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A whole other world: Attack of the social gamers

Erin Cowell - October 4th, 2010
A Whole Other World: Online social games immerse players in a cyber fantasy
By Erin Crowell
Zack Mahrle leans back on the red floral couch in his bedroom, his
feet propped up on a white ottoman. He’s focused on the 87-inch
projector screen that covers the length of his closet, tapping away
with a fierce rhythm on the ergonomic computer keyboard sitting on his
There’s a battle going on.
Gnome, blood elf, orc and human are all present – divided into two
ever-warring factions: the Alliance versus the Horde.
The game is World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, an online
multi-player game, and players from all corners of the world are
present, their fairytale-like avatars darting in and out of the
To anyone remotely unfamiliar with the game (it’s the fourth
installment of the Warcraft series, with a new release coming next
month), the action on Mahrle’s screen looks like chaos. A hundred
things are happening at once. Icons on all sides of the screen read
like hieroglyphics. It’s a whole other world.
“See all those bars to the right?” Mahrle says about his comrades’
health, “My guy has to make sure they don’t get low.”
Mahrle’s ultimate goal is to get “Darkatma”—Mahrle’s top character (he
has 10 – five of which have reached the highest level on the game)—the
title of Battlemaster.
“You’ve got the word ‘Battlemaster’ over your character’s head and
people see that and say, ‘Don’t mess with that guy, he’s pretty
crazy,’” Mahrle says.

World of Warcraft—or WoW as its faithful call it—is one of many
online social games available through a variety of systems, including
the PC, PlayStation3 and Xbox360. Other major games include Call of
Duty, Halo, FarmVille and Mafia Wars.
The average number of hours per week spent on online gaming has
increased for the third consecutive year since 2009, according to
market research company The NPD Group.
That same study reported that players spend an average eight hours per
week on online gaming, although many gamers would boast they could
pull that number in just one night.
“I can spend 12 hours on my days off (work),” says Mahrle, 23, of
Traverse City. “Otherwise, I spend six hours playing – a few before
and after work.
“I just got a new game—Starcraft II—and I’ve been spending way too
much time doing that. On Thursday, I was playing it and kind of stayed
up all night,” Mahrle confesses. “I started at 4 p.m. on Thursday and
stayed on until 6 p.m. on Friday.”

Most people, when considering the typical online gamer, would picture
a guy like Mahrle – a generally quiet, stay-at-home young adult who
works full time and spends the other half improving his score and
developing online friendships.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in January 2010 that boys, ages
8-18, spend more time than girls playing console video games and
computer games, although the difference is slight (by a couple
When looking at the online gaming demographic, it all depends on the game.
In February 2010, Techie website published a study
conducted by PopCap—creator of Bejeweled and Insaniquarium—that
concluded the average player of such social games was likely to be a
43-year-old woman.
Since both games are found on social network site Facebook, the
conclusion seems logical, considering more than 60% of Facebook users
are over age 35.
The research concludes these types of social network games are popular
among an older demographic because of their simplicity: they take less
time, do not require sophisticated equipment and are generally free.
Linda Smith, public computing center coordinator for the Traverse Area
District Library says she and other staff have observed seeing older
people participating more in online games, but that there is “no way
to monitor what gaming sites people go to or for how long.”
A quick Facebook search of the game Bejeweled reveals over 12 million
monthly active users, while FarmVille—the game that allows you to play
farmer and tend to other friends’ crops—has over 62 million monthly
Amber Vicent, a 29-year-old mother of three, substitute teacher and
avid Bejeweled player, prefers her gaming at the PC, while husband
Carl, age 38, invests time on his Xbox 360 playing games like Halo:
Reach, another popular science fiction-like battle game.
“Carl and I used to battle each other in Bejeweled, now I’m mostly the
one who plays,” Amber says as she holds her 8-month-old daughter,
Alexus, at the computer. ‘There’s a friend who gets, like, 400,000
points every time. There’s no way I can get to that level.”

World of Warcraft boasts over 8 million users worldwide.
In addition to the fantasy world where they fight their opponents,
players have access to an online community filled with tech and user
support, including a discussion forum with topics that range from
character game traits (recent post: “Why don’t our characters go to
the bathroom?”) — to Enchanting Etiquette (recent post: “Just because
my character is standing in Ironforge not seeming to be busy, that is
no indication of how busy I am. Maybe I’m bogged down in
guildchat…Maybe my 9-month-old is sitting in my lap typing stories
about the letter M and a Spacebar to my guild. You don’t know, so
don’t assume”).
At press time, the general discussion forum had 1,300 pages of just
over 60 discussion topics each – that amounts to 78,000 general
Warcraft inquires (let’s not forget the Off Topic, Trading Card Game,
Warlocks, Warriors, Druids and the other 30+ discussion forums
WoW subscriptions have three options: $12.99 per month for six months,
$13.99 per month for three months or $14.99 per month.

The 1999 cult-pop film Fight Club, starring Brad Pitt and Edward
Norton made famous the saying, “Advertising has us chasing cars and
clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”
Except not only are we buying unnecessary objects, but untouchable
ones – literally.
There are no game-like goals, such as levels to reach in Second Life.
Rather, the game involves a drive to give your avatar everything that
you would want in real life; sex, clothes, real estate, family,
friends, or a big yacht.
The game, created by San Francisco-based software company Linden Lab,
is an online community with real investment property. Since all
content is created by its users, players can manufacture and sell
virtual goods such as clothing, property and services.
Just like WoW users have the ability to upgrade their battle gear
using actual money, Second Life has become its own economy, using
Linden Dollars—or L$—as its denomination (one dollar in greenbacks is
equal to approximately L$300).
According to a report by research database Inside Network, virtual
good sales are predicted to top out as a $1.6 billion industry this
year in the U.S.
Real world companies and organizations such as Wells Fargo and the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have used Second Life
to reach a wider audience and improve their bottom line.
When Intel decided to cancel its 2009 bi-annual Embedded Channel
Conference (ECC) in order to save money, ECC organizers decided to
host the conference on Second Life, saving $265,000 of the $300,000
budget – which didn’t include saved travel expenses, as it was
reported on Linden Lab’s website.

However, not all Second Life stories are rosy.
Kelly, age 23 from Kingsley, met “Calvin” several years ago while
playing online Euchre. The two hit it off and began dating. Calvin
moved from his home in England and they married. Three years ago, they
had a son.
While Kelly worked and attended school, Calvin stayed home with the
baby. It wasn’t long afterward when Kelly said she started to notice
the time Calvin spent on the computer playing games, particularly
Second Life.
“By my estimation, I would guess at least 12 hours a day were spent on
the game,” she recalls. “Maybe not 12 hours straight, but easily
four-hour blocks with a half an hour in between for coffee and food
Not only was Kelly frustrated by Calvin’s lack of attention to her and
their son, but the money he exhausted on virtual items and property.
“The disgusting amount of money he spent in two to three months was
just the last straw.”
Kelly estimates Calvin had spent nearly $1,000 in the last two months
of their marriage – all of which came from Kelly’s pocket.
“He bought all sorts of things,” she said. “He rented a huge lot on an
island, bought a house, dune buggy, boat, clothes, even a pet
whale—No, I’m not joking about the whale either—He never explained why
he did it, only said that he ‘needed’ it for some reason.”
Today, Calvin lives in Florida with his new wife – someone he met on
Second Life.
He does not maintain contact with Kelly or her son.

Kelly’s story sounds much like the one reported by a London newspaper
back in November 2008 – The Sunday Times ran a story about Amy Taylor,
age 28, who filed for divorce after discovering her husband, David
Pollard, age 40, was having an affair with another woman.
However—instead of catching him sneaking out to some sleazy motel in
the middle of the night—Taylor caught a glimpse of their home computer
and the image of her husband’s Second Life avatar in a “compromising
position” on a virtual sofa with a female avatar.
“I was so hurt. I just couldn’t believe what he’d done,” she had told
the paper. “It’s cheating as far as I’m concerned, but he didn’t see
it as a problem and couldn’t see why I was so upset.”
Like Kelly and her ex-husband, the Pollards had met online – this time
in a virtual chatroom. Two years later they were married at a register
office in London, and held a virtual wedding for their avatars on
Second Life.
After witnessing her “husband’s” embrace, Taylor hired a Second Life
private investigator who then (virtually) caught up with Mr. Pollard,
a.k.a. Dave Barmy, and his infidelity.
Pollard apologized to Taylor while “Mr. Barmy” apologized to his avatar wife.

So when does a hobby become more than recreation? Many family members
worry about a loved one spending so much time on a video game, fearing
he or she may have an addiction.
Kevin Roberts, Michigan author of the recently released book, “Cyber
Junkie: Escaping the Gaming and Internet Trap,” was a gaming addict
“I used to binge for weeks at a time,” says the educational consultant
and therapist. “The turning point came when I started being late to
work because I had stayed up all night gaming.”
Today, Roberts hosts gaming addict support groups in the Bloomfield
Hills area. He said there has been an increase in those attending his
“I think technology is getting more advanced and the game developers
and Facebook application developers are so aware of our brains’ reward
circuitry,” he explains.
Roberts says he also sees many clients who are unemployed that have
every intention of searching for jobs and submitting their resumes
online, only to end up checking Facebook or playing a game.
“People who are drawn to the cyberspace world of gaming are often
imaginative, creative and highly intelligent,” he says. “Their
potential stagnates in front of the screen and that’s the problem:
“Wasted potential.”
For people like Mahrle, gaming is all a matter of control.
“There was a point when I was starting to lose touch with my real
friends, so I decided I’d stop playing for a few months, thinking it
would be really hard,” Mahrle says. “But I stopped and it was fine. I
realize now that I dictate the amount of time I want to spend on the
game and if I want to walk away, I can.
“I’ve developed a lot of friendships by gaming online. I’ll be moving
out to Arizona soon, so I’m also saving a lot of money doing this,
versus dropping a ton of money one night in a bar.”

If you suspect that you or a loved-one may have an online gaming
addiction, go to Kevin Roberts’ website at
There, you will find links to resources, along with the Cyber
Addiction Quiz to see if your behavior qualifies as warning signs.

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