LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The line between virtual reality and the real world in today's online computer games is getting dangerous, some critics argue.
"Any hobby can be a good or a bad thing — it just depends on whether or not you take care of your life while you're enjoying your hobbies," said Andrew Marks, a player of EverQuest (search), a popular game that allow thousands of PC, Macintosh or Sony PlayStation users to take on different roles competing and cooperating with each other in a fantasy environment.
But critics say sometimes players can't turn off the virtual life and return to the real one.
"You don't eat meals, or you actually have people bring food to you," said Dr. David Greenfield of the Center for Internet Studies. "Or, you keep food stashed next to the computer because you literally do not want to get up from the computer."
Players of EverQuest and other "massively multiplayer online role-playing games" can now play against opponents around the world thanks to the huge, make-believe online environment. This year, more than a million people are expected to plug in and play.
The pastime can be so addictive for some that they have given EverQuest a sinister nickname — "EverCrack."
In 2001, 21-year-old Shawn Woolley (search), a Wisconsin man who suffered from epilepsy, depression and schizoid personality disorder, moved back in with his mother and quit his job.
Not long afterward, he killed himself over a personal betrayal — in the EverQuest world.
His mother, Liz Woolley, found the body.
"There he was sitting, on his chair, in front of the computer that had the EverQuest game on, with the rifle," Woolley painfully recalled. "I didn't stay in there very long."
Woolley turned her grief into action and launched Online Gamers Anonymous. Thousands of people have used the Web site to escape the grip of games that Woolley insists are made to be addictive, she said.
"They are designed to keep people coming back, they put hooks in, they play mind games with people to keep 'em in there and they absolutely know what they're doing, and they're doing it in the name of money," she said.
These interactive online games do charge players a monthly fee, but Sony (search) and other companies that make the games insist their products are harmless and nothing more than entertainment.
It's up to the gamers to prioritize their lives responsibly, they insist.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Anita Vogel.