Welcome to the Cyburbs, that computer-driven gameland on the outskirts of reality just off the Information Highway where more and more of us are stopping these days to avoid getting a life. Apparently we're succeeding.
For while we may cluck publicly about our kids wasting time and mind with TV video games like "Mortal Kombat," it turns out that we, their parents, are privately firing up the PC and going bug-eyed till dawn playing "Falcon3," the next best thing to a government warplane simulator. Or "Links 386 Pro," which simulates a round of golf at Hilton Head Island. Or "Betrayal at Krondor," or "The 7th Guest," or "The Castle of Dr. Brain" or "CyberStrike."
Or you name it. Highly sophisticated computer games -- both the boxed variety available in software stores and those available only through on-line network services -- have gotten their hooks into more grown-ups than would like to admit it.
"Computer games have the potential for real addictiveness," says Johnny Wilson, editor of Computer Gaming World, where gamers who go overboard are jokingly referred to as cyburbs.
But Dr. Michelle M. Weil, of Orange, Calif., a recognized authority the effects of computer use on the psyche, isn't joking when she says, "Computer games are extremely addictive." And not just the boxed variety of games available in software stores.
"I think that playing on-line network games has a much higher addictive potential than regular computer games," says Dr. Weil. "With a [boxed] computer game you're always aware it is a game. With on-line types of services, people can spend lots of time talking in the protection of their own home or office with no face-to-face interaction. The underlying danger: The more time you spend facing the screen the less time you spend doing other things."
Endless anecdotes scroll forth from gaming groups about people spending $800 or more a year on boxed computer games, or those spending so much time playing multi-player, on-line games with unseen opponents at $3 an hour that they run up annual bills as high as $15,000. Some networks, recognizing the potential for problems, encourage subscribers to set limits on the amount of time they spend. Says one network representative, "They are so engrossing that players have no perception of time. People have to slap you on the head or set an alarm to tell you when to quit."
"It's not unlike alcohol consumption," adds gamer Steve Ames, a free-lance photographer in Alexandria, Va., by day and devotee of "Falcon3" in his off hours. "Some people savor the flavor. Some just like to take the edge off. And then there are those that binge. Some make the joke 'I should have a life.' There's more than a little bit of nervous laughter about that."
And there should be, says Dr. Valerie Lorenz, a Baltimore psychologist who heads the National Center for Pathological Gambling Inc. "We know that many people become totally mesmerized by computer games," says Dr. Lorenz, who sees many similar behavior patterns between avid computer gamers and compulsive gamblers. "Unfortunately nothing is ever done about it. There is no visible negative impact other than the tremendous amount of time spent. There is no concrete problem such as loss of money, so people tend not to see it as a problem, where it really is."
Potential for obsession
But gamers like Steve Ames say many are very aware of the dangers.
"It's a hobby with as much potential for obsession as any other hobby," he says. "You're dealing with very bright people here. These games are not shoot-'em-ups. They require you to think. So it's fairly common to hear discussions about responsible use, about people budgeting their time and striking a balance."
Indeed, just such a discussion took place last week over the on-line computer network run by GEnie, a Rockville-based company that offers games and information services. GEnie subscribers can sign on and take part in more than a dozen ongoing multi-player games -- like "Air Warrior" or "Hundred Years War" -- or simply chat by computer with other players or game designers.
The majority of GEnie subscribers are between 25 and 44. Two years ago one in 10 were women, but now they number one in four. Almost all subscribers have completed some college and about half make more than $50,000 a year.
When GEnie agreed to arrange an on-line question and answer session for The Sun, about 40 players from across the United States and Canada weighed in with their comments during a two-hour period. Most said the cost of gaming wasn't an issue for them, but they were divided on whether heavy game-playing kept them from real-life friendships.
"If you spend too much time on-line, the real world can suffer to the point that the only people you are left with is the on-line types," offered Bruce Gessleman, from Texas. Another player, identified only as Jay from Sun Valley, Calif., added, "Sure, you can play games and have relationships on-line, but it just isn't the same as a face-to-face relationship."