Even the most casual gamer has heard of, played or avoided World of Warcraft – a game increasingly notorious for anecdotal stories of fun and horror as more and more players log on.
In a speech early last December, former Federal Communications Commission commissioner Deborah Tate said that addiction to online games like World of Warcraft is one of the leading causes of college dropouts across the United States.
World of Warcraft (WoW), made by Blizzard Entertainment, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) set in an expansive fantasy world where players develop game characters, complete quests and often form partnerships with groups of other players, known as guilds. Each player is charged a subscription fee of $15 per month, billed through credit cards or prepaid game cards.
Blizzard Entertainment released WoW in 2004, and the game’s second expansion “Wrath of the Lich King” hit the shelves in November. The company also announced in December that WoW’s online population grew to 11.5 million subscribers worldwide – dominating other titles in the MMORPG market.
WoW is currently the only computer game on stock in the UC Davis bookstore TechHUB – advertised solely to UC Davis students.
“WoW sold better than I thought it would,” said Mike Adams, an employee at the TechHUB. “It outsold our initial order.“
As the world’s most-played MMORPG, the game’s popularity and tendency to cause addiction has sparked continual reference, particularly in popular culture mediums such as the television show “South Park.“
Moreover, WoW’s addictive nature is not a new subject. Research on the addictive properties of similar video games is common – a 2006 study conducted by psychiatrists Philip A. Chan and Terry Rabinowitz offered a connection between video game addiction and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among adolescents. Last year, the National Science Foundation granted UC Irvine $100,000 to research American and Chinese in-game modifications in WoW.
Colin Milburn, assistant professor of English and science and technology, emphasized the increasing incorporation of virtual worlds such as WoW and the similar game Second Life into everyday lifestyle. Video games are moving from a condition of being fun and games to a condition of a serious lived experience, he said.
“These games are becoming an aesthetic of our age,” Milburn said. “People can claim to be residents of Second Life or WoW rather than the real world – it shows how this is transforming the way that people are considering their relationship to the media they consume.“
Despite common allegations that such games induce addictive behavior and are detrimental to education and development, Milburn expressed that they have significant benefits as well.
“It’s a cultivation of a community of shared interests, the ability to explore activities unavailable in everyday life, strategizing and working with a group towards common goals,” Milburn said.
He also discussed the business side of games like WoW.
“There’s a whole sense of entrepreneurialism that’s very common in these [MMORPGs], like starting businesses and sustaining businesses,” Milburn said. “People are making money living in these worlds. There are a number of benefits by spending a good deal of time in these worlds, not to mention that they are simply a lot of fun.“
Milburn is currently writing a book on the role of video games in recent nanotechnology research. He frequently takes students on field trips in Second Life – even meeting with Harvard professor Katy Park to discuss medieval studies within the game.
Technocultural studies professor Bob Ostertag noted other benefits of online games.
“I do not share the concerns of some about violence in computer games, nor do I see them as detrimental in the same way that channel-surfing on television is,” Ostertag said in an e-mail interview. “And there are without doubt elements of creativity in the way some gamers engage with that world.“
Both Ostertag and Milburn addressed the risks of excessive playing, arguing that such use should be countered with moderation.
“I don’t think that there’s anything inherent in gaming that’s different from other types of entertainment media or experiences,” Milburn said. “People who may be prone to addictive behavior should be cautious about overexposure to these games, but I wouldn’t worry about it as being some kind of contamination or pathology.“
And while dropouts potentially represent an extreme result of a video game obsession, the players themselves debate the extent to which their grades are affected.
Jeffrey Hsu, a sophomore molecular cell biology major, quit WoW after playing throughout high school.
“I feel like I’ve been through stages of addiction – dependence, withdrawal and relapse – so it’s pretty much as bad as a drug,” Hsu said.
“WoW is a game where anyone from a so-called ‘noob‘ to a hardcore player can play it because there’s so many levels of things you can do,” he said. “[There are] raids for the hardcore people, or you can go through the game solo as slow as you want, and still have fun.“
Andrew Sawin, a junior mechanical engineering major at Cal State Northridge, also addressed the potential risk of WoW addiction. After quitting WoW shortly before his fall semester finals, Sawin said he felt a new sense of relief away from the game.
“I think it’s definitely something people should learn to regulate more, regulate their time a little bit better, because it’s easy to play it a lot,” Sawin said. “It can definitely affect your work.“
Video games and online virtual worlds are increasingly becoming crucial aspects of our technological culture, Milburn said.
“Attending to both the benefits and potential risks of them is the task of the moment,” he said.
JUSTIN T. HO can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.