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Its 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in Duluth and Dean Walczynski, 26, is hacking at foes with a two-handed ax. Haunting Celtic music accompanies his journey through villages, fortresses and snowy ranges.
Walczynski, in the guise of Deandarko the blood-elf, is a fanatical World of Warcraft player who invests six to eight hours at a time, sometimes five days a week, in the computer game.
Its easy to see how this endless role-playing fantasy world envelops players, with battles to be fought and treasures to be collected at every turn. But the effects of such infatuation have led to problems for many, such as college students who skip class and forget to study as they lose themselves in virtual worlds.
Academic counselors brought the problem to the attention of UMD Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin in recent months when they discovered students with academic difficulties were spending enormous amounts of time playing computer games. The issue was addressed more directly with UMD freshmen and resident advisers this year.
“These are very, very bright kids, and if you cant get them back on track, youve lost a lot of potential,” Martin said.
Dangers of problematic gaming include changes in sleep and wake cycles that can affect concentration, memory and physical health, and when meaningful relationships are neglected and the gaming world becomes more satisfying than the real world.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 90 percent of Americas children play video games and 15 percent have a problem. About 10 percent to 12 percent of adult players play more than six hours a day, said John ONeill, director of addiction services at the Menninger Clinic in Houston.
UMD senior Stephen Dolence says he used to be obsessed with computer games, sometimes to the point of neglecting his fiancee, who also played, and forgetting or skipping class.
Often playing World of Warcraft six hours at a time, “I wouldnt get my work done,” he said. Dolence and his fiancee decided together to cut out gaming after it began to bore them. Now preparing for graduate school, Dolence still plays a bit but says if he were hooked, graduate school would be impossible.
While not technically an addiction, online and video games can be habit-forming and have an effect on the brain, said David Swenson, a forensic psychologist and professor of management at the College of St. Scholastica. Gamers experience an adrenaline rush and gain satisfaction from playing, and they tend to repeat their actions to experience those feelings, he said much like compulsive gamblers.
Walczynski, who has a penchant for tea and energy drinks while playing, said hes in it for social aspects and unwinding from work. He meets new friends and plays with real-life friends.
Earning rewards and respect from other players is part of it, he said, “and you assume a role of something you would never be in normal life.”
While the St. Marys Duluth Clinic nutrition services employee says he sets aside time to venture into the real world, he has turned down requests to go out at night when he was focused on reaching new levels within the game.
“I can be really out of control, but I can sometimes draw a line,” he said. The longest time hes played is 18 hours straight.
UMD academic adviser Vince Repesh worked with two students last year whose grades had plummeted from straight-As to Fs after months of playing World of Warcraft.
“I accused one of them of coming in loaded from smoking dope, he looked so bad,” Repesh said. But the student had been up all night playing a computer game.
During freshman orientation this year, three of the 70 students Repesh talked to in groups about computer use had been to counseling for problematic gaming, one because he was too competitive to stop.
“I tell parents during talks, I believe its one of the hidden causes for kids to fail that nobody knows about it,” he said.
The computer is often an underlying problem for students who receive counseling from UMD health services, said Kathy Morris, the departments director.
“Its something else causing the pain that brings them in,” she said, such as loneliness, poor grades or exhaustion. Counselors work with students to better manage time or develop outside social relationships to get excitement in their lives in other ways, she said.
Gaming provides benefits when done in moderation, said ONeill, of the Menninger Clinic. Many games are difficult and require an intricate thought process, but playing might have moved from a hobby to an obsession, he said, when:
* The amount of time spent playing increases to a point where you lose track of time.
* Others comment on how much time you spend playing.
* Work, relationships or school are neglected.
“Ive worked with people who have deleted World of Warcraft,” he said. “But then they reinstall it, or throw it away only to go buy it again. You can stop if its a hobby.”
Nathan Kleinke is a St. Scholastica student and former GameStop store employee in Duluth. He said college-age players can be more susceptible to overuse because they have more freedom.
“Kids that dont have jobs or have much responsibility [can] end up… taking entire semesters off to sleep, eat and play,” he said.
Wired college dorm rooms with high-speed connections make it easier for students to hole up, ONeill said.
Aside from World of Warcraft, which has more than 11 million subscribers, popular massive multiplayer online role-playing games include Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot and Star Wars Galaxies.
When a new version of a game comes out, players will buy it and sometimes take a week off school or work to play the new game, Kleinke said.
Players joke about the urban myth that some people concoct makeshift catheters so their play can be continuous. Dolence has heard of it and doesnt doubt that its true.
Walczynski doesnt go that far. He started playing at 8 p.m. Tuesday and finished at 1:10 a.m. after developing a headache, taking four breaks during play. If he needed to, hed be able to quit, he said, “but I dont want to.”