Online ‘World’ real to gamers

By Madeline Keleher

Spells are cast, swords clash and arrows fly as orcs, night elves, gnomes and humans fight an ongoing epic battle in Azeroth – this may sound like a fantasy, but for millions of World of Warcraft players worldwide, it is becoming reality.

Dmitri Williams, an assistant professor in Speech Communication, is researching the evolving social interactions of Warcraft.

“The players come from all walks of life,” Williams said. “The youngest players are preteens and the oldest are in their 60s and 70s, so there’s a decent range there.”

Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG, which enables people to reach higher levels by forming teams, commonly referred to as guilds, that range from 10 to 300 players.

Many players communicate with their teammates via Skype, a Voice over Internet Protocol system that transmits voices over the Internet.

“All forty players on your team can talk at once,” Williams said. “There is a whole virtual community going on within the game. I used to hang out at home with a few friends and watch TV, but now I hang out online and talk with 30 people; it’s more and less social at the same time.”

People combine the social interactions of Warcraft with their real lives. One couple from Korea even held their wedding ceremony as their characters in Warcraft.

“Warcraft was the highest selling game when it came out last year,” said a worker at EB Games, 616 E. Green St. “It’s really big on campus. Our store won a contest for selling the most copies of Warcraft in the company.”

One benefit for Warcraft’s largest group of customers, college students, is that the game is inexpensive. It costs around $40 dollars, with an additional $15 dollars a month to continue playing.

“It’s much cheaper than cable fees, phone calls and going out to the movies,” Williams said. “If you play an average of 80 hours a month for $15, that’s a lot better than $8 for a two-hour movie.”

The social interaction offered by Warcraft is not only easier on the wallet, but can be easier on the nerves.

“It’s a lot less forced than meeting people in a bar,” Williams said. “You don’t need to put on a pretense that you’re cool – I mean come on, we’re playing an online video game, we’re all nerds.”

Addiction and Consequences

One of the problems with massive multiplayer online games is that they can consume players’ lives.

After World of Warcraft’s release in the fall of 2004, Sherwin Chan, University alumnus, said his playing time varied from three to 14 hours a day while in school.

Although Chan was able to balance school and playing, he said some of his friends were not able to cope.

“I know several people personally who have had their grades plummet; some are even under academic probation at this moment as a result of playing World of Warcraft,” Chan said. “I have seen some who drop or reschedule classes to accommodate their playing.”

Chan broke his addiction with help from his real-life friends who were concerned that playing Warcraft was affecting his general health and well-being.

“The main reason I was able to break my addiction is because I realized how important my real-life friends were to me,” Chan said. “Now, World of Warcraft is the last item on my priority list rather than the first.”

Unfortunately, not everyone deals with their addiction and some require professional help.

According to the Associated Press, Europe opened its first detox center for video game addiction in Amsterdam, Netherlands this summer.

Several cities in China now offer clinics to treat what psychiatrists call “internet addiction”. The Associated Press reported that a 13-year-old Chinese boy jumped to his death from a tall building after playing one of the online Warcraft games for 36 hours straight in 2004. His suicide note said he wanted “to join the heroes of the game he worshipped.”

Chan agrees that Warcraft is a highly addictive game because of constant worries about improving characters and getting to the next level. Chan also said some people play to cope with depression.

Balancing Fantasy and Reality

Liz Wooley knows all too well the negative consequences of gaming addiction.

On Thanksgiving day in 2001, her son committed suicide in his apartment, with the massive multiplayer online game EverQuest still lit up on his computer monitor.

This event triggered Wooley’s quest to fight for people with online gaming addictions. She created the Web site On-Line Gamers Anonymous, www.olganon.org, which adopts the twelve-step treatment program used by Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I believe that for home-bound people (online interaction) is great,” Wooley said. “But anybody else who can get out, it hampers their real life. “

One problem Wooley sees with online gaming is that the accomplishments and confidence are artificial and do not translate to the real world.

“The leaders in these games are not leaders in real life,” Wooley said.

As of publication, there are over 2,200 registered users on the OLGA Web site message boards. Members can use these message boards to share their stories with others and get help.

“It’s great to see that there is a study that is trying to quantify (these effects),” said Kimberly Thompson, associate professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science at the Harvard School of Public Health, of Williams’ study. “There are concerns, obviously, about people being excluded and being anti-social while playing these games.”

Illinois passed the Safe Games in Illinois Act last June, banning the sale of violent and sexually explicit video games to minors It required stores to mark these games using the same parental advisory stickers used on CDs.

However, the law was found unconstitutional before it could be enacted this past January. The state has also been sued by the Entertainment Software Association and is required to pay more than $510,000 in the ESA’s legal fees.