World of warcrack
The addictive power of role-playing games
DYLAN FERGUSON STAFF
ILLUSTRATION BY TED BARKER
“Hey, if I could play life on a computer, I would.”
A gamer said that while we were having a smoke break outside Fusion gaming
café on Pembina Highway. We all laughed. Then we all went inside so
they could resume playing World of Warcraft, and so I could talk
to them about their hobby.
“Well, I just hit max level 70,” Spaxx told me, cozying up to
his computer monitor. “Way past due, like everyone else at the café
hit 70 like months ago. I’m not as hardcore as them. So, right now I’m
just running some instances, trying to get gear for my hunter.” Spaxx,
in addition to being an avid user of World of Warcraft (or WoW, as
it’s handily abbreviated) now works at Fusion café.
I asked him, as his online self lobbed purple light at a hobbling green
ogre, why he plays WoW. “Other than the fact that I have very little
life outside the game,” he prefaces, with a smirk, “it’s
just fun, it’s interactive, it’s new . . . And it’s a group
activity, everyone here at the café plays, so we’re all on the
same server, we’re all on the same side.”
He’s far from alone. There are currently more than 8.5 million individuals
who subscribe to World of Warcraft across the globe. It is nothing
short of a cultural phenomenon; since its release in late 2004, it has captured
a devoted fan base unlike any other video game in the format’s young
history. Across the world, WoW subscribers spend hours at home on
their personal computer, or at a café such as Fusion, running “raids,”
and “instances,” building their characters, accomplishing quests,
and effectively deleting entire days from their lives. It is more than a little
likely that you know someone, if not several ones, who spend a good portion
of every day playing WoW, if you are not such a one yourself.
WoW is what is known as a massively multiplayer online role-playing
game, or MMORPG (trying saying that acronym out loud, it’s fun). The
genre traces its history back to late-’70s text-based multiplayer fantasy
computer games, generally based on the
“Suddenly, [gamers] are finding
themselves unable to concentrate, unable to stay with their homework, or their
articles, or whatever they’re doing. I mean, I get people in Ivy League
— Maressa Orzack, computer addictions researcher
board game Dungeons & Dragons and available exclusively at colleges.
The first such game was MUD, which officially stood for “Multi-User
Dungeon,” but which students at the University of Essex, where it really
took off, liked to say stood for “Multiple Undergraduate Destroyer,”
due to the amount of time students would waste playing the game.
Modern MMORPGs, created around elaborate 3D universes, gained popularity
with Sony’s EverQuest, but World of Warcraft, developed
by the California company Blizzard Entertainment, is the most popular yet.
The modern-day games retain their predecessors’ fantasy setting, albeit
a much more highly developed one. And they also retain the addictive property
of Essex’s MUD, which is also, due to the exponential advances in gameplay,
Perhaps to an alarming degree.
“I think that there is something that happens with role-playing games,
and it comes under what I’m now beginning to call Internet usage disorder,”
Maressa Orzack told me. “Whatever it is, [addicts] are out there, and
they’re certainly playing things like World of Warcraft.”
Orzack, who has a PhD in psychology, is director of the computer addictions
centre at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, which is affiliated with Harvard
Medical School, where she is an assistant professor. Though her research was
initially centred around addictions to chat rooms and online pornography,
in recent years she has changed her focus to what she considers a growing
social problem: MMORPG addiction.
In 2005, Orzack created a slight controversy when she said in an interview
that 40 per cent of people who play such games are addicted. She told me over
the phone that that figure was actually based on research conducted by Nick
Yee in California, who runs a self-selected group study of gamers called the
“I know there are still people who say 40 per cent, and it may well
be that, but I’m willing to cut it back,” she said, adding “If
you take over eight million people who play World of Warcraft, even
if you cut it down to 10 to 15 per cent, that is a fair number of people,”
who are addicted.
Orzack believes that games like WoW rope people in with a reward-based
structure, and the community atmosphere they create. “They get that
sense of belonging, they blend with other people,” which is important,
because, “these people, some of them are socially phobic. Some of them
are shy.” She also notes that the vast virtual worlds they create allow
people to immerse themselves in the game. While gamers generally “watch”
their character, sometimes they initiate “presence,” which is
“where you essentially suspend disbelief, and you’re just there.”
Basically, the gamer begins to believe they are the character.
Many people use this “presence” to escape an unpleasant reality.
“They may be overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do. They
may not; they may just as soon decide to not bother to try to keep up with
things.” But she says it is important to note that the individuals who
become game addicts are not “psychotic,” and definitely not stupid.
Most of the people she’s dealt with on a personal basis “are very
bright. Honour students. And suddenly, they are finding themselves unable
to concentrate, unable to stay with their homework, or their articles, or
whatever they’re doing. I mean, I get people in Ivy League schools.”
Back at the café, while gnomes fire light-beams at a rock colossus,
Spaxx says he thinks role-playing game addiction is a reality, but also that
the older generation may be overreacting to a new culture they don’t
“Some people, without actually trying certain games, will just automatically
say it’s a negative influence, or not understand the social benefit.”
Spaxx adds, “I’ve had this discussion with my father lots of times,
about communication, and how this is a community,” in addition to
“For people who may not be socially
inclined, playing online can actually give you a social community that you
can relate to.”
— Spaxx, gamer
being good entertainment. While Orzack singled out this sense of belonging
as a negative, addictive property, Spaxx would disagree. “For people
who may not be socially inclined, playing online can actually give you a social
community that you can relate to. You know, if you live in a small community,
you may not have that.”
Spaxx pointed out how most people who play together at the café form
friendships outside their orc and elf bodies, which is healthy. He also told
me how someone he made friends with online paid for his upgrade, shelling
out $40 of real money on Spaxx’s behalf, just to help him out.
“If that’s not a community, I don’t know what is.”
But others point to the way real money and in-game economics merge in World
of Warcraft as an indication that something is rotten in the state of
Aezeroth. For gamers, the line between worlds “virtual” and “real”
can become blurred, and so can their priorities, with some troubling consequences.
Lee Seung Seop was an industrial boiler repairman in South Korea who became
more concerned with World of Warcraft that the world he was born
into. Lee’s obsession with the game cost him his job and his wife, and
on August 10, 2005, after playing WoW in an Internet café
for 50 hours straight, it cost him his life, too. Lee died from cardiac arrest
induced by exhaustion and dehydration.
Perhaps more disturbing, in 2005, also in Korea, two parents went to an
Internet café to play WoW and left their four-month-old daughter unattended.
They planned on staying no more than an hour or so, but got caught up in the
game. They returned home five hours later to discover that their daughter
had fallen on her chest and suffocated to death.
Incidents such as these, more so than the nay-saying of our elders, has
led people to seriously consider role-playing game addiction as a problem
that must be dealt with.
In 2005, the Smith and Jones addiction centre in Amsterdam became the first
in the western world to open up a treatment clinic devoted entirely to gaming
addicts. Addictions counsellor Keith Bakker created the gaming clinic, and
is its director. “Sociologists are seeing more situations where these
people have been playing games for hours and hours and hours, and they were
ruining things in their life that they used to have,” Bakker told me
over the phone. He said he first became aware of the gaming problem when a
cocaine addict he was treating told him he only did coke for one reason —
so he could stay up and keep playing WoW.
Bakker says a gaming addiction is harder to discover. “You know, the
alcoholic has his car in the water, and the gamer is in his room with the
curtains closed, he’s not going to school anymore.” But he says
it is more difficult to cure an RPG addiction than a drug addiction.
“I mean, give me a crack addict any day. Give me a gamer, it’s
a lot of work.”
Like Orzack, Bakker points out that most of the individuals he treats are
intelligent, and often well-off, which, he says, makes the problem that much
worse. He remarks, “These are future business leaders. And they don’t
know how to meet girls, they don’t know how to do anything!”
Bakker believes that in the near future, game addiction will be a more serious
social problem than drug addiction.
So what should be done? In China, which has more MMORPG players than any
other country (including 3.5 million WoW subscribers), the government passed
laws to limit the amount of time people can waste on such games. Initiated
in 2005, the legislation penalizes anyone who plays an MMORPG for more than
five hours at a time — not with any real-world consequences, but by
reducing the abilities of their character.
Orzack believes the measures of the Chinese government were a bit extreme,
and says the onus is on “school teachers, counsellors, other psychologists,
psychiatrists,” to limit the problem through information. Bakker said
that, at the very least, the game developers should put warning labels on
their product, like cigarette packs.
“I think it’s more up to family and friends to sort of hold
those interventions,” says Spaxx. He dismisses the notion that gaming
addiction is important enough for the government to interfere. But, though
he won’t be rushing out to a clinic anytime soon, Spaxx admits that
he was addicted to World of Warcraft for some time.
“Now I’m a little more controlled, I’ll only play when
I’m working at the café. I know it is addicting. Very. It’s
worse than crack. They say the only way to beat WoW is to quit playing.”