Men who love online games, and the women who hate them
CYNTHIA REYNOLDS | Jan 14, 2006
Kristan's husband, Allen, began his love affair with World of Warcraft one afternoon about a year ago, when he opened a demo CD for the game and started playing it non-stop. Kristan, who is 23, assumed he'd eventually get bored. Today, the 26-year-old gets home from his IT job at 6, inhales dinner and plays the online fantasy game until midnight. This he does every evening, except for weekends -- when he plays from 9 a.m. until 2 a.m. "The last time we had sex was when the server went down. He used to bike and play football, now he does squat," Kristan says. He spends almost no time with their kids, ages two and three. "They ask him to go to the park. "He'll say, 'If I get off I'll die.' They build Lego castles to impress him -- they're lucky to get a nod. If it were up to him, he'd take a family photo with the damn game by his side."
Allen's a member of a growing exodus of mostly men who are forgoing real life for the cooler one offered by a new crop of games. His profile is typical. It's no longer adolescent boys but men in their late 20s who drive today's $25-billion gaming market -- guys with jobs, guys with wives. "Am I thinking about divorce? Hell, yeah," says Kristan, who was shocked to learn there are so many women like her they have a name: gamer widows.
Sherry Myrow, a 23-year-old in Toronto, is another such newlywed. Fed up with watching Survivor, sleeping alone and watching her husband, an avid cook, scavenge for finger-food dinners, she started the online support group gamerwidow.com. Launched last April, it counts 465 members and offers forums for those who have lost partners to Xbox, Playstation and poker. But Myrow says it's the massively multi-player online role-playing games(called MMORPGs)that enrage most members.
About 100 million people worldwide play MMORPGs such as Everquest, Halo 2, and Diablo, generating some $5 billion a year in subscription fees alone. The games have no end. Players -- often in groups -- slay monsters, go on quests and acquire items such as magic spears for battle. They work to upgrade their characters' levels, which brings prestige, power and privileges -- and that can be addictive. "If I didn't play so much I'd lose my rank, and you don't want that because you work so hard," says Ryerson student Sameer Salji, 26, who's putting in 12-hour days and the odd 28-hour marathon session, to reach the esteemed Field Marshall rank. In China, a gaming haven, the state has begun to enforce three-hour time limits on websites; after that, players' levels decrease. Sameer's fiancée would like that. "She constantly complains, 'You have to stop playing and blah blah blah,' " he says. "I'm pretty sure I'll be able to cut back to five hours a day when I get married. Well, I'm hoping."
His weakness is the current king of games, World of Warcraft. Blizzard Inc. launched the online version of the series last November. It's become famous for the sheer number of hours it demands to "level up" and spawned a dedicated support group on Yahoo!, where posts can be lighthearted or heavy: Is anyone else drinking more, btw; She's only a baby once, he's missing it; I cried last night again -- I brought my daughter into bed and snuggled with her; I am sick to my stomach. OMG I could actually lose my husband to this??? Occasionally, their stories are heartbreaking. One woman wrote in an email: "We were always surrounded by people. Now, he never leaves the computer. He lost his job, gained 60 lb. and refuses to waste game time brushing his teeth or showering. He screamed in frustration because he didn't win anything after 12 hours on a raid. This formerly sweet man knocked me to the floor because I flipped the breaker switch to tell him I was leaving."
For these women, the forum is a lifeline. "They are really isolated," says Vancouver therapist Peter Silin, introduced to MMORPGs in 2002 through a client's Everquest addiction. Because game addiction is so new, Silin says, society has yet to take it seriously. So, what's the appeal? "Many people have really boring lives," says Edward Castronova, a gamer and an economist at Indiana University who studies virtual economies. Online you're an instant hero in a like-minded community. If you work hard, you will be successful. "I met a powerful online wizard -- he works at 7-11 making just enough to keep his body alive."
Some may blame society or family history. Gamer widows point their fingers elsewhere. Pondering the breakup of her family over a "stupid computer game," Kristan says: "I'd just like to send Blizzard a big picture -- of my hand with the middle finger sticking up."
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