SLAVES TO THE GAME
It's not chat rooms or XXX sites luring these PC addicts to their keyboards eight hours a day. Online games are the new cyber-drug of choice
BY DAVID SiIVERBERG
They wear diapers so they don't have to go to the bathroom. They forget about caring for their children. They stop talking to friends and they stop eating. They start living in a world removed from reality.
These are video game addicts who take online entertainment beyond the playafter-work norm.
Any kind of obsessive behaviour can cripple a functional life, but critics argue endless gaming has long been misrepresented as harmless. Today's gamers are growing up - adults with full-time jobs and families are basking in the monitor's glow of numbing fantasy, proving the $1 billion (US) online gaming industry hooks people long past adolescence. And they're engrossing themselves so deeply that some have even committed suicide over it.
Dying to Win
Elizabeth Woolley's voice is filled with anger when she talks about video game developers. A computer technician from Hudson, Wisconsin, Woolley says she has good reason to be so hateful towards them: Her son committed suicide because of their product, she claims.
Always a smiling, friendly boy, Shawn Woolley was known as someone who loved to ham it up for the camera. !n home videos, he contorted his face, stuck out his tongue, even did the occasional headstand.
In his late teens, Shawn tried out an online game and never stopped playing it. His fix was EverQuest, an epic multiplayer role-playing game where people invent characters for themselves and embark on missions to gain points. Shawn was playing the game almost every hour of the day, to the point that his mother was forced to bring Shawn's keyboard to work with her.
Although Shawn was already afflicted with depression, Elizabeth says online gaming changed his personality for the worse. When he moved to his own place, dirty dishes and scraps of food caked his kitchen. He stopped calling his family and withdrew from any social interaction.
On Nov. 22, 2001, Elizabeth visited her son at his apartment. The 20-yearold had shot himself in the head while, playing a game. His virtual character stood motionless on the screen, its name "ILUVYOU'. Elizabeth believes Shawn proposed marriage to someone in the virtual world and was rejected. He quit his job and bought a gun after suffering a jolt of despair.
Since then, Elizabeth Woolley has met other gamers who attempted suicide. "They were afraid to come to real life because their lives were totally desolate," she says. "They realize they just wasted five years playing video games."
What started as grief ended up as a crusade to amass the voices of online gaming addicts worldwide. In 2002, Woolley founded Online Garners Anonymous, an online support group (www.olganon.org) that dram on Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program.
A glance at Olganon's message board suggests a crumbling wall of silence - the less shy of the group's 1,500 members
reveal their stories of 12-hour gaming sessions, how they neglected children to play one more conquest - and some who finally destroyed their game disc, vowing to never again enter that luring virtual realm.
Olganon is one of the few homes for online addicts, a sign that video game obsession is treated as a non-issue by social workers, Woolley says. "I took Shawn to one counsellor and he told me, 'At least your son isn't on drugs or alcohol: That made Shawn gloat and say, 'See, Mom, I can play games as much as I want."
Public perception of this disorder needs to shift, Woolley urges. Shawn's death also convinced her that developers of games like EverQuest, There and Ultima Online "make their games as enticing as possible so users won't leave the fantasy," she says. "They shouldn't make money out of someone's addictiveness."
High on Fantasy
It would be naive to think companies wouldn't capitalize on the tendency to numb ourselves with entertainment (remember TV?). What makes these online role-playing games so popular - EverQuest has sold more than 2.5 million copies - is their continuity.
"It's the nature of the Net to have no beginning and no end;" says Dr. David Greenfield, one of few psychologists with expertise in Internet abuse. "It compels the mind to continue a behaviour that will never finish." In EverQuest, for example, there is no concrete ending. Characters can die and come back to life, as long as they can recover the corpse.
Greenfield notes how the "near-miss" factor also contributes to addiction. "The garner is going to win sometimes, but they don't know when or where or how much. That's why gamblers pull the slots all day, because if they knew they would get quarters on the tenth pull, they wouldn't play."
Studies have proven that achieving an intermittent "win" leaks dopamine to the brain, similar to the euphoria achieved by playing sports. It's what _ keeps Shaquille O'Neal energized during a three-hour game, and it's what keeps WarriorBoy61 3 pumped up for his eighthour gaming session.
Mark Griffiths, of Nottingham Trent University in England, has studied video game addiction extensively and points out several criteria that qualify any addiction: The addictive substance modifies moods; using it becomes the most dominant activity; conflicts arise between the user and those around him; and withdrawal symptoms appear in those trying to quit.
"When playing games, these users not only experience a buzz but also tranquilize themselves in order to escape;" Griffiths says.
"One day, the psychiatric community will have to realize there are all kinds of online addictions," says Laura R., a recovering gameaholic from Nashville, Tennessee. She used to play video games for six hour sessions each day, moving from Nintendo 64 to GameBoy Advance to online
games. It was her way to numb out and procrastinate, she says.
She played online games where she killed vampires or ran a lemonade stand -the content didn't matter as long as she was "avoiding work and pain and discomfort:" Laura quit cold turkey when she recognized how unmanageable her life had become.
Now that she has quit, she doesn't have twitches of withdrawal. "But I kinda miss those characters I controlled;" she says with a wistful sigh and a self-conscious laugh. "I miss their personalities like I would miss a friend.'
Edited by: lizwool at: 6/21/05 6:18