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Online gaming: Breaking or building social barriers?

Most days, as soon as he gets home from work or finishes with his last class, Thomas Odmark, a business major and junior at the University of South Florida, hops into the seat of his leather, high-back computer chair and logs onto his favorite online game, World of Warcraft.

Odmark is but one of more than 10 million people worldwide who are subscribed to World of Warcraft, also known as the most popular of the hundreds of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) out there now.

Coupled with their massive popularity and the fact that most of these games require extensive time commitments in order to complete levels and build characters, it’s easy to understand how many players become addicted to MMORPGs.

“You’d have to play at least four days a week and at least four hours at a time in order to make any decent progress in [World of Warcraft],” said Odmark, who has played the game for three years. “I try to play around 20 hours a week.”

This is something Odmark manages to do between going to school full time and holding a part-time job.

Leveling a character is the main object of most MMORPGs. Once the highest level is attained, a player works toward various achievement points, rankings and getting higher-leveled gear. Essentially, there is no end to these games, which is the draw for many players.

“New levels, bosses, gear, achievements…are always being added, and a new expansion pack is coming out this year,” said Odmark.

With all this time being devoted to playing games online, there’s not a great deal of time left to do much else.

“[Online gaming] is certainly changing our idea of socialization,” said USF sociology professor Christina Partin. “With less physical interaction, people can lose the important ability to communicate face-to-face. This presents a serious problem.”

The lack of physical interaction and its affect on sociability isn’t the only concern when considering the possible negative effects of online gaming.

Since 2002, at least three cases have hit the news that have suicide linked to online gaming. In one case, the popular MMORPG EverQuest is being sued in an effort to get warning labels put on the games.

Another cause for concern occurred in 2005 when a Korean couple left their 4-month-old daughter at home to play World of Warcraft at a nearby Internet café. In their absence, the baby died of suffocation.

“In these cases, the games acted only as mediums and therefore shouldn’t be held liable,” said Partin. “It’s sad, but it can be compared to most any other addiction. The people involved must take on personal responsibility and make a conscious effort to avoid the possible negative effects.”

Despite these harrowing examples, it is possible that online games, at least in a world so vehemently based on technology and online communication, can have a positive affect.

“Although physical social interaction is important and certainly is limited with these games and their restrictions, some people would never reach out to anyone otherwise. These games give those people a means to communicate and express themselves,” said Partin.

“When I [communicate through chats] on World of Warcraft, I get to talk with people I wouldn’t ever get to meet in person. I talk to people from Iceland, Australia and Canada all the time, and I really learn a lot from them,” said Odmark.

“My daughter has never had many friends. It wasn’t until she started playing [World of Warcraft] that I noticed her talk about others and begin to have a social life,” said Jay Thomas, father of a 16-year-old who has played the game for two years. “She really seems happy, and that’s all I want for her.”