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Maybe you should join your loved one’s virtual world

Ted, a sophomore chemistry student at Portland State, tells a story that has become increasingly familiar to many Americans. Six months ago, he started playing the game World of Warcraft. His friends had been encouraging him to play for months, but he was worried it would interfere with school and waited until the beginning of the summer to install the software.

His worries were well founded. Since June, he has devoted more than half of his waking hours to the game. “I was an addict,” he explains. “A week ago, I abruptly uninstalled the game. There was an actual withdrawal period. For the first time in six months, I started remembering dreams.”

Gamers congregate in World of Warcraft to mourn the real-world death of a young companion.

As massively multiplayer games emerge from the fringes of popular culture, it is difficult to surf the internet without encountering similar horror stories. According to Xinhua Online, a 13-year-old girl in China dropped dead in October after a marathon session with the game World of Warcraft. “Snowly” had been training with other players to tackle one of the hardest levels of the game, and she mentioned in the chat channel that she was feeling tired shortly before she died. A week after her death, her friends and guild-mates organized an enormous on-line funeral within the game world.

Details surrounding Snowly’s death are difficult to extract from the tight-lipped Chinese press, and many gamers have good reason to question the story’s authenticity. In the short history of virtual worlds, there have been many incidents in which charismatic young players (usually female characters controlled by male players) disappear without a trace. In such cases, the outpouring of grief and camaraderie on the part of the player community is real, but the death itself turns out to be false.

However, there are times when such far-fetched stories turn out to be true. Last year, in South Korea, a young man died of heart failure and exhaustion after logging 50 consecutive hours with the game Starcraft. And, though most gamers don’t pursue their cravings to the point of death, less deadly forms of obsession are widespread. One need only peruse sites such as Everquest Daily Grind to read heart-wrenching stories about the effects of gaming on human relationships.

“My husband’s drug of choice is Everquest,” one woman writes in her posting to the Daily Grind. “He has played the game obsessively for the past few years and frankly, it has destroyed our marriage and his relationship with our daughter.” Hundreds of postings on the site report similar experiences with the loss of a loved one. “My wife of three years has been hooked on Everquest for the past five months,” reports one man. “She was playing every day of the week, and averaging about 10 hours a day. She became distant, stopped caring for the kids, and gained 35 pounds.” Finally, after being diagnosed with diabetes, she agreed to stop gaming.

These are terrifying stories to be sure, but such anecdotes are not representative of the broader gaming population. In a survey of more than 5,000 on-line gamers, researcher Nick Yee found that users spend an average of 23 hours per week in the virtual world. Though a significant time commitment, this hardly warrants locking up the computer in the toolshed. Only 8 percent of the study’s respondents spent more than 40 hours a week with their favorite game.

Clearly, a significant minority of players has problems limiting their usage of on-line games. What accounts for the intense appeal of these virtual environments? Yee notes that the games are attractive to users because they are highly immersive, they deliver meaningful social relationships, and they involve the user in a self-reinforcing cycle of rewards. For players suffering from low self-esteem, difficult interpersonal relationships, or plain old boredom, participating in on-line games can be enormously gratifying.

However, before we grab the torches and gather in the town square to march on game developers, we should step back and ask what it means to say that something is intrinsically “addictive.” Researchers Florence Chee and Richard Smith argue that the term “addiction” is often used to stigmatize pleasurable behaviors that seem unacceptable to mainstream society. “Why do we need to label everything potentially likable as addictive?” they ask. In our pathologized culture, the discourse of addiction surrounds such behaviors as work, love, gambling, sex, shopping, therapy, and even reading.

Few could deny that gaming has gone too far when it interferes substantially with personal relationships, work, or academic performance. As with any enjoyable activity, there will always be people who cannot limit their usage. However, it is instructive to compare gaming behaviors to television-viewing habits. According to A.C. Nielsen, the average American watches 29 hours of television a week. This works out to approximately two months of non-stop viewing each year. The National Institute of Media and the Family reports that more than 40 percent of Americans always or often eat dinner in front of the television set.

In other words, the typical American spends 25 percent more time in front of the television than the typical on-line gamer spends in virtual worlds. Television viewing is a passive activity characterized by the one-way transmission of information. In contrast, gaming is interactive. Heavy on-line gamers interact in social networks with individuals around the globe. They regularly engage in collective activities, they solve complex problems, and they go out of their way to share information with others. Although their practices may seem mystifying to their friends and loved ones, these gamers actively participate in something that has long been missing from the lives of many Americans: meaningful community.

So, what do we do when someone we care about becomes too wrapped up in the world of video games? We should resist identifying the game itself as the root of the problem. Rather than disconnecting the cable modem and hiding the computer, companions of addicted gamers would be well advised to seek to understand the emotional payoff that their loved one receives from the game.

It is also important to remember that completely quitting the game would require the player to abruptly terminate meaningful relationships with live human beings. Instead of encouraging the excessive gamer to give up their fun completely, it might be more effective to encourage them to moderate their playing time. If the average American spends 29 hours a week watching television, it seems reasonable to ask a loved one to stay within similar limits.

A final approach is to actually purchase the software and spend some time with the gamer in the virtual world. At the very least, the experience might generate more insight about the game’s appeal.

In many instances, the act of exploring a new land with a loved one could be the key to revitalizing a relationship that seemed lost forever.

By Aaron Delwiche

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