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Massively Addictive

As millions continue to spend large quantities of time in virtual worlds, what effect is this having on the real one?

The eight million players of massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft don't really change the game's world. Even if you spend all night slaying an epic dragon, it'll still be alive again in time for the next team of intrepid adventurers. But in some cases, the compelling, addictive gameplay characteristic of many massively multiplayer games can have devastating impacts on the real worlds of their players.

After World of Warcraft's first expansion pack The Burning Crusade released last month, adding a new continent to the world and a sizable stack of new adventures for players to tackle, we were inundated with tales of Warcraft woe -- stories of broken marriages, ignored friends, lost jobs, and wrecked lives. If you want to play the game at the top level, a serious commitment of time is required, and that's leading some players to neglect real-world responsibilities.

Massively multiplayer addiction is a real phenomenon, and it's one that's being taken increasingly seriously by medical professionals. Facilities are being set up to combat it all over the world: Washington, Bejing, and most famously at the Smith & Jones addiction consultancy in the Netherlands. Smith & Jones compares the symptoms of MMO withdrawal to those characteristic of chemical dependence, and offers a detox program followed up with a series of real-life activities intended to replace the excitement of playing MMOs with equally engaging experiences that don't require 60-hour-a-week commitments.

Closer to home, more traditional avenues of support are available to those who feel their MMO habits are getting the better of them. Maressa Hecht Orzack, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and Director of the Computer Addiction Study Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, hears from six or seven people a day seeking treatment for gaming addictions. "Look at the fact that World of Warcraft now has eight million people playing it. Even if there are just five or 10 percent who can't stop, that's a large percentage, and I hear from a lot of them."

Dr. Orzack sees similarities between MMO addiction and more traditional behavior disorders such as compulsive gambling. "The same reward center in the brain is tapped -- the dopamine system. Gambling has all the components that go with these games," she explains, citing Solitaire as a simpler example of a game that can also lead to compulsive behavior.

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Currently there's no psychiatric diagnosis that covers addiction to World of Warcraft, Everquest, or Solitaire, but that may change as new standards are drafted. Dr. Orzack is hopeful her profession may embrace the concept in the next revision of the authoritative DSM diagnostic text, due for publication in about four years. "There's a push to include compulsive disorders in the new manual," she says, "covering addictive behaviors and compulsive things like game playing and internet usage."

What symptoms might indicate a healthy gaming hobby is turning into a problem? "There are a lot of things. People might ignore their friends, they may not get to work on time, and their family relationships are often affected." She recommends players concerned about their habits look up one of the numerous online communities set up to tackle gaming addictions, consult any employee assistance programs their job might offer, or seek advice from their primary care provider.

We spoke to one former Warcraft player who experienced MMO addiction first-hand. Splint, as he asked us to call him, is a well-spoken 20-year-old man who habitually played World of Warcraft from its release in November 2004 until he finally quit last December, just before the release of The Burning Crusade. He was the lynchpin of his guild, which numbered some 70 people, and spent much of his time organizing "raids," assembling large groups of guild members to tackle a particularly tough dungeon or enemy.

How much time is that? Splint owns up: "By the time I finally quit, I had 180 days donated to Blizzard." That playtime took him just over two years to accumulate, meaning his account was logged into the game for nearly one hour in every four. "My friends barely ever saw me. I'd turn down work if it'd run heavily into raid time, and I encouraged my guildmates to do the same."

Splint and his guild kept a heavy schedule. "When the final dungeon before the expansion first hit, [we raided] every night. Every single night, just so we could say we did it first." He'd often skip meals to avoid inconveniencing the group. "If we didn't eat in time, we'd wait until after raiding," he says -- and that could be as long as six hours.

He's keen, too, to share stories of the devastating effects Warcraft addiction had on other players. "One guy turned down a college scholarship because he wasn't ready to go yet. Another had to sell his computer to pay rent, but he continued to play from a friend's house." Another still was forced into marriage counseling (where he and his wife struck a healthy-sounding compromise: no more than 16 hours of Warcraft a week).

Splint doesn't have much trouble explaining the irresistible draw of Warcraft's fantasy world. "It's an escape from reality," he told us. "When you're a retail jockey, you're nobody. When you're Captain 'Purple Items' with the best gear around, you're looked up to. People ask you for advice, encourage you to 'keep up the good work,' or just gush at your equipment in comparison to theirs."

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He also lays some portion of the blame at the feet of the game's creator, Blizzard Entertainment, for structuring the game to encourage such heavy addiction. Once your character reaches the game's maximum level -- currently level 70 -- the time commitment required to keep advancing "skyrockets," as he put it. "When you master the game, another patch is released and your work is now obsolete."

Shortly before he quit the game, Splint and some of his guildmates began to question the amount of time they were spending in the game's world. "We compared stories of missing important events to make time for the game, and we sort of sat back and realized how ridiculous it was. We called it our 'WoW Support Group.' It was sort of a joke then, but it's not too far from the truth. They were a large part of the reason I quit."

When he quit the game, he sold his account and character to another player for $1600. It was a Christmas present from a mother to her son, who already owned four accounts. "I felt almost terrible to pass that off to him," he admitted. But even after quitting the game, Splint still kept up with his guild's online forums until his access was removed in late January, observing that "in two months I went from co-guild leader to just another guy. Interesting how quickly they're capable of forgetting you when you no longer play the game." He blames his banning on his tendency to encourage others not to play so much.

What's he doing with his new-found free time? "I never pass up work opportunities anymore, and I'm off to film-school soon. I'm currently hard at work with some real-life friends on a project of our own." How did his friends react when he quit? "It's about time," they said.

Splint's story is extreme, but is unlikely to surprise any heavy Warcraft players. To keep up with the big boys, you have to be prepared to put in the hours -- but there are plenty of Warcraft players who are content with an easier pace. Warcraft players number over eight million worldwide and some of them are finding out the game, handled carefully, has genuine educational and social value.

For one thing, it's a great way to teach teenagers about teamwork, planning, and self-reliance from the comfort of your own home. The workings of the game's economy can often mirror important real-world concepts like supply and demand. More importantly, they'll learn how it feels to be relied on by a team -- as any Warcraft player knows, a group is only as strong as its most careless player, and any team member can cause calamity by slapdash play or inattentiveness.

There are also widely known anecdotes of people meeting relationship partners through the game, and while Splint was eager to share his tales of trysts made and broken in Warcraft's virtual world Azeroth, we couldn't track any of the participants down to interview. They're out there, though -- it's not a coincidence that one of the garment choices in the game is a wedding dress. And in several instances guilds have organized Warcraft funerals for players who've died in real life.

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Nielsen Media Research reports the average American watches television for four and a half hours a day. That's not a world away from Splint's excesses, although in this age of Tivo and VCRs, it's rare for even the most woeful of TV addicts to cancel social engagements to catch their favorite shows.

Likewise, plenty of Warcraft's eight million players enjoy the game without it detracting from their real-world lifestyles. Like many other leisure activities that can lend themselves to compulsive behavior, it's harmless when kept in the proper perspective. Or you could take the advice Splint wishes he'd taken when he bought the game two years ago: "Stop when you hit level 60," the game's maximum at the time.