Volume 94 Issue 26
The Official University of Manitoba Students' Newspaper Website
March 28, 2007
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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 schools.”
— 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, highly developed.

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 Daedalus project.

“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 quite understand.

“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.”