Cyburbs Offer Refuge to Life-Weary Urbanites : Computers: The Information Highway leads to the land of games, but it’s a path that may be highly addictive.


Welcome to the Cyburbs, that computer-driven game land on the outskirts of Reality just off the Information Highway where 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 Michelle M. Weil, of Orange, Calif., a recognized authority on the effects of computer use on the psyche, isn’t joking when she says, “Computer games are extremely addictive.” And not just the store-bought ones.

“I think playing on-line network games has a much higher addictive potential than regular computer games,” says 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,” says 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 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 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.”

When GEnie, a Rockville, Md.-based company that offers games and a variety of information services, agreed to arrange an on-line question-and-answer session for the Baltimore 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.”

And it’s time, not money, that is at issue.

“With my job and Army Reserves and gaming, the family does resent the time I spend,” said an attorney from Annandale, Va., commenting via the GEnie network. “But at least I’m home most nights.”

That’s similar to what another “Falcon3” buff from Virginia said earlier. “I tell my wife it could be much worse. I could have bought a bass boat and still have nothing to show and be gone on weekends.”


But such arguments sound a lot like rationalizing to Lorenz.

“It’s classic denial,” she says. “Anything done to excess, one would have to evaluate the real reason for it, not the stated reason. Compulsive gamblers say they gamble for money, but they gamble because they can’t tolerate the pain or the difficulty they are having in relating to their family or job stresses.”