultimate winner of the battle will perform on College Hoops 2K6, an upcoming basketball title.

"There's a similar attitude for music and gaming, something that is at once mainstream and counterculture," says Ringel. "There's a whole language around it that only you and your friends understand...you understand what it's like to be up at one in the morning, having to play to that next level."

Ringel insists there are more gamers than most people suspect. According to a 2003 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, every student of the 1162 surveyed throughout 27 campuses has played some kind of video game, and two-thirds of those questioned play one regularly. "We tend not to even use the term 'gamer' anymore," says Ringel. "You don't say 'moviegoer' and 'concertgoer,' you just say 'teens' or 'people in their twenties,' because these are things they do."

Most Xbox and PC gamers are males between the ages of 14 to 34. "It depends on what type of games you're talking about," Ringel says. One of the five games in which GameRiot patrons will be competing is Ms. Pac-Man. "A lot of moms come out for that one, and they do well." The other games chosen for competition are Halo 2, Forza Motorsport, Tony Hawk's Underground 2, and Counter-Strike: Source.

Of the 12,000 people expected to attend, only 300 to 400 will compete. Every person who attends will receive Music to Game To, a CD produced by Universal Records and promoted by SBC, and additional giveaways from Nestlé's Nesquik, MTV2, and DC Comics. -- Barbarella

GameRiot Saturday, July 23 Noon to 8 p.m. Qualcomm Stadium 9449 Friars Road Mission Valley Cost: $21.50 Info: 619-641-3100 or www.gameriot.com

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