The calls keep coming, five or six a day, from addicts desperate for help, and psychologist Maressa Hecht Orzack, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, understands the misery on the other end of the line. She knows firsthand the pain of an addiction so severe it might have wrecked her career.
But Orzack mastered her obsession and now helps others do the same. Granted, when Orzack beat her habit over a decade ago, she had it relatively easy. She'd become hooked on computer solitaire, the trivial card game built into millions of desktop and laptop computers. Orzack believes it could have been much worse.
``Thank God they didn't have role-playing games back then," she said.
Games like The Sims, Everquest, or the hugely popular World of Warcraft that draw the player into all-encompassing virtual fantasies weren't widely played in the mid-'90s. Today their fans number in the millions. And every day, Orzack hears from some who've wandered so far into their digital playgrounds they can no longer find the exit.
``I get to see maybe two or three a week," said Orzack, director of the Computer Addiction Study Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont. And while any kind of game can become an obsession, ``the majority are now into these massive multiplayer online role - playing games." In these games, players inhabit an ever-changing, ever-present world that continues without them when they're logged off.
Of the dozens of such games, none has achieved the success of Blizzard Interactive's World of Warcraft. About 6.5 million subscribers worldwide pay around $15 a month to inhabit a digital realm of magical adventure. And many of these players seem determined to get their money's worth, by playing the game whenever they can spare an hour, and even when they can't.
Fans call the game WoW for short, but they've coined another, snarkier nickname -- World of Warcrack . Indeed, Orzack recently told an interviewer for a computer gaming website that as many as 40 percent of WoW players are addicted, not unlike heroin junkies. She admits it's an unscientific estimate. But some WoW players admit that love of the game may border on the unhealthy.
``It shares many of the features that have made all the other great games . . . so fiendishly addictive," said Jim Flynn of Sydney , former editor of a computer game magazine and an avid WoW player. ``These include the right learning curve, varied challenges, great graphics, and a rich gaming environment." Flynn admits he's lost sleep playing WoW, but figures it's no big deal. ``I've also lost sleep due to drinking, smoking, eating too much, and working too hard," he said. ``I'd prefer to lose it to gaming."
US Air Force Staff Sergeant Joseph Hitchcock, of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, takes a more somber view. ``I can definitely see this game totally ruining people's education, jobs, and relationships, no doubt about it," said Hitchcock, 25, who speaks from experience.
Hitchcock said he's bringing his WoW addiction under control, because he and his wife will soon have a child. But Hitchcock's idea of ``control" is different from most people's. ``I play maybe four to five hours a day now, which is half of what I used to play," he said. Before acquiring his newfound self-discipline, ``I would take leave, tell friends I was sick, not answer the phone, stay up late, wake up early, skip meals, just to play WoW," Hitchcock said.
His present wife actually divorced him in 2003 because of his addiction to a different computer game. Hitchcock started dating again, but that relationship fell apart because of his fanatical dedication to WoW. ``I used to rather play WoW than go out to eat with my girlfriend," Hitchcock said. Three months later, he and his first wife remarried. This time, they're bound by impending parenthood, and a shared hobby -- his wife also plays WoW.
Not everyone can cut back on their own, so specialists are beginning to offer special programs for the game-addicted. This summer, the Smith & Jones Addiction Consultancy of Amsterdam began offering in - patient ``detox" therapy for gaming addicts. In July, the organization held an outdoor survival camp -- two weeks of vigorous activities in a German forest, far from cable modems and PlayStations.
Orzack also tries to drag her patients away from digital gadgets as a first step toward a cure. ``My rule is that I will not correspond with people on line to treat them," she said. ``I insist on seeing them." But she may be forced to make an exception. ``Some poor guy from China has asked me to help him," said Orzack. Perhaps the fellow is nervous about visiting a new game addiction center just opened in China. The doctors there use electroshock therapy as well as counseling.
For Paul Sams, Blizzard Interactive's chief operating officer, it can't be much fun hearing his company's product likened to a mind-altering drug. ``We very much look at it as any other entertainment medium," said Sams. ``Do we think that our game is incredibly compelling and people like it? Sure. Do we think it's as good as some of the best movies and some of the best music? Yes." But digital heroin? ``I wouldn't think it's in the same league."
But just in case, WoW includes features to encourage moderation. For instance, ``if you're out of the game for enough of a time," said Sams, ``when you log back in you get an experience bonus." That means your fantasy character becomes a little stronger every time you take a few hours off to play with your real kids. Speaking of kids, WoW also has a parental control feature that lets you limit Junior to, say, one hour a night.
Still, there's only so much Blizzard Interactive and other game companies can do. ``People have to exhibit personal responsibility," said Sams. And if that's not enough, perhaps it's time for a visit to Orzack.