Every day, millions of people go to work, hang out with friends, cuddle with loved ones and go through all the motions of life.

Technically, none of these people are real -- they're computerized characters people use to represent themselves in ongoing virtual worlds.

Although they may seem to be of interest only to people who played Dungeons & Dragons, these online unrealities -- persistent-world, massive-multiplayer online games (MMOGs) -- may be the future of entertainment.

"Persistent-world games have the possibility within them to be one of the dominant leisure forms of the 21st Century," Swarthmore College cultural historian Timothy Burke said. "I have no doubt they could be as big as TV and the movies. But they have to get beyond the geek ghetto."

There are an estimated 1 million persistent-world gamers in America, and about 3 million worldwide. Subscription online games earned $259 million in 2001 -- and that number is expected to leap to $1.7 billion in 2002.

The ganglord of games is EverQuest, a Tolkienesque game with 430,000 subscribers who pay $13 a month to pretend to be elves, dwarves or trolls.

EverQuest's players become famously -- or notoriously -- immersed in the game: It was dubbed "Evercrack" last November when a Wisconsin mother claimed it was responsible for her son's suicide. Shawn Woolley, a 21-year-old with a history of mental illness, played the game 12 hours a day and was playing only minutes before he shot himself.

But for every worried parent who claims EverQuest and games like it are designed to be addictive, is a person who cites the virtual world as a place to learn, live and even fall in love.

"We've had in-game marriages, people who met in the game and got married in real life," Sony Online Entertainment marketing vice president Scott McDaniel said. "Around Sept. 11, people were helping each other. It was amazing to see this virtual world of dragons and ogres and knights helping each other in coping with the real world."

McDaniel and other high-level people in online games had similar feelings about the "Evercrack" accusations, that the games don't bring out obsessive behavior that wasn't already there.

One of the first lessons people learned in medieval-themed Ultima Online is that slaying dragons and hoarding gold quickly become secondary goals for many players.

Rick Hall, senior producer at Origin Systems, said about 20 percent of Ultima's players choose to play characters who occupy themselves with mundane tasks, becoming blacksmiths, tailors and fishermen. In a world of magic and mythic creatures, one in five people use their $10-a-month subscription pretending to do things like manufacturing imaginary shoes.

That's why observers have singled out two upcoming games as critical to the online gaming community. The Sims Online and Star Wars Galaxies could be the titles that make the genre less an oddity and more the way people play and socialize.

In The Sims, there will be none of the killing and looting requisite to other games. The citizens of Simville spend time working, talking on the phone, having barbecues, grooming their pets, having children and ordering pizza -- just like in the real world.

"It looks and smells like a game... but players don't really approach it like a game," said Will Wright, creator of The Sims. "Every player brings their own goals into the game, everybody's always reformulating their goals, just like real life."

Star Wars Galaxies, on the other hand, promises to fulfill the dreams of starry-eyed boys by allowing them to fight for or against The Empire. But the creators emphasize that you don't need a blaster to be successful: Characters can spend their online careers as galactic chefs if they want to.

Lucasarts hopes the strong brand name and less combat-heavy gameplay will break persistent-world games into the mainstream.

"You could look at it in some ways as a social experiment," Lucasarts producer Haden Blackman said. "A lot of people are writing dissertations on the MMOG mentality based on a relatively small handful of titles. When we bring out Star Wars Galaxies, a lot of that is going to be rewritten, because we'll have a totally different community."

Observers aren't ready to say whether Blackman's prediction seems on target, but the answer may determine how people will be entertaining themselves years from now.

"I think in the year 2100, people will look back … and these games will be either an obscure vanished form of mass media like penny arcades," Burke said. "Or they're going to be an incredibly common and important part of mass culture and entertainment."