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CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Most soldiers who play online role-playing video games freely admit that their hobby is like any other socially accepted controlled substance.

Keep the habit under control, and massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, can be a fun way to relax.

Let it get out of hand, and it can ruin lives.

“I’ve seen online gaming break up marriages and get soldiers in trouble,” said Staff Sgt. James Whitley, a 2nd Infantry Division communication specialist. “It can be addictive, just like alcohol … it’s just matter of self-control and prioritizing your life. Real life is more important than a game.”

Games like “World of Warcraft” and “Lineage” attract millions of subscribers, and some industry analysts predict the billion-dollar MMORPG industry will triple by 2009.

Overseas servicemembers are playing these games in rapidly increasing numbers, especially those in South Korea on unaccompanied tours, say several 2nd ID soldiers.

Whitley works with computers all day at 2nd ID headquarters, then spends 50-plus hours of his off-time each week guiding his character, Vandaquill, through “World of Warcraft.”

Whitley has played similar games since 2000, well before the current trend took hold. In that time, he and others have honed skills that would make military leaders smile. Team building, decision-making and adaptability are all prized attributes in the virtual role-playing gaming world.

As exciting as the games can be, though, Whitley said it is leadership’s responsibility to know when to pull the plug.

“It’s really on the first-line leaders to know what their soldiers are doing and how much time they’re spending (on gaming),” Whitley said. “If necessary, the first-line leader needs to kick a soldier in the butt and tell the soldier to go out and do something — experience the world.”

The changing gamer experience

Parents have been complaining about their children spending too much time planted in front of the television since the 1950s. Those arguments extended to video games in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s when the Atari 2600 and other home console systems dazzled the public.

So what’s different about today’s games and their roles in people’s lives?

For one, most console and arcade games definitively end. The player saves the princess, defeats the champ or kills the enemy army, then gets some happy music and a list of Japanese programmers scrolling down the screen.

Online role-playing games don’t deliver such ultimate victory.

Characters in most role-playing games get stronger by completing quests, killing enemies and gaining new items.

Characters in some games can die and even be sold, but most hard-core players then adopt other characters as if they were second identities.

Playing a console game, like something played on a Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox or Nintendo Wii, requires far less time commitment, said Spc. Jason Travis, 20.

Travis, who spends about 90 minutes per day on average playing video games, estimates that the vast majority of soldiers play video games as a side hobby.

“But for about 10 percent, it’s their lives,” he said. “That’s their family. It’s their mother, sister, girlfriend … they would rather have a digital social life.”

The digital attraction

Travis and others say the idea of leaving what is sometimes a mundane life for a different world can be very seductive. However, they acknowledge that something may get lost in the process.

“People don’t go out to be sociable anymore, not when they can play video games that are so lifelike right there,” Travis said. “Some people look at it as, ‘Why go in the normal world?’ ”

For Pfc. Sean Bice, 19, gaming’s appeal lies in the quick thinking needed to win.

“It’s like a game of chess,” Bice said. “You’re facing another opponent who has same amount of skills or might be better. You need a better strategy.”

Bice sees the online role-playing game as an improvement over television because of its interactivity, both with the game and with other players. He estimates 50 percent to 60 percent of the people he knows play them.

Whitley also stresses the interactive aspects, giving as an example the need for teamwork on virtual quests to kill strong enemies.

“It can take anywhere from 20 to 40 people all going after same thing to get something done,” Whitley said. “Trying to get everyone on the same sheet of music can be painful.”

He said about half the people he knows play online role-playing games.

A newer player, Spc. Edward Lyons, 20, used to play console games but got introduced to online role-playing game “Guild Wars” about eight months ago.

Lyons sees console gaming as more popular among his friends, guessing that 20 percent of the people he knows play online role playing games.

He estimates he spends about half of his down time guiding his character through his virtual world.

Lyons says he has cut a few activities from his schedule to make time for gaming.

“Before I used to play basketball and soccer, and then go to the gym,” Lyons said. “Now, it’s just the gym.”

That’s not unusual among gamers. Online role-playing games are like any other pursuit, Whitley says: “If you want to be really good, you have to put in the time.”

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