Lost In Cyberspace

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FIRST LOOK In the '03 edition of EverQest, players will inhabit bodies like this

When her husband came home with yet another shrink-wrapped computer game 18 months ago, Denise Dituri never suspected it would transform her into Lorelahna, the Druid of Dark Fury. This Sacramento, Calif., radio-station manager and mother of three had never been much of a fantasy buff. Dungeons and Dragons did not appeal. Lord of the Rings was just O.K. But somehow this game, EverQuest, was different. Soon Denise was playing 18 hours a week — and, paradoxically, spending more time with her family than ever. "The longest conversation in our house at dinner," she says, "is about what we've done in Norrath that day."

Norrath, for the uninitiated, is EverQuest's answer to Middle Earth. Players all over the world — each hunched over his or her computer screen — gather on the same 3-D map, connected via the Internet. At last count, the land of EverQuest had 433,445 inhabitants, with 12,000 new immigrants arriving every month. Its subscription fees have made the game a gold mine for its owner, Sony, and helped put a relatively obscure genre — the massively multiplayer game — on the map. This week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, a select few VIPS will get an early glimpse of EverQuest II, a sequel likely to trigger another Norrath population boom. The game has become a global addiction so quickly that insiders jokingly refer to it as "Evercrack."

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That joke is not so funny anymore. Last November a clinically depressed 21-year-old named Shawn Woolley shot himself in his apartment in Hudson, Minn. Woolley played EverQuest for two years before his death, and his mother, who discovered her son's body when she came to get him for Thanksgiving, plans to sue Sony. Her attorney says the game was designed to be "as addictive as possible" and should have carried a warning label. Sony declines comment on the case.

For those who haven't played, it's hard to understand why so many would invest so much in a mere fantasy game. The starter software kit costs $40, as does each of three add-ons that let you explore different continents on Norrath (a fourth arrives in October). There's also a monthly fee of $12.95 for the online service. Yet hundreds of thousands regularly pay up — and not just teenage boys. The average age of EverQuest players is 31, and they include as many lawyers and homemakers as students and Silicon Valley geeks.

Ask them what they do in Norrath, and they will talk about slaying mobs (for mobile objects, a slang term for Norrath's monsters), collecting plats (platinum pieces, the highest form of Norrath currency) and joining with other players to form guilds. It is that last part that's key. For EverQuest addiction is, at heart, a pleasantly social disease. "It's what players bring to the game that makes it what it is," says Will Wright, creator of the best-selling PC game The Sims, who plays EverQuest with his 15-year-old daughter and is hard at work on his own extensive multiplayer game.

In a fragmenting society that spends ever more time at home, EverQuest offers families a way of staying together by slaying together. Just ask the Dituris. Denise (a.k.a. Lorelahna) and her husband Gary (the warrior Tytanyum) once joined a guild with their best friends Bill and Cindy (Jarryth and Lilyenya). They still talk about the time the four of them stayed up in shifts all night (EverQuest runs in real time), waiting to attack a particularly brutal mob, finally slaying him at 6 a.m.

Later, through an EverQuesting single mom in Palm Springs, Calif., the Dituris networked into the 50-member Dark Fury Guild. Online quests soon became the basis for real-life soirees. "Believe it or not, EverQuest has become the center of our social life," says Gary. "People say it's expensive, but it's like a club — and you'd pay at least $12.95 a month in club dues."

At times EverQuest might seem like nothing more than a vast Internet chat room with nice graphics. But there's something about this particular chat room that opens lines of communication — even among parents and kids. Gary Dituri says he has learned more in the past 18 months about his son Derrick, who plays a rogue to Gary's warrior, than he did in Derrick's first 15 years. Gary and Denise choose less advanced characters for themselves when they interact with their daughters Dayna, 13, and Demitria, 10. An unorthodox method of child rearing, to be sure, but hardly worse than parking the kids in front of the TV. "It's not just watching cartoons," says EverQuest producer Rod Humble. "It's an exercise of the mind."

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