Video Games—Dangers Are More Complex

An 18-year-old relates the moment when he met the girl he currently dates…

“It happened quite as chance, we happened just to see each other near the POD lift in Gfay, and started talking. Eventually things became more involved…”1

This initial romantic encounter sounds like many others, except for the location. If you’re wondering where on earth is “Gfay,” you’ll have to toss your National Geographic atlas and instead look for an atlas of the lands within EverQuest.

If you don’t know anything about this computer game, don’t feel like you’ve flunked Pop Culture 101. In the growing world of role-playing games, new titles spring up faster than weeds. Likely more familiar is the basic table game featuring multi-sided dice that germinated this genre—Dungeons and Dragons.

Over the years, controversy has enveloped D&D (the popular abbreviation for Dungeons and Dragons). Many have shunned its mystical makeup, feeling it opposed religious sensibilities. Others reported severe depression and even suicides after players’ fictitious characters were killed. On the other hand, some argued the game enhanced creative thinking and provided players a safe opportunity to live out fantasies.

Whatever your personal opinion, D&D did at least require people to be present in their bodily form to play, which meant young people actually had to leave the house in order to join the local club.

When role-playing was transplanted into the computer and video game environment, it flourished. The infamously violent Quake was considered groundbreaking for its ability to involve players on different computers. But these multiplayer titles offered a chance for only a few to play together. Instead, EverQuest provides a huge 3-Dimensional world where thousands of players interact at once—all in the privacy of your own home.

In essence, it combines the elements of computer gaming with the interactivity of a chat room. This combination has created a dedicated base of over 300,000 players.

Looking at the box, the game looks like the throngs of other medieval offerings, complete with an impossibly half-dressed maiden carrying a spear and ready to do battle – mainly for the attention of the male gamers who make up over 80% of the games audience. Yet the game bears a mild “T” for “Teen” rating, and compared to the likes of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, EverQuest appears tame.

Even the play seems common. In the typical scenario, you create a character and move through various levels attempting to battle computer controlled beings referred to as ”mobs.” Killing these rewards you with greater powers and abilities, allowing you to collect tools and even platinum – this world’s recognized currency. If you don’t so well, you fail to progress. At worst, your character dies.

So what’s the big concern?

The hundreds of thousands who play EverQuest, typically do so for 20 to 30 hours per week, according to a study conducted by game enthusiast Nicholas Yee.2 Remember, that’s the average. Many play even longer.

Where do they get all that time? Quoting a 27-year-old female from Yee’s study: “I don’t spend enough time with my 2 1/2 year old daughter. I’m a full-time mom, and my daughter watches TV all day while I play the game.”

This dedication has given rise to the nickname EverCrack.

Selling for as little as $9.99, the game has another drug similarity. You get in cheap, but you must pay monthly fees to access the necessary servers to keep playing. For game companies, this has huge potential. Concerns about copied disks are all but gone – the subscription to play is where the real profits lie.

There are a few traits that are credited for the game’s irresistible nature. First, it offers rewards very quickly. After creating your character, you are able to conquer the computerized mobs and first few levels fairly easily. This provides the money and skills required to upgrade your character in order to face the increasing challenges. Like a carefully controlled gambling machine, these encouraging first few nickels keep you wanting more.

Second, and likely even more significant, the game includes social aspects. To continue progressing, players must form groups. This requires communication between characters in a fashion similar to chat rooms. If you have the right qualities, you will be accepted. If not, you may be shunned or ignored.

Yee’s study, which involved 4,000 participants, found the average age of players was 25 years old. Although that makes the main demographic young adults, the research showed a surprising number of players trusted other EverQuest players even more than people they would meet in a common chat room.

One 17-year-old responded emphatically to questions about reality within a fake world, "Are the people playing it fake? Hell no, and therefore everything you say and hear is real, they are saying it, and you are hearing it just like what would happen in RL[real life]. And sometimes it can be easier to say things online rather than in person.”

Meanwhile, nearly half of male respondents to another question on Yee’s survey admitted they play as female characters. This perceived “trust” offers an even more troublesome mix than many other Internet activities.

All ages and genders discuss the joys of living in a world where you can be whoever you want. A woman with health issues in RL feels freedom in EverQuest. A man comments about finding acceptance he couldn’t achieve in his own life.

Perhaps the biggest concern was uncovered by the 62% of Yee’s participants who proclaimed themselves “addicts,” because the cost of any addiction can never be counted in dollars alone.

Jay Parker, a chemical dependency counselor who specializes in computer obsession and Internet addiction, feels the comparison to crack cocaine is very valid. In a March 2002 article from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, he relates the case of a 21-year-old college student. Four months after meeting EverQuest his client played for 36 straight hours and had a psychotic break where he believed characters from the game were chasing him through his neighborhood. Parker claims, “I can’t think of a drug he could have taken where he would have disintegrated in 15 weeks.”

Parker further explains that low self-esteem or poor body image along with being isolated or lonely can make someone prone to addictive game playing behavior.

The same article sites the tragic story of Shawn Woolley as an example. Also 21-years-old, the depressed epileptic lived for EverQuest. Playing the game for up to 12 hours per day, he was undeniably predisposed to the psychological trauma of living in a virtual world.

After he shot himself, Shawn’s mother recounts a time six months earlier when another Everquest player betrayed her son and stole all of his platinum points. The altercation left Shawn in tears while his mother attempted to literally bring him back to reality.

Extracting oneself from the grasp of the virtual world is anything but child’s play. In the words of a 26-year-old male: “I am addicted to EQ and I hate it and myself for it. When I play I sit down and play for a minimum of 12 hours at a time, and I inevitably feel guilty about it, thinking there a large number of things I should be doing instead, like reading or furthering my education or pursuing my career … I’ve tried quitting seriously on several occasions, but I was shocked to find each time that the experience reminds of what I’ve heard quitting heroin is like.”

While this game may not be in your home, you can be certain it’s popularity will spawn (a popular term in the game for the generation of more computer characters) a legion of play-a-likes. With the lucrative monthly subscription commitment and the potential of having a dedicated – shall we say “hooked” – audience, it seems to be a game manufacturer’s dream that could become your family’s ultimate nightmare.

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