When does online-game fervor become addiction?

One mother says EverQuest addiction may have caused her son's suicide; Diablo lover says gamers must rely on willpower.


Diablo II
World of Warcraft

Online gamers have been known to play for long stretches, eschewing sleep, food, and social responsibilities. But when does it become too much? Yesterday, the BBC News, reacting to astounding first- and second-day sales of World of Warcraft, pitted Elizabeth Woolley, founder of Online Gamers Anonymous, against game aficionado Lynn Hall to answer that very question.

Woolley argued that while online games "can offer hours of enjoyment and interaction with the outside world," for shut-ins, there is a turning point beyond which gamers become addicted. "They no longer have the 'choice' to play, but are driven to play," she said.

When this happens, gamers become like any other addict, failing to look after themselves and avoiding family, work, and even the outside world, Woolley argued.

Hall, an avid Diablo and Diablo II player, agreed that games can swallow hours of gamers' lives but said players still have freedom of choice. "Online gaming is an all-consuming passion that niggles at you during working hours, haunts your dreams and takes away all your spare time, if you let it."

She argued that games can be psychologically healthy, letting people explore what it's like to take on different roles or even genders. Whether or not it's harmless depends on "whether you have enough willpower to tear yourself away," Hall said.

Woolley created her Web-only recovery program after her 21-year-old son, Shawn, committed suicide. The Milwaukee man shot himself on Thanksgiving Day, 2001--while in the throes of an EverQuest addiction, according to Woolley. According to Wired, when she attempted to uncover any in-game clues to Shawn's demise, Sony Online Entertainment told her that their records were confidential.

So, is there such a thing as too much play, too much fantasy, too much time spent online? Even the Diablo devotee Hall admits that the answer is not so clear. "Is World of Warcraft harmless fun? I am of two opinions." A stance many gamers share, indeed.

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