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Virtual worlds can be a problem

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By John Pawlak

Back in college, one of my classmates (let’s call him Brian) was an addict. He was hopelessly and totally addicted and there was little his parents or the doctors could do to help him. Brian couldn’t function without his daily fix and before long he was spending the majority of his day searching for others similarly addicted. Each day, Brian’s addiction got worse and eventually he stopped going to classes. His addiction ruled his life.

To his fellow addicts, Brian was known as the Master of Doom. Wizards and elves, warlocks and enchanters, myrmidons and shamans, they all bowed to his wisdom and his cunning for surprise and doom.

Yes, Brian was a Dungeons and Dragons addict. He was a “dungeon master” and it was his job to conceive horrible traps of death for travelers through his domain. Back in the 70s, many considered addiction to this game a medical condition.

“D&D” was a black hole of productivity and kids charmed by its mystique would get sucked into the vacuum of its play. Brian never did graduate college. I’m not sure what happened to him, but it’s a safe bet that he’s out there still, devising sadistic snares for sorcerers, dwarfs and the like. Either that or he’s squeegeeing windshields in downtown Newark.

Dungeons and Dragons was perhaps the first fantasy game, and it spawned a universe of alternate-reality worlds in which many people now seem to live out their real lives. Board games gave way to video arcade games (Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man), which eventually migrated to our living rooms and computers (Tetris, Frogger, Super Mario) and finally to the handhelds. Portable technology made everyone unsafe from dancing gorillas and Kung Fu Masters.

Game technology has advanced but “D&D” style games are still the champions of brain-drain. They have become very sophisticated and the graphics can be truly inspiring. But whatever merits they may have, they are black holes of time, money and productivity.

The leading nebula of nothingness is “World of Warcraft,” an online role-playing game in which people participate in battles via avatars, computer generated 3-D models that represent the users. Usually, some 110-pound dweeb living in his mother’s basement will incarnate as a 450 pound lizard-skinned Sumo-beast warrior carrying a bloodstained demolition mace in one hand and a Nerubian crossbow in the other.

As he journeys through the game’s terrain, he encounters various Orcs and Trolls (other 110-pound dweebs living in other basements), they promenade about while flexing their 50-inch biceps and waving cosmic maces and staffs of disintegration (mine’s bigger than yours!), then finally proceeding to beat on each other until one is bludgeoned to death. Fun stuff.

Subscribers to the game buy an installation disk and then pay a monthly or annual fee to play.  The virtual world in which one battles others has its own economy based on “Warcraft gold,” which one can conveniently purchase with real money. With more than 10 million users, the per-capita GNP of WoW puts it slightly ahead of Russia. This means that if you want to battle blood-elves, it’s actually cheaper to do it on the Siberian tundra.

So what’s all the fuss about? Why do people entrench themselves in a world to battle demonic crusades, undead legions, dragons and unholy hoards of druids and deathknights? The answer is simple and even Brian could explain it to you. It’s an addiction. The amount of time spent on these games can be truly frightening – “casual” players average more than ten hours per week of online play, and entrenched aficionados can spend three times that much. I guess decimating hordes of mutant flesh eating dwarfs can be very time consuming.

The spectrum of virtual world existence gets more diverse every year. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (called MMORPGs by inhabitants of alternate universes) can be extremely violent and are not recommended for children, women, men, dogs, pregnant ferrets or anyone operating heavy machinery.

The level of violence exhibited by players is usually inversely proportional to their actual personalities. It’s a safe bet that the most viral and ominous characters roaming these death-fields are the type of guys who in real life are threatened by things like loud noises, Chihuahuas, lines in linoleum.  You know the type — wimpoids.

So was Brian’s problem curable? Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) could in fact soon be considered a medical pathology, with an estimated 5-10 percent of Internet users afflicted with the disorder.

Treatment centers are now available to help reintegrate addicts back into the real world. A six-week treatment program for IAD, including group therapy, vocational coaching and 12-step meetings, costs about $15,000.

One has to wonder though, can patients take this program online?