Endgame impossible

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Last month, when the news spread that distraught gamer Sheyla Morrison had committed suicide, it shook the Everquest online gaming community to its real-life core.

"I (know people) who were seriously addicted to the point of failing out of school or losing their jobs," says longtime player Sanya Thomas (aka "Miss Tweety") about the popular computer game. "People reacted as they would have if a coworker or an acquaintance from school had killed themselves," she adds. Thomas, who witnessed the gaming community’s reaction firsthand, runs a well-known Everquest fan page at tweety.bowlofmice.com.

However, the Sheyla story turned out to be a hoax. As gaming news site gamers.com recently revealed, the suicide report was invented by an estranged husband hoping to make his game-playing wife look unstable (inexplicably, he thought the ruse would help him gain custody of their daughter.)

Even so, the Everquest community’s reaction was very real. "Many people, myself included, fell for the Sheyla hoax because it was entirely possible," says Thomas. "We all know at least one unbalanced person, and they belong to our community."

Community is the operative term here. Hundreds of thousands of people make up the Everquest world — a virtual 3-D landscape populated with dwarves, wizards and other Tolkien-esque creatures straight out of The Hobbit or Dungeons and Dragons. It’s become so popular that Firiona Vie, a nonplayer elf character, was recently featured on the cover of TV Guide.

Players buy the game to install on their home computers, then pay a subscription fee of about 10 dollars a month to participate in the game, which also requires Internet access. Distributed by Sony and created by Verant Interactive, it’s gained tremendous success for a game with no set end point or conclusion. Unlike most games, it is not possible to "win" Everquest. Instead, players spend time building initially weak online personas into formidable adversaries — a process that can take months.

"If you're a serious role player," says Thomas, "a fair amount of your time is spent talking to people, or perhaps working on a trade skill."

Weak players band together with stronger ones in order to survive. There's also another option for newbies: Web auction sites, filled with veteran Everquest players selling off powerful characters and weaponry they've spent hundreds of game hours creating. On eBay, for example, extraordinarily potent magic items have fetched more than $1,000.

But for some, buying your way to Everquest success defeats the point.

"My personal theory is that one becomes addicted to games like Everquest because of one's ability to accomplish something," notes Thomas, who says she no longer plays the game. Thomas reports having played "between 15 and 20 hours a week" using the basement computer network she shares with her three roommates.

By all accounts, most Everquest players lead healthy and proactive lives. But since the Sheyla suicide rumor, a minority of players has used the news to kick start a long overdue intervention.

"This all leads to addiction," writes a gamer known only as Tunarian on Sony's Everquest message board, adding, "I can't leave the game on my own."

Other concerned players have set-up Avatars Anonymous (pub37.ezboard.com/bavatarsanonymous), an online support group for self-described "Everquest junkies."

But according to Thomas, the game is mostly a positive communal experience ... and a social one at that. "I am no longer limited to a community of friends by geographic considerations," she says, adding "I've met interesting people from all over, and it sure beats TV."

Warren Spector, a game developer known for his work on classic titles such as "System Shock" and "Deus Ex," agrees. "I don't think games have any more power to interfere with people's ability to function in society than any other form of entertainment," he says.

Still, as gaming technology gets increasingly realistic, some gamers worry the escapism may become too tempting to resist.

"The really scary part (is) we haven't even scraped the tip of the iceberg," notes gamer A4mula on Avatars Anonymous, "What is now 3D (images) will someday become virtual worlds that are fully interactive with the user."

But game developer Spector isn't worried. "Even if we get to the ‘Star Trek’ holodeck level," he says, "People will still have to make the conscious decision to enter the room."

If anything, the Everquest community's reaction to the Sheyla incident has only strengthened its communal ties. Says Thomas, "(It) proved what gamers had long known — this is a community for many people." And for those who are prone to addiction, there are certainly numerous other nongaming related avenues to pursue.

"If your personality tends to be addictive there are worse addictions you can have," adds Thomas, "Like golf."

In other words, it depends on the person.

"I suppose it's possible to become addicted to anything," says Spector. "But the idea that games are somehow different or special in this regard strikes me as, well, a little goofy."

Still, Thomas offers this warning for gamers concerned about overzealous playing habits: "When you start to smell," she says, "It's time to turn off the computer." E-mail Adam Druckman at [email protected]

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