As Virtual Universes Grow, So Do Ranks of the Game-Obsessed

Everquest screen
"Everquest" players log in to a swords-and-sorcery world to challenge or cooperate with other players as they so choose. (Sony Online Entertainment)
By Olga Khazan
Special to
Friday, August 18, 2006; 3:52 PM

They are war heroes, leading legions into battle through intricately designed realms. They can be sorcerers or space pilots, their identities woven into a world so captivating, it is too incredible to ever leave. Unfortunately, some of them don't.

Video games have often been portrayed as violence-ridden vehicles for teen angst. But after 10 people in South Korea -- mostly teenagers and young adults -- died last year from game-addiction causes, including one man who collapsed in an Internet cafe after playing an online game for 50 hours with few breaks, some began to see a new technological threat.

Participation in massively multiplayer online role-playing games, also called MMORPGs or MMOs, has skyrocketed from less than a million subscribers in the late 1990s to more than 13 million worldwide in 2006. With each new game boasting even more spectacular and immersive adventures, new ranks of gamers are drawn to their riveting story lines. Like gambling, pornography or any other psychological stimulant, these games have the potential to thrill, engross and completely overwhelm.

The most widely played MMO, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft, has 6.5 million players worldwide, most of whom play 20 to 22 hours per week. Thousands can be logged in simultaneously to four different WoW servers (each its own self-contained "realm"), interacting with players across the globe in a vast virtual fantasy setting full of pitched battles and other violent adventures.

Brady Mapes, a 24-year-old computer programmer from Gaithersburg, Md., and an avid WoW fan, calls it a "highly addictive game -- it sucks the life out of you."

An MMO differs from an offline game in that the game world evolves constantly as each players' actions directly or indirectly influence the lives of other players' characters. In WoW, players can simply attack one another, interact with the environment, or role-play in more complex relationships. More time playing means greater virtual wealth and status, as well as access to higher game levels and more-exciting content.

In addition, online gamers can join teams or groups (called "guilds" in WoW) that tackle game challenges cooperatively. Fellow team members see membership as a commitment and expect participation in virtual raids and other joint activities. The constant interaction with other players can lead to friendships and personal connections.

'All I Could Think About Was Playing'

Everquest II
The box cover for a separately purchased add-on module for Everquest II.(Ken Murayama)
"The main reason people are playing is because there are other people out there," said Dmitri Williams, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has researched the social impacts of MMOs. "People know your name, they share your interests, they miss you when you leave."

As MMO fan sites filled with raving gamers proliferate, so have online-addiction help blogs, where desperate recluses and gamers' neglected spouses search for a way out.

"I don't want to do everything with [my husband], but it would be nice to have a meaningful conversation once in awhile," writes one pregnant wife on Everquest Daily Grind, a blog for those affected by excessive use of another popular fantasy MMO. "He does not have much interest in the baby so far, and I am worried that after it is born, he will remain the same while I am struggling to work and take care of the baby."

Another gamer writes that she was angry at her boyfriend for introducing her to online gaming, which began consuming her life at the expense of her personal and academic well-being.

"But I think deleting [your] character doesn't work, because the game haunts you," she said. "All I could think about was playing."

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