HUDSON, Wis. -- His mother found Shawn Woolley's body in a rocking chair in front of his computer. His head was slumped to one side -- still facing a screen of the online game that she says had become his obsession.
"That damn game," Liz Woolley said to herself as she broke into tears.
At Shawn's side was the .22-caliber rifle he'd used to end his life.
Scattered around him, police reports say, were dirty clothes, fast-food wrappers, dozens of empty pizza boxes and chicken bones thrown haphazardly to the floor. His mother had pounded on his apartment's door and windows for two days before finally cutting through the chain lock to break in last Thanksgiving morning.
The 21-year-old, who'd hastily quit his job more than a week earlier, left no suicide note in the one-bedroom apartment in Hudson, Wis., a small town about 30 miles east of Minneapolis. The only signs of what had been on his mind were a few scribbled names and terms related to EverQuest, the online virtual reality game he'd been playing for well over a year.
Based on those and other clues, Liz Woolley suspects her son killed himself after being jilted online. But she places the blame for his death squarely on the game and its maker-- Sony Online Entertainment.
"Shawn was worse than any junkie I've ever seen," Liz Woolley says. "After he started playing the game, he just didn't enjoy life anymore."
She believes Sony intentionally added features to Everquest to keep players online for hours at a time.
Officials at Sony Online declined to comment on the Woolley case or the possibility raised by Liz Woolley that she may sue. Scott McDaniel, the company's vice president of marketing, says the game should be viewed like any other form of entertainment.
"There's a duty on the consumer to use it responsibly," McDaniel says of EverQuest.
Whether online gaming -- or Internet surfing for that matter -- can truly be addictive is still a matter of much debate among computer and mental health experts.
But whatever they name it -- addiction, obsession or compulsion -- those experts say a growing number of people are spending huge chunks of time on their computers at the expense of their everyday lives.
The average Everquest subscriber plays about 20 hours a week.
Increasingly, mental health professionals say they are getting calls from family members and online junkies themselves who find themselves neglecting friends and family, skipping school, work and even a daily shower to get more time on the computer.
"I don't know if we're talking 1 percent or 10 percent or 20 percent. But my sense is that this is a significant problem that's just really starting to show up on the radar screen," says psychologist David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family. The Minneapolis-based nonprofit focuses on the effects of media, including the Internet, on young people and families.
Experts say pornography Web sites appear to be the biggest draw. Others spend hours chatting via computer with friends or people they meet online.
Still others -- often teen-age boys looking for an escape from the stress and awkwardness of adolescence -- are pulled in by games.
"It's extremely difficult to go against the tide of what, for these kids, has become popular culture," says Hilarie Cash, a licensed mental health counselor who co-founded Internet/Computer Addiction Services in Redmond, Wash., in 1999.
She is among a small number of therapists nationwide specializing in patients who have trouble reining in their computer time.
David Greenfield, a psychologist in Hartford, Conn., is another. When it comes to games, he and others say EverQuest seems to be particularly difficult to resist -- so much so that some call it "EverCrack."
Drawn into another world
A sort of computer-driven Dungeons and Dragons, the online game has more than 430,000 registered players worldwide who form teams, or "guilds," in a never-ending journey to earn points and slay monsters.
And while most people keep their playing time in check, there are some who can't.
A longtime epileptic, Shawn also struggled with seizures, which his mother says computer time only aggravated.
After graduation from high school, Shawn spent a semester studying graphic design at a nearby vocational school, then dropped out. He took a job as assistant manager at a pizza chain but left that, too, in July 2000 and moved back with his mom.
By that time, he'd started playing EverQuest -- and his younger brother says its effects were already noticeable.
Tony Woolley, Shawn's 14-year-old brother, says the two used to do all sorts of fun things together -- "bowling, go-carts, anything." Then Shawn all but stopped hanging out with him.
"I used to ask him, 'Why are you doing this? We need you here,"' Tony says. "But he never answered."
Their mother recalls the time Shawn broke down and cried when another EverQuest player stole the online treasures he'd collected in the game.
"Shawn, that's just a computer," she told him. "It's make-believe."