On-line Games Prove addictive

NEIL HOOEY admits his addiction to an on-line computer game called EverQuest initially cost him admission into university.

On-line Games Prove addictive

NEIL HOOEY admits his addiction to an on-line computer game called EverQuest initially cost him admission into university. Even though Hooey, 21, had been waiting 10 years for a chance to attend the computer science program at the University of Waterloo, he spent most of his free time playing his game. EverQuest was a big part of his life. Hooey resolved to give up gaming and retake some classes but his comeback was interrupted by the death of a childhood friend. He escaped into another game to cope, but eventually realized he had to stop. Now in his first year at Waterloo, Hooey knows he had a close call. "I was on my victory lap - doing an extra semester to try and get over here - and I was farting around all day playing computer games again."

Hooey's struggle with his on-line game addiction isn't unique. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are signing up for games like EverQuest, Ultima Online and the recently released The Sims Online - and getting hooked. Sure, most eventually realize they're not willing to give up everything for the sake of a game, but for a while the characters and relationships and magic spells simply dominate their lives. Ask them. Most gamers - casual or hard-core - will admit to having neglected loved ones, chores or sleep for the sake of losing themselves in some exciting world. The trouble is, sometimes it's tough to find a way out.

On-line games are a little different from most of the titles found at the local Future Shop. Regular games usually cost about $60 and let players compete against the computer. On-line games are played over the Internet and cost a monthly subscription fee of about $15 to $20. Traditionally, they appeal to a smaller segment of the game-playing world, but that's changing.

Last December, video game manufacturer Electronic Arts of Redwood, Calif., released its on-line version of The Sims, the best-selling game ever. In the first six weeks, 82,000 people signed up to play. Industry experts predict as many as one million - most of whom would never call themselves gamers - will create their own virtual characters, find a place to live and socialize with other people's on-line incarnations. LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment plan to send another million or so players to a galaxy far, far away this spring when they launch Star Wars Galaxies.

So what's the infatuation? For one thing, on-line games are designed to be addictive. Toronto's Aaron Hazell, 31, admits he used to play Ultima Online for up to 18 hours a day, even skipping work as a software developer a few times so he could keep going. He only quit because he became frustrated with technical glitches. "These games have an amazing amount of depth," says Hazell. "You can buy a boat and sail to another continent. Or you can buy a house and then chop wood and make furniture for your home. The possibilities are endless."

It's not just the complexity that's alluring. The only way to improve a character and advance in the game is to accomplish certain tasks, such as adding skills, making money or defeating monsters. It's easy at the start. Players move up through levels rapidly, but the longer they play the more difficult it becomes. The result is players tend to stay on the computer no matter how long it takes. And because on-line games continue even after a player has turned off the screen (when you're going to sleep, someone in Norway is just getting up to play), gamers are reluctant to leave. "You don't want to sign out because you might miss something," says Hazell. "That's the hook."

But the biggest factor that keeps players in the game is the relationships formed there, says Nicholas Yee, a Chicago-based researcher who recently completed a study of EverQuest players' habits. "They really drive the popularity of the game," says Yee. "It's not about the graphics." When Neil Hooey's friend died in a car accident a year and a half ago, 120 people attended a memorial ceremony held in the game. Rogues, wizards and game masters paid their respects while Hooey gave his typed eulogy: "In these games we play it is not merely the game that is special but the people we play with. For our friend, and for many of you here today, that is the case."

But gaming relationships can also make for an odd type of peer pressure. The environment requires players to rely on each other for support. Gamers will also play for hours to improve their characters' attributes so they remain as strong as their friends' characters. If players do not advance from level to level quickly enough, they might be left behind or kicked out of the unit.

Yee also discovered anonymity plays a role in the games' popularity. People feel more comfortable talking about personal issues with their on-line pals, not fearing the judgments they might face if they were speaking to a sibling or school friend. Being able to play a powerful druid in EverQuest or an attractive suburbanite in The Sims Online can boost self-esteem. Marissa Reedhead describes herself as a short, overweight brunette. "I'm not judged by the way I look when I'm on-line," says Reedhead, a 24-year-old teacher in Thunder Bay, Ont., who's been playing The Sims for three years. "I'm well-spoken and intelligent and these are the things people see when they're talking to me."

The achievement players feel may be more than psychological. Researchers have shown that playing video games increases the activity of dopamine, a chemical that transmits signals between cells in the brain. Movement, attention and learning are all associated with dopamine, which is thought to reinforce behaviour that produces pleasure.

"Current theory is dopamine is released whenever something requires your attention or demands you concentrate on specific things," says Alain Dagher, an assistant professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University. "So obviously video games would be an example." All addictive drugs, from cocaine to heroin, cause dopamine to be released in the brain.

So, is being obsessed with a computer game the same as being addicted to drugs or gambling? In some ways, yes. The experts say activities strong in positive and negative rewards are addictive. Gaming has both: pleasure and excitement - positive - and escape, the withdrawal from reality - negative. But while gambling and computer games can both be called addictive, the difference usually comes down to the severity of consequences and whether one can stop. "In gambling, consequences feed addiction - I lost so much money, so just one big win and I'll be able to stop," explains Nigel Turner, a research psychologist from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. "The consequences are milder for game playing."

But there is a small segment of players who have trouble making the distinction. Tales of neglect, on-line infidelity and confessions of recovering addicts fill Internet news groups like EverQuest Widows and spousesagainsteverquest. Heather Erker, a 24-year-old University of Alberta student, visited the message boards after breaking up with her boyfriend, an EQ junkie. "He'd stay up until 8 a.m. playing the game and wouldn't come to bed - even if I was there," says Erker, who wrote a paper on on-line game addiction. "I've never heard of someone being dumped for a computer game."

Stephen Kline, director of the Media Analysis Laboratory at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., has found that heavy gamers commonly report serious disruptions in their lives, especially troubled relationships. "This is not a huge number of people," says Kline. "The vast majority have it under control." Gamers and experts agree that the trick is knowing when to shut down your computer - and keep that mouse off your back.

What's the Hook?

The real name of these games is relationships. In locales as exotic as another planet or as mundane as a suburban neighbourhood, on-line players interact with other characters controlled by other real people. By far the most popular offering is EverQuest, with more than 400,000 subscribers touring around Norrath, a land as vast and magical as Tolkien's Middle Earth. Players - in such guises as wood elves or wizards - can link up with others to go on quests or defeat monsters. In the on-line version of The Sims, you join a household and work for simoleons - Sim currency - to elevate your simulated character from a poor slob to a sterling member of the neighbourhood. But if swinging a light sabre is more suited to your imagination, LucasArts is completing tests of its on-line Star Wars Galaxies game, due on this planet in April.

Maclean's March 3, 2003