For the better part of nine months, Dan Gilbert of Red Lion, Pa., lost his wife, Lori, to an Internet game called ''EverQuest.''
Each day Lori, 35, retreated to her computer in the basement and dove into the online sword-and-sorcery world, surfacing only to sleep and grab a quick bite to eat. Her computer log showed she played an average of 65 hours a week, eclipsing every activity in her life, including sleep.
''It was like we were in different worlds,'' Gilbert said. ''She didn't do much of anything except play that game.''
It was only after Gilbert threatened to leave the marriage, he said, that Lori agreed to end her Internet game life and return to the real world.
''I was so emotionally drained at that point, I broke into tears,'' said Gilbert, a 35-year-old Web designer and an online game player himself.
Out on the horizon of the technological revolution, a new tug-of-war between the real and the virtual worlds has begun to emerge over the most precious commodity of modern life: time.
The source is a new generation of Internet games, known by the tongue-twisting name of ''massively multiplayer online role-playing games.'' They have risen from relative obscurity to become the latest Net addiction, challenging even such consuming modern pastimes as television for some players.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the world now play the games, even though the first of them appeared just three years ago. ''EverQuest'' alone has more than 215,000 subscribers in its one year of existence.
The games are computer-generated fantasy worlds where thousands of players can talk and adventure together in stunningly beautiful virtual landscapes.
In their short existence, the games have led to the creation of friendships, the formation of close social groups that meet in real life and even a booming industry in which players take virtual equipment they have gathered in the games and sell it to other players for real money.
The games have created an absorbing social realm that transcends the bland text world of Internet chat and makes older computer games played by individuals or small groups look lonely and juvenile.
But at the same time, the design of the games, which encourages players to spend months and even years striving to attain higher levels of play, has drawn some players into spending dozens of hours a week immersed in a virtual world while the real world rushes past.
Although much of the game industry is still aimed at entertaining children and teen-agers, these new role-playing games, with their mix of complex social interactions and monthly credit card subscription fees, have been specifically designed for adults, opening a new realm of problems ranging from divorce to poor work performance and depression.
The Interactive Digital Software Association, a computer game trade group, found in a survey published last month that 61 percent of computer game players are now older than 18, a development that has put game playing squarely in the most time-starved arena of modern life: the family.
Although parents once fretted about their children ignoring their homework because of Nintendo game playing, parents themselves are now sometimes the problem.
The developers of another Internet game, ''Asheron's Call,'' with about 60,000 subscribers, recently polled some of its users and found that nearly half of them played the game more than 20 hours a week, comparable to time spent eating (about 21 hours a week) and within striking distance of work (average 34.5 hours a week) and watching TV (33.6 hours a week).
The time spent playing games online, however, only begins to describe how absorbing the games can be for the small percentage of players who have become deeply immersed in the virtual world.
''There are people who have accumulated 150 days of playing time in less than a year,'' said Brad McQuaid, vice president of San Diego-based Verant Interactive, which created ''EverQuest.''
''That's like one-third of their lives,'' he said. ''... It's certainly flattering that they like the game, but at the same time, I would encourage people to enjoy our game and life as well.''
''There is more to life than EverQuest,'' McQuaid said.
For a growing number of people, the problem is precisely that the idea of what ''life'' is has become a fuzzy mix of virtual and real -- two realms that do not always mix well.
Many people have sought out these forms of virtual entertainment to find the kind of rewards they once found in everyday pursuits.
Rick Sawtell, a computer trainer in Phoenix, said he was drawn to online games because of the camaraderie -- something he says was missing in his life because he spends half the year traveling around the world teaching computer programming. With his laptop computer, he can play ''Asheron's Call'' no matter where he is and keep in touch with friends, he says.
''It was just to have company,'' he said. ''When I'm on the road, I'm eating alone, sleeping alone and working alone. It's hard to take.''
But although he found solace in the game on the road, his playing became a sore point with his wife when he returned home and continued to play. His wife recently left him for a variety of reasons, including the game playing, he said.
''Playing has been both a curse and a blessing,'' said Sawtell, who still plays for a few hours every night.
Kimberly Young, a Bradford, Pa., psychologist who wrote one of the earliest papers on Internet addiction, has heard hundreds of similar laments since she opened her Center for Online Addiction several years ago.
Chatting online, she said, is still the biggest Internet addiction, but online games have quickly become a noticeable phenomenon, joining the ranks of other Net obsessions such as e-mail, online pornography, electronic day trading and even eBay auctions.
What has made the Internet so alluring is that unlike the passive nature of television, the Net is interactive. It has given people the ability to not just watch, but to do -- and usually to do so with other people.
''We're all social animals,'' Young said. ''It's probably very healthy for a lot of people to expand their social networks as long as they have a balanced life. But what is balance?''
Still, while online games encourage players to interact with other users, the computer is also a socially isolating device, Young said. ''That's why it's called a personal computer,'' she said.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University call it the ''Internet paradox,'' describing the Net in a study published in American Psychologist last month as a social technology that ultimately reduces social involvement in the real world.
In ''EverQuest,'' players roam online worlds as virtual characters, able to explore the landscape and hunt monsters alone or with other players. These worlds never sleep, but continue changing whether a player is there or not, just like in the real world. The games cost between $20 to $40 to buy and $10 a month to play.
Lori Gilbert began playing ''EverQuest'' in earnest after quitting her job at a nuclear power plant, a move the couple had decided upon as part of their plans to have children, her husband said.
At first, Dan Gilbert saw nothing unusual, but after a few months he began to notice bowls and plates beside her computer when he came home, a sign that she had been playing all day. When he went to bed, she would still be playing and sometimes she'd still be at it when he awoke. Friends began to worry about her health.
''That was her life,'' Dan Gilbert said. ''I didn't say anything because, at that point, I was just so disgusted.''
All the things they had done together in the past -- working on the house, gardening, watching television and just talking -- had stopped.
Dan eventually issued his ultimatum, and Lori closed her ''EverQuest'' account.
Lori Gilbert confirmed her husband's account . She believes it was a good decision to leave the game but added that she still misses other players. ''They were real people behind those computers,'' she said.
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