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Online Games: Addiction, Distraction or Hobby?

For many of us in the techno crowd, fantasy role-playing has evolved from D&D-style board games to "Might & Magic"-esque linear narratives to immersive virtual worlds like "EverQuest." The number of subscribers to online computer games like "World of Warcraft" has skyrocketed over the past couple of years. There's an entire underground economy where people can buy and sell the in-game currency and items. The graphics and artificial intelligence have reached exciting new levels. It's all enough to get people hooked on paying that monthly fee. But when does that passion for simulated adventure turn into an addiction?

That's the question we posed to Kay Johnson who lives in the tiny town of Quitman, AR. You'll see more of her story on an upcoming program of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. A few years ago she got heavily involved with the game "Final Fantasy XI," and spent more than 40 hours a week playing and socializing. That was a problem, as she soon neglected her two children, one with special needs, and developed a growing rift with her husband who was also playing countless hours per week. The game play was so intense they abandoned their jobs and watched as their finances went into a tailspin; they were charging all the bills on credit cards and avoiding any outside responsibilities. It alienated them from family, and drove them apart. Eventually, Kay quit cold turkey, but not before deciding to divorce her husband and needing to seriously repair the relationship with her sons. As it turns out, there are health professionals across the country looking at whether this type of behavior qualifies as an official psychiatric diagnosis as part of Internet addiction, which may require counseling or medical treatment.

This subject is something I happen to know a lot about. I've watched a couple of my close friends become too engrossed in their online worlds and neglect the real one. In one case, it involved a friend with three young children. The game simply took over, and he nearly lost his wife as a result. I'm also aware of the need to balance the real with the virtual in my own life since I'm also an avid player. (I'm going to stick with "avid" and not "obsessed.") Full disclosure: I have a level 64 paladin in "World of Warcraft," which means nothing if you don't play these types of games, but suffice to say it represents a fairly substantial investment of time in my character over the past two years. (Nerd alert: The last time I did a /played it was around 25 days.) It sounds odd to say that I make a concerted effort to monitor my time in the game, but it can be a great escape after a stressful day, and there's often a distinct sense of accomplishment attached to it. Don't get me wrong –- my wife isn't about to call a psychologist, but it's good for me to be aware of where my time goes. I usually try to play when she's out of the apartment, watching a TV show I don't like or sleeping.

Granted, cases like Kay's and my friend's are extreme. Millions play similar types of games and don't get addicted. But this type of addiction strikes me as a fairly unknown subject, and one that needs to come out further in the open. It can destroy families as much as alcohol or drug addictions, and is arguably easier to conceal from society. Are people substituting other addiction substances for gaming? Should it qualify as a true addiction? Are the game makers responsible in any way? Our story should be airing in the coming days, and in the meantime I welcome your feedback on online gaming: addiction, distraction or hobby?

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