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Confessions from an online world

'Griefers' and raids and addiction

By Daniel Sieberg
CNN

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Online games, such as "World of Warcraft," let players from around the world cooperate or compete.

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(CNN) -- I must admit that for a long time I thought the idea of online gaming on my computer was pointless. Why would I want to chat with other gamers in these virtual worlds when I could have as much fun playing solo offline?

That was until I played Blizzard's "World of Warcraft" and soon discovered the appeal, though I still have a hard time putting my finger on exactly what it is. Nowadays, my level 30 paladin routinely interacts with strangers who become my instant battle companions.

Let me back up a bit.

Massively multiplayer online games, or MMOGs, saw their rise in popularity with the release of Sony Online's "EverQuest" in 1999. For many, it was a chance to escape to a fantasy universe; to assume an alter ego and interact in a social network.

Hundreds of thousands could be logged in at any one time, allowing players the chance to find someone of similar interests. (Flirting is another huge aspect with online games, since people can assume any personality and appearance they wish. With real-time chat, players can instantly communicate with friends or those they consider more than friends.)

Online gaming is seeing a surge in popularity. According to the Entertainment Software Association, half of all Americans play video games -- and 42 percent of them do so online. So far, it's attracted more men than women: Most online gamers -- six out of 10 -- are male.

Decades from Dungeons and Dragons

Playing games over the Internet didn't start with EverQuest; rudimentary games date back well before the World Wide Web became available in 1993.

The intensity picked up in the early to mid-1990s when id Software released the shooters "Doom" and "Quake." Both titles allowed players to blast through aliens and compete against others connected to the same dark, futuristic landscape. It could be played one-on-one or in groups.

But it was EverQuest that began to allow players to visually enhance their characters over time by acquiring weapons, money and experience. By leveling up or getting stronger, players were able to explore new parts of the world and seek new challenges.

Other titles have seen an ebb and flow of interest, including EA's "The Sims Online," an extension of the best-selling "Sims" series of games; Squaresoft's "Final Fantasy," a Japanese-inspired game with anime-style graphics; and BioWare's "Neverwinter Nights," a medieval adventure game.

LucasArts has several online titles, including "Star Wars: Galaxies," based on the "Star Wars" mythology.

Many of these titles owe a tribute to Dungeons and Dragons, the precursor to many of today's role-playing games. It's been more than 30 years since "D&D" got kids to think about rolling dice and fighting dragons with a pencil and paper, but the concept remains much the same: battles, personalities and payoff.

To illustrate the expansiveness of these new online environments, imagine that your living room is one of the local villages in the game. To get from there to all the corners of a universe like World of Warcraft, you'd have to walk from your living room, down your street and across town to catch everything there is to see. That, of course, takes time.

Warnings of addiction

I've spoken with many avid MMOG players over the years, and for most it's a healthy experience. They devote as much as several hours per day to developing their character(s), but they find balance in RL (real life).

For others, though, the game can be too consuming, leading some to refer to titles like EverQuest as "NeverRest" or "EverCrack" (as in cocaine).

In 2002, a young man in Wisconsin whose mother says he was addicted to EverQuest committed suicide. Sony Online Entertainment has repeatedly told players to keep things in perspective by walking away during prolonged periods of play.

But psychologists say online games can be addictive for certain people, especially those who see a better life within the game. At the very least, online games can lead to sleep deprivation and social dysfunction.

There are some odd elements to online games, like "griefers" -- people who enjoy tormenting new players by bullying or harassing them. There are also "raids" -- organized attacks on certain enemies or places within the game. Players from certain online games can also purchase well-developed characters on eBay or elsewhere, rather building one from scratch.

There is a whole currency within games, and plenty of trading. Players can even get "married" (yes, married) in the game with other players acting as witnesses and partygoers. Endless Web sites are dedicated to message boards and sharing information about game details.

Online gaming doesn't have to involve tens of thousands of players or a computer, for that matter. Titles like Sierra's "Half-Life" and EA's "Battlefield 1942" are sometimes played on computers in smaller configurations of about 10-50, though it can be more. Usually players assemble a makeshift local network or play somewhere like an Internet café. Those events can be just as intense and interactive as the enormous ones.

Home video game consoles have really jumped on the online bandwagon in recent years, particularly Microsoft with its Xbox Live service on the Xbox machine. Players from around the world can log on, join a game of "Halo 2" and collect personal stats (akin to high scores). Handheld devices are also enabling the online craze. Sony's new PlayStation Portable has built-in wireless, Nokia's N-Gage phone-gaming combo device offers global interaction, and many cell phones allow people to play trivia or other basic games against others in real time.

These days there are also competitions dedicated to aspects of online gaming, such as the Cyberathletes Professional League and the World Cyber Games. In places like Korea, such events can draw hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of dollars in cash prizes.

As the games become even more realistic and in-depth, the trick will be keeping that healthy balance intact. Games like World of Warcraft can actually tell you how long you've been playing in case you've lost track.

I'm up to four days -- and that's about 100 hours, not four casual days. Maybe it's time for a break. I wonder what's on TV?

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