When "World of Warcraft," a new multiplayer online computer game, came out last November, Trevor Maltbie bought it immediately. Through the winter and into the spring, the 16-year-old high school student in Ipswich, Mass., played it more and more. By summer, with school in recess, he was playing up to 15 hours a day.
"It got to be embarrassing," he says. "It got addictive. It's a pretty addictive game."
Trevor's mother, Jan, became concerned. "He was putting every spare minute into it," she says. But then, as summer gave way to fall, Trevor started his junior year of high school and began a part-time job. He decided he needed to cut way back. Now he plays at most a few hours a week. "He seems to finally have gotten bored with it," Mrs. Maltbie says with relief.
That ability to quit seems true for the majority who play "World of Warcraft" and other MMORPGs, short for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. Most players become intensely involved in the challenge of the game for a while, but eventually tire of it and move on to some other activity.
But for a small minority, obsession with these games can lead to bad habits or worse. Some players have been known to avoid eating and sleeping for many hours at a stretch while lost inside the game. In August, a South Korean in his 20s died after he spent 50 hours, taking only short breaks, playing an online game at an Internet cafe. One early MMORPG, called "Everquest," has earned the nickname "Evercrack."
Many reviewers and players say that "World of Warcraft" is the most elaborate and compelling MMORPG yet. More than 4 million players worldwide, 1 million of them in North America, have plunked down $45 for the software and $15 a month to play.
But besides holding the potential for addiction, MMORPGs also create intriguing social and economic situations. Academics are studying life both inside these games - including in-game systems of commerce - and outside. Players buy and sell their characters or online goods in the real world for actual dollars. Players in China and elsewhere are said to play the games to make money. They accumulate online "gold" that they in turn sell to other players for actual currency.
Nonetheless, experts are divided about whether obsession with "World of Warcraft" and other MMORPGs should be labeled as "addictive" - so-called electronic opium - since unlike drugs no physical dependency is involved.
Whatever the label, observers agree, players obsessed with these games do have a problem. "They have withdrawal symptoms. They can't wait to get back on [the game] again," says Maressa Orzack, director of the Computer Addiction Study Center at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass. She's treated many people who've been unable to stop playing MMORPGs and who've neglected their jobs, schoolwork, and families. The games, with names like"City of Heroes," "The Legend of Mir," and "Asheron's Call" "are made to be addictive," she says.
Despite repeated requests, the maker of "World of Warcraft," Blizzard Entertainment, declined to comment on whether its game was addictive or if it would offer warnings or other help to players.
Most MMORPGs let players control a character or avatar to explore on-screen worlds. Characters become more powerful as they accomplish tasks such as killing a monster or finding a magical artifact. By working together with others online (in teams or guilds), players defeat other human-controlled characters or an enemy controlled by the game.
The games are booming in South Korea, Taiwan, and across Europe. Last Saturday, the China Daily reported that a MMORPG developed in South Korea, called MU, has reached 32 million players in China.
Friends meet up inside these games or make new friends online. While traditional video games can become dull after several hours of play, players say the vastness and artistic quality of online games - and especially the many other human players - add an unpredictability and freshness that keeps the games compelling for months.
The stereotypical video-game player is a teenage boy, but that's not the case with MMORPGs, says Nick Yee, a graduate student at Stanford University. Mr. Yee has been studying and surveying online game players since 1999 (see The Daedalus Project at www.nickyee.com/daedalus).
"It's a much older crowd than most people assume," Yee says, with an average age of 26 or 27. About 15 percent of the players are women. Recently, Yee says, he was chatting with another player inside "World of Warcraft" who turned out to be a grandmother. She told him she was playing the game with her granddaughter on her lap.
For some, MMORPGs amount to a kind of "giant chat room" that just happens to have other stuff, like monster-slaying, going on, Yee says. They are "a very social space where you can chat and make long-term friends."
But even that can backfire, Dr. Orzack says. One of her patients told her how his wife decided to participate in an online "marriage" ceremony between her online character and that of another player she met in a MMORPG. They even e-mailed wedding invitations. The real-life husband "was absolutely beside himself," she says.
Not all players care about socializing. A major stimulus is the thrill of achievement. The games use psychological conditioning to make participants want to conquer the next level of play, Yee says. "For a lot of people, in their real lives they don't get to be a hero," he says. "Suddenly, [in the game] they're a cleric who can resurrect a warrior, can save other players. [Or they're a] a wizard who can cast out a rain of fire ... someone with great powers."
A teenager might be the leader of a guild with 100 or more players, many of whom probably are much older. That's "very seductive" for someone who might not be entrusted with much responsibility in real life, Yee says.
The commerce going on inside the games has attracted serious academic interest. Aaron Delwiche, an assistant professor of communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, teaches courses on the cultures found inside MMORPGs. One of his students sold her online character on eBay for enough money to pay for a trip to Europe, he says.
Players also may choose to play as characters of the opposite gender. Their motives are varied. Some think they will gain an in-game advantage: Women characters are more likely to be treated better and given more help by the other players, Yee says. But they also can be "treated like a second-class citizen." If a female and male character are of equal fighting strength, he says, the male character is usually asked by the group to lead an attack.
On the other hand, women who play as male characters often "say they didn't realize how cold, hierarchical, and impersonal a lot of male-male bonds can be," Yee says.
In general, MMORPGs are getting an unfair rap, Delwiche says. "When television was introduced, there was much concern about TV addiction," he says. "New media historically have tended to engender a lot of fear ... that bad social messages will be imparted."
But that hasn't stopped him from taking precautions. He talks with his students a lot about potential addiction," he says. "We have readings about addiction in the course packet." Some students go further: They "deliberately chose not to install the game on their home machines" and play only at the school's computer lab.
"I tell them, 'We're going to keep an eye on each other and make sure we don't get addicted to the game,' " he says.