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It's more fun when you're not playing alone. Hence, the remarkable growth of "massively multiplayer online games," a.k.a. MMOGs: videogames consisting of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of players competing together in the same virtual world.

MMOGs have been around for some 30 years: the first so-called "multi-user dungeon" was constructed in the late 1970s. Early MMOGs consisted solely of text. But, as PCs came along with better graphics and online capabilities, the games became far more visual, complex, diverse, and popular. Today, millions of people pay monthly subscription fees to participate in games like Everquest. The largest MMOG, World of Warcraft, reportedly has nearly 11 million members.

MMOGs are available in multiple genres, including role-playing games, first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and even racing games, sports games, and variants of Dance Dance Revolution. What makes MMOGs different from other games? For one thing, they're inherently social. Not only can players interact with each other: in many MMOGs they can come together as teams that stay intact for years, and may deeply identify with their identities as members of a given "clan" or "guild."

This deep social interaction is one of the reasons many people find MMOGs to be such a compelling experience. There are those who would use the word "addictive." One leading clinical psychologist, Dr. Maressa Orzack - also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School - has alleged that up to 40% of World of Warcraft players are addicted to the game: to the point that they're "neglecting their jobs, studies, families and friends." More recently, she's backed off that number, but many MMOGs unquestionably combine a profoundly social experience with a design that pushes some of the same psychological buttons as gambling and other addictive behaviors.

As "virtual worlds," MMOGs have many of the features of real worlds - and, in many cases, that includes their own economies. As you move through the game, you earn currency in the virtual world that you can trade for possessions there - for instance, weaponry. Some folks have actually begun making a real-world living playing these games, and earning virtual currency they can sell to others. (As with many things, this work has sometimes outsourced overseas, to Chinese companies that pay employees in the range of $250 per month to work 12-hour days playing these games. In 2005, The New York Times reported estimates that some 100,000 Chinese are working full-time as so-called "gold farmers.")

Back closer to home - your home - until recently, nearly all MMOGs were played on PCs. But new console-based MMOGs are appearing. Players can also participate in MMOGs through subscription services; for example, Final Fantasy is available via Microsoft's Xbox Live. There are now even MMOGs built for cellphones, like Biting Bit's MicroMonster and CipSoft's TibiaME. That means more worlds to lose yourself in - and, presumably, even more work for the world's farmers of gold!

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