When college dropout levels rose, FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate blamed the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW). The game had 11.5 million subscribers as of December and continues to grow, having recently released a new expansion pack, Wrath of the Lich King.
But Tate isn’t the only one who has noticed the potential addictiveness of games like WoW. Across the world, stories are being told of WoW ruining lives — with people ending up fired, divorced and, in some extreme cases, physically harmed.
A 17-year-old Chinese boy lit a classmate on fire after losing a schoolyard argument. When asked why he responded so violently, he claimed he wasn’t himself but a fire mage he’d turned into.
A man in Mexico was attacked by the husband of a woman whose avatar he’d repeatedly killed in the game. He claimed three men broke into his home, beat his arms with clubs and destroyed his computer.
Divorce stories are more common, including that of one man who said he wants to write a complaint to Blizzard, the creators of WoW, and Dell for taking away his life.
The stories show that anyone — not just teenage boys — can get hooked on the online
Mark Suarin, a senior majoring in computer science, has been playing WoW since May 2005. He said he’s found a grandmother on YouTube who has eight level 70 characters — the highest level players can reach is 80.
“WoW, like the Wii, is more targeted to a broader audience,” Suarin said. “It’s way more socially acceptable (than one would think).”
Suarin, who canceled his account last month to concentrate on school, said he has heard the crazy addiction stories. He said it’s hard to quit cold turkey — and admitted that he’ll probably re-activate his account at the end of the semester.
“I don’t think I have the best gear I can get,” he said. “There’s always something better to get.”
WoW’s reach crosses the gender barrier as well.
“Girls play this game, too, and are just as good as the boys!” said Amanda Joslin, a junior majoring in psychology. “It’s so funny when someone hears my voice (over the microphone) and freaks out because I’m female.”
Joslin has been playing the game since spring 2007. She started after watching a South Park parody of the game, thinking it was something she and her boyfriend could do together. She said it’s a cheaper date than going out, even with the monthly $15 subscriber fee — but date nights aren’t the only times Joslin sits down to play.
“I play way too much. Most of my Saturday and Sunday nights are dedicated to WoW,” she said. “I’ve been known to wake up early just to log on and do something, then go back to bed.”
Kaitlyn Sanzo, a senior majoring in music education, was another female fan, but found it necessary to cancel her account around the same time Saurin did — proving it’s not just guys who become addicted to the game.
“I was turning down opportunities and I wasn’t spending time with anyone except my guildmates and online friends,” she said.
Ben Chapman, a senior political science major, started playing WoW when it first came out. He continues to play with old army buddies and has met people from across the world through the game.
“There’s no stereotype for a WoW player — doctors, dentists, TV directors, actors, actresses,” Chapman said.
Celebrities including Dave Chappelle and Mila Kunis are inhabitants of Azeroth, the world of WoW. Verne Troyer, William Shatner and Mr. T are all players who have been featured in commercials promoting the game. Even political figures like Kevin Werbach, who was chosen by Obama to lead the FCC transition, play.
But what is it about this MMORPG that attracts so many different kinds of people in such great numbers — and keeps them playing? What created an addiction prominent enough to have its own episode on the Tyra Banks Show?
“Socially, it’s a really good game,” Suarin said. “You can always play with somebody.”
Joslin said she finds it relaxing.
“I love playing after I’ve been studying for a while,” she said. “It’s like putting all of your stress and worries on the back burner when you enter Azeroth and play.”
Sanzo attributed the game’s popularity to the ability to talk to players across the world in real time, encounter amazing scenery and battle monsters.
Chapman said he keeps playing for the discovery.
“It’s never-ending,” he said. “I don’t think you could ever do everything in the whole game.”
The eternal conquest and the challenge to beat an unbeatable game keeps players entranced.
Suarin said that even when players reach the highest level, there is still an immense world to explore.
At the beginning of the game, players face a mind-numbing amount of choices — starting with their avatars.
Avatars — the characters played in WoW — are customizable. Players must first choose which of two warring factions to side with: Alliance or Horde. Within the different sides are races. The Alliance has more human-like races, while the Horde’s characters appear more monstrous, like the orcs from The Lord of The Rings. Beyond race, avatars are further divided into classes, such as paladin, warrior or mage. Cosmetic features, including skin and hair color and hairstyle, can also be customized.
At the begging of play, the game has a multitude of options. A player has to choose a realm, or server. Each realm has different methods of play, such as player verses player, player verses environment and the role-playing version of each, in which some of the most dedicated players can be found.
In groups, players can go on raids — in which they can find treasure after slaying a dungeon boss. There are also battlegrounds where groups are matched with others of equal size for dueling.
Alone, a player can battle other players, complete quests, join guilds, fish, learn a trade or just socialize.
“I think (adults) enjoy the challenge of it,” Joslin said. “I enjoy the challenge of learning a million new fights and having to depend on people to know how to play their character.”
The game is intricate and based on a rewards system that keeps players coming back for more. But like many enjoyable things, it can be dangerously addictive — causing some student players to miss midterms and lose friends.
Suarin said his advice for people who can’t seem to stop playing is to take it day by day.
“Try to play less every day,” he said.
He recommends setting the game’s new alarm clock to when you want to sign out — and to stick by it.
For some, finding self-control means finding something more important. Sanzo turned to her faith.
“People are always searching for something to fill up the void in their life, and WoW can do that if you let it,” she said. “With my relationship with God, I don’t need that sort of a filler, and so WoW falls back into the category of game and is no longer a major part of my life.”
But for some, the game will always be a part of life they just can’t shake.
“Anything can be addictive,” Chapman said. “You just have to have some self-control.”