by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r &

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & n evening spent in front of Guitar Hero under normal circumstances -- say in your homey's basement with a few of your unwashed, predominantly male friends -- doesn't often lead to a crazy night out. And, unless you're making a YouTube video, it'll probably never lead to any amount of ironic hipster fame.

Prago's Guitar Hero nights, though, carry exactly that possibility. And fame can freak out even the most stoic faux-death-metalist. "I was pretty nervous," says Clayton Hemmingson, a Gonzaga art major. Despite a training regimen that sees him clocking five hours on the game a day ("I don't have much homework"), playing in front of people proved to be a whole other level. It's technically the same toy guitars on the same Xbox 360; the same hard rock/classic rock and metal standards with schlocky vocals; and the same fast-twitch finger movements controlling the same exaggerated rock-stereotype avatars. It's a whole different deal, though, this fake shredding in front of a packed house.

Of course, once Hemmingson stepped to the projection screen spanning most of the coffee shop's front window and locked into gamer mode, instinct took over. He may have been going head to head with another patron, but really he was competing against the standard set by whatever thrashy metal band he was copying. (I didn't catch the song and didn't recognize it.) He bested the other guy easily, scoring close to 300,000 points at an accuracy rate of 96 percent.

The importance of the score in determining skill, is dubious. Different songs have different maximum scores. Hemmingson's accuracy rate, though, was unmatched. If he decides to come to the club's first Guitar Hero tournament on Thursday night -- a prospect he considers with a stoner's ambivalence -- he'll be a favorite in the expert difficulty bracket.

Though it's a tournament and there are prizes to be won, the setup is inclusive, with brackets for all skill levels. The crowd got into those lower skill players as much as with the hardened veterans. One crowd favorite, Bethany Rockwell, played the Pretenders' "Tattooed Love Boys" on medium difficulty. The dude she was paired with hung on for a bit, but Rockwell pulled away decisively after 20 seconds, racking up a score of 87,000 with an accuracy rate in the high 80s. The next duo didn't match her score, combined. Given this, Rockwell thinks her chances are pretty good in the tournament's medium-difficulty bracket -- though she says, "I'd get my ass kicked on hard."

When she was on her game, in college at University of Idaho, she was playing Guitar Hero "two hours -- at the most," a day. It's somewhat hard for her to find people to play with since moving to Spokane, so she's rusty. "You can't play Guitar Hero alone -- you'll turn into a gamer." And the last thing she considers herself is a gamer. "Gamers play Halo," she says knowingly, "or Zelda ..." then her eyes widen with an air of accusation, "You totally play Zelda, don't you?"

Rockwell says she'll enter the tournament if she can coax some friends to join her for support. That might not be necessary. The sight of a girl playing Xbox drove spectators crazy last Thursday, lending Rockwell and two other female players as much support as they could hope to get from their non-gamer friends.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & J & lt;/span & ohn K, the event's organizer, says the Guitar Hero nights are bringing a crowd distinct from what Prago usually sees. "This is definitely drawing people," he says. The hope for the caf & eacute; is that, having come here to shred, people will return to snack and booze. So far, however, there hasn't been much discernable crossover. For her part, Rockwell says she likes the atmosphere the Guitar Hero nights create and wouldn't mind hitting up one of the caf & eacute;'s film screenings, which happen most Tuesdays. "But just to hang out... eh..." She seems uncertain.

Guitar Hero Tournament at Prago on Thursday, Sept. 27, at 9 pm. $5; free for spectators. Call 443-0404.

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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.