MMOs Anonymous


Online RPG Addicts Come Clean about Their Habit

I don't know the role I'm playing.  I only know it's mine.

- Wislawa Szymborska

Ask not what the role can do for you; ask what you can do for the role.

- Ricardo Montalban

My son Wolf in World of Warcraft

by Nadia Oxford

Rafe Fraiser knows what it's like to be an addict.  Unlike most addicts, though, Fraiser wasn't hooked on illegal narcotics, cigarettes or even alcohol.  But his habit was nevertheless powerful enough to control his life, following a pattern common among any sort of addiction: A free taste got him hooked long enough to pull in his friends, whose involvement only reinforced his own compulsion.  The drug?  A massively multiplayer online role-playing videogame (MMORPG) called Red Moon.  "The game was free," he says.  "I passed the link onto my then-boyfriend, and we downloaded it and proceeded to team up and destroy hooligans, thieves, and anything else the world threw at us, slowly but surely moving up in the ranks."

The worlds presented in MMORPGs like Red Moon, World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI are inarguably deep.  Still, despite realistic graphics and complex game mechanics, the player's imagination doesn't flatline.  On the contrary, it runs wild in a land where almost anything is possible.  But such boundless freedom can be addictive - sometimes tragically so.  Addiction didn't begin with video games or MMORPGs.  The same watchdogs who point disapprovingly at EverQuest often do so while holding their third cup of coffee in their other hand.  Still, there is a cause for concern when a pastime grows to eat jobs, grades, and social lives.

In rare cases, the love of the game can bring out the worst in a human.  Qiu Chengwei, a Shanghai participant in the popular MMORPG Legend of Mir 3 stabbed another player who sold a favourite virtual sword that Chengwei had loaned to him.  Selling and buying virtual items on eBay and other outlets is a standard practice for MMO players, although most companies that create the games condemn these transactions, and most countries (including China) have no laws regarding the theft of virtual items.  In South Korea, a couple became so engrossed in an Internet Cafe round of World of Warcraft that they forgot about their 4-month-old daughter, who had died of suffocation when they returned home.  And in Thailand, adults have noticed that children who once flooded the streets with all-day soccer games now prefer to sit inside and play Ragnarok Online for hours on end.

These are the stories that end up in the newspaper and horrify parents.  The reality is that many players have no trouble balancing their gaming with real-life concerns, and very few players would ever intentionally hurt someone over a game.  Yet MMORPG addiction has become far too widespread to be ignored.  You don't have to go far to find someone who's been directly affected by the pull of virtual worlds, whether they're addicted themselves or if they have a co-worker, a friend, or even a spouse who became alarmingly absorbed.  How can any game pull strongly enough to make once-responsible adults forget about their lives, their jobs, and even their children?

MMORPGs were born almost as soon as civilians had access to the technology that allowed them to hook their computer to a network and type to others from across the country.  Emily Lomonte from Ohio became familiar with the Internet when she began college in 1990, long before Net-ready computers became a household item.  "The university had about 8 2400-baud modems to serve the entire campus," she recollects.  But even back then, text-based multi-user dungeons and its derivatives - MUSHes, MOOs, et cetera - were enjoying considerable popularity among college students.  Lomonte witnessed first-hand that academics and recreation can clash.  She remembers one acquaintance in particular who failed at the University twice because of her MUD obsession that kept her glued to the screen.  "She never went to class," Lomonte says.

The Internet had become more widespread by 1994 as people outside of colleges began to log on to commercial services like AOL and CompuServe.  A game called GemStone III surfaced on the frontier.  Like a MUD, it was text-based.  Unlike a MUD, it was more involved; live gamemasters doled out miniature quests for players, who had to pay to access the game.  Lomonte was hired as a gamemaster for Legends of Future Past, a game that was separate from but similar to GS III and also required a fee to play.  Lomonte says there were no flat fees at the time.  "Legends cost $1.35 an hour to play.  People would play this game for 12, 14, 16 hours a day.  Some of the more dedicated players would send the company $1,000 at the beginning of the month to pay it all off."

The fee and the text-based nature of Legends as well as an "adults-only" rule meant that the game's user base consisted mostly of grownups who were deeply into roleplaying.  Stunning graphics aren't necessary to coax a player into a fantasy world, but they definitely haven't discouraged the new generation from taking a long look at the more recent MMORPGs.  Some players even made their choice depending on which game they found most visually appealing.

Brent Lowell from Massachusetts was, like many players, introduced to MMORPGs through EverQuest.  He played religiously for a time, but eventually his passion started to fade.  "I was losing interest in the game because of graphical inadequacies."  He abandoned EQ and moved on to the more realistic-looking Final Fantasy XI.  One anonymous student in Georgia also expressed her preference for FF XI's graphics over the mega-popular World of Warcraft's.  "I'm superficial.  WoW is kind of ... ugly.  The artist in me wasn't too happy with the primary palettes and the quasi not-even-trying medieval look."

Although the graphics are what turned many players' attention to today's MMORPGs, looks alone aren't usually what keeps them playing.  MMORPGs allow for escape from the daily mundane.  At work, we're usually forced to dress and act in a conforming manner; in MMORPGs, we can accessorise to make ourselves stand out from a crowd.  We can ride fantastic beasts like tigers or dragons.  We can wield heavy weapons with impossible strength.  As Rafe Fraiser discovered while playing Red Moon, we can have power.  "Every single day, for hours - forsaking work, school, whatever to plug away getting EXP that soared far beyond the average user's.  We were indestructible.  We had the most powerful weapons and armour.  We were enlisted to elite armies, and it only encouraged us to play Red Moon more.  I mean, we were powerful.  We lived our life to 'get it out of the way' so we could log on, plug in, and have people bow at our feet.  Players knew not to cross me."

Some gamers play MMORPGs specifically to forge friendships and help other players.  A person who's sensitive and compassionate in real life might find himself at home playing an acolyte or a white mage in an MMORPG: Roles which revolve around healing stricken companions.  Forming parties to tackle large tasks is a good way to meet new friends, especially for people who feel awkward about real life gatherings and introductions.  Carl Siegmund, a FF XI player from Montana, agrees.  "The relationships you make with these people are real.  I knew most of my guildmates on a first name basis at one time or another.  The guild leader was a housewife, and her husband was a Paladin.  I've met these people, hung out with them, bought and sold stuff with them.  It's not different than a friend you make at work, except for the distance."  Siegmund notes one other difference that can make it easier to socialise online versus the real world.  "It really comes down to /ignore.  Don't like somebody?  Ignore them.  Don't you wish you could do that at work?"  Siegmund was initially drawn into MMORPGs when he suffered from depression and suffered from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  "I'd be an extremely antisocial geek if nobody made MMORPGs," he claims.  "For me, my addiction followed my depression, not the other way around.  I'd play because I'd be too depressed to leave the house.  When my mood came up, I wouldn't quit [the game], but I'd cut back for a while."

Ash from Ontario is also familiar with the concept of people finding refuge in MMORPGs when they're unable to live their lives for whatever reason.  "A friend of mine became an advocate of EverQuest.  But he was a recovering cancer patient, and his activities were limited to wheeling around in a chair or hobbling along on crutches.  Who could begrudge him a rich online game life?"

My son Cody in World of Warcraft

Susceptibility to addiction is a basic human weakness.  So is the desire to hoard material possessions, and MMORPGs have proven that the two can go hand-in-hand.  Brent Lowell remembers, "[EverQuest] was my gateway drug in terms of MMORPGs.  It didn't last long, but it was enough to get me hooked [on MMORPGs].  It taught me about my strong desire to collect stuff."

Aside from the appeal of relating and working with people in a structured environment, Carl Siegmund believes that MMORPG addiction comes down to one other matter: In his words, "The e-penis.  You'll notice the constant bragging and comparing of stuff from MMORPGs among other players, even in real life.  If I meet a random person who's only level 40, I don't talk much shop with them.  Meet another level 60 or higher, I'll start pulling out the big guns.  It's friendly, but it's a competition.  It's no different than two guys who work on cars comparing what they drive around.  When you're level 60, you know most everybody your level, and everybody tips their imaginary hat when you walk by.  Respect and fame have a number.  More fame than most of us here on earth will ever see."

For many, that virtual adulation is easier to come by and more satisfying than real friendship.  After all, friends come and go.  It's not uncommon to drift apart when lives and interests shift.  The loss of a friendship alone can be upsetting; it becomes even more difficult when MMORPG obsessions are involved - especially when that love for the game isn't mutual.  Ash remembers losing several friends to Ragnarok Online.  "Requests to go outside go to a movie, the mall, even to chat online were ignored in favour of Ragnarok," he recounts, expressing his frustration with the experience.

Lacey from Montana watched a classmate get pulled under by EverQuest.  "It got to the point where he was skipping class to play.  He had no concept of difference between doing things you need to do and doing things that are fun but not important."

The problems that arise when an addict is sharing your personal space can be particularly severe, as one anonymous student from Texas remembers of her roommate.  "If we actually had some housework to do or dinner to make, I was usually the one stuck with it because she and her MMORPG buddies had a big group mission and she couldn't leave the computer.  It was just as annoying when she'd grab a bowl of food and eat at her computer, leaving me alone at the table."

Adam, a casual gamer living in Arizona, finds himself worried about the increasing realism of MMORPGs.  A 20-year-old friend of his has literally put his life on hold for World of Warcraft, and has made no attempt at going to school or finding a job.  "He was sucked into World of Warcraft pretty much instantly," Adam says.  "There was no second thought of anything.  At first he declared that he was just going to play through January, and then start looking for a job and such.  This never panned out.  With each argument we got into over his game playing, I increasingly stressed that he was throwing his life away."  Staging interventions for addicted players isn't unheard of.  Adam feels that he should do more to help his friend.  "If I didn't do everything in my power to help him, then I would be failing him as a friend."  But he isn't sure how to handle the situation, as talking directly to his friend has proven fruitless.  "Should I argue more?  Should I try talking to his parents?  All the options, I imagine, would make him upset.  But if they did help him, then that would be the greater good, wouldn't it?  I'm still not sure if I could risk our whole friendship so that he might move on with his life.  That's what gives me the most trouble."

Lacey nearly got involved in an intervention for her troubled classmate, but something more final than a friend's words put a lid on the addiction first: An overcharged credit card and a frozen account.  The two most effective amulets for exorcizing a possessed player.

Brent Lowell received a painful reminder that it takes money to keep playing Final Fantasy XI.  "I lost my job and collected unemployment.  My unemployment benefits fueled my addiction.  The only reason I found work again was because my benefits ran out abruptly, exactly at the time of billing for FFXI.  I found work and reactivated my accounts."  Lowell still plays Final Fantasy XI along with World of Warcraft, but for some players, like Rafe Fraiser, no funds meant quitting cold turkey and never looking back.  The Red Moon server he played on suddenly required a "small fee", which kept getting jacked up.  "I was paying $36 a month to essentially waste my life," he recollects.  "And then I ran out of money.  At that point, we had all run out of money.  It wasn't a matter of wanting to continue - we literally could not."  So Fraiser retired his sword.  "I had no idea how addicted I was.  It had been such a habit to walk in the door and head straight for the computer that it took physical effort to get out of that state of mind.  We tried other MMORPGs, but they paled in comparison.  So piece by piece, we just got over ourselves and moved on.  It disgusts me when I look back.  I could've done so much more in the real world that I didn't, and I regret that badly."

Sometimes there's a more subtle sign that we need to stop.  Jack from Oklahoma enjoyed the sense of usefulness that FFXI's job system generated, but a cryptic encounter with an acquaintance that he'd met over the game was one reason he decided to drop it suddenly.  "She said she was leaving, and she wanted to say goodbye to all her old friends.  That she sounded so forlorn about it is what got to me.  It sounded to me like she had terminal cancer, but all she was doing was leaving a game."  Jack quit shortly thereafter.  "I pitied her so much that I quit the game myself.  I didn't want a real emotional attachment to a few gigabytes of data to have a chance to form in me."

One anonymous student in Ontario found it easier to quit a MUD called Materia Magicka by going cold turkey in every sense of the term; she stopped playing abruptly and cut off communication with the people she met online when the game started to affect her schoolwork.  "Maybe that's saying more about me than MMOs, but it took vicious, rude action like that to get me over it."

Public opinion of MMORPGs isn't divided by a moat with the addicts on ones side and those who hate the games and their damaging effects on the other.  The majority of gamers have found middle ground and play the games moderately, even though some like Paul Lodge from the UK have noticed that a successful MMORPG session requires a large dose of time.  But that doesn't keep him from playing occasionally.  "As far as I'm concerned, my time in online gaming is no different than my mate watching the TV or going down the pub.  There's no harm in using MMORPGs as your main source of recreational behaviour.  It's not unhealthy unless your online life starts to twist and corrupt your offline life."

Some gamers' interest in MMORPGs starts out strong but dies quickly without a definite goal to reach.  Endless leveling and the acquisition of funds to purchase better equipment doesn't appeal to everyone.  A game can grow stale very quickly if the interest in power and items isn't there.  Even the accomplishment of a single goal can be enough to satisfy a player's appetite for online adventuring.

"I can ride Big Bird now," noted a San Francisco blogger upon mounting a chocobo in Final Fantasy XI.  "I think that means I won."

Taking a break - both my sons, waiting for companions to join them in World of Warcraft

Source: 28 July 2005

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