They don't wear black veils. You won't find them shopping for caskets at the local funeral home. And they don't expect you to send them somber flower arrangements or cards expressing your sympathy.
And yet, they're widows nonetheless.
Though their spouses and partners haven't gone to the great beyond, these particular widows and widowers say their loved ones have gone someplace that's almost as distant and unreachable. Some have left this world for the "World of Warcraft," others have forsaken this life for "Second Life" and still others have been taken away by "EverQuest," "Final Fantasy XI" and "Dark Age of Camelot."
As the ranks of those playing video games in general — and massively multiplayer online games in particular — continue to grow, so grow the ranks of those who refer to themselves as "game widows."
They are the husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends of gamers whose playing habits have consumed their lives. The bereaved say their mates have suffered a kind of digital death that has left only the shell of the person they loved behind. And like a real death, it has left the people who remain heartbroken, scared and angry.
"I felt like I wasn't even married anymore," says Sherry Myrow, 29, of Toronto. Her husband had become obsessed with playing "WoW," a hugely popular online role-playing game that now boasts some nine million subscribers world-wide. "He wasn't eating or sleeping. He wasn't cooking — and he loves cooking. He became this person who wasn't interested in life if it didn't have to do with 'World of Warcraft'."
Angry, frustrated and feeling alone, Myrow started GamerWidow.com — a Web site for "gaming's other half" — in June of 2005 and quickly discovered just how not alone she was.
"By July I had 400 active members and by the end of the year I had one thousand members," she says.
These days, GamerWidow.com has some 2,000 members who gather in the forums to vent their frustrations and mourn their losses together. Meanwhile, Myrow isn't the only one who is, ironically enough, using the Internet as means of dealing with the devil it helped deliver into her home.
Jennifer Newberry sounds both discouraged and exhausted when she talks about her husband's addiction to "WoW," a game he has, at times, played up to 18 hours a day.
"Before he got into this game he had lots of other interests," she says. "He was into music and cars, he was active, outdoorsy, he used to hang out with friends. Now he's agoraphobic and won't go out of the basement."
Newberry joined the "WoW" Widows Support Group at Yahoo.com in October of 2005 so she could talk to other people who shared her plight. Back then there were 500 members. Two years later, Newberry has taken over as owner of the group that now includes more than 3,000 members.
"It wasn't like being in a relationship," Shelly Quintana says of life with her husband at the height of his gaming addiction, "it was like living with a zombie."
In March of 2006, Quintana, a New Jersey mother of three, started a Web site called GamingSucks.com and a comic strip called "Widow's Revenge" in response to her husband's obsession with the likes of "Ultima Online" and "WoW." At first, she did it as a way to tease the man she loved and missed. But then, "It just got crazy popular," she says.
Living with the dead
Certainly video game addiction has been a much-discussed topic in recent months. This summer, a Reno couple was arrested after they let their two children nearly starve to death while they played a role-playing video game. And in June, the American Medical Association considered a proposal to declare video game addiction a formal psychiatric disorder.
Much to many widows' dismay, the AMA decided against the official designation (at least for the time being), saying it needed further study.
Still, click through the pages of the widow support sites and you'll find plenty of terrible tales told by those living with players unable to control their habit. There's the woman whose husband left her in the hospital two hours after their baby was born so he could go home and play. There's the bed-ridden wife whose husband wouldn't take care of her because he was so busy gaming.
But it's the overwhelming number of relatively ordinary tales of loneliness and despair in the wake of a mate's compulsive gaming that make this phenomenon truly heartbreaking.
The posts in the GamerWidow.com forums frequently sound like this one:
He's sitting 2 computers away from me, playing WoW. 11 years together, 2 kids and now a $1,000 bill for marriage therapy that's not really working. I'm done, have been for awhile. It's not just WoW, before WoW it was Final Fantasy, and before that SOCOM….I've been the invisible woman in my home for over 3 years...and honestly I'm done. I deserve a man who wants to spend time with me not his stupid games.
Quintana knows the feeling. She recalls being halfway around the world, visiting family in New Zealand, when she called the husband she hadn't seen for weeks. But he wasn't exactly happy to hear from her.
"He said, 'I'll have to call you back I'm in the middle of a raid,' " she says, referring to the group events that take place within 'WoW.' "It was horribly painful."
And it's not just women widows out there. There are plenty of men who've lost their wives and girlfriends to gaming as well.
Writes one widower at GamerWidow.com: I'm a young dad with a little boy and baby girl and a wife who plays a whole lot of WoW…My wife plays during every free hour she has…When the baby wakes up during her afternoon nap, which is one of my wife's daily time-slots for WOW…she gets seriously pissed off.
"With these MMORPGs, they will swallow almost anybody," Myrow says, estimating that GamerWidow.com's membership is split 70 percent women and 30 percent men. "They're so user-friendly and so appealing to even a non-gamer that pretty much anyone can get sucked into them."
Humor to help the hurt
"I've just come to a point where I don't care anymore," Newberry says. "I just kind of live like a single person. It's a lost cause. I can't make him change. And there are no rehab centers to send him to. If there were rehab centers I could send him to, he'd be first in line to get in."
Dr. Hilarie Cash, a Redmond-based therapist and one of the few who specializes in Internet and computer addiction, believes that, in the future, gaming addiction will be declared an official mental disorder. She also believes that 12-step programs to help gameaholics kick their habits will be commonplace. Until then, she says widows have a particularly difficult battle.
"Right now video gaming is sexy and cool and it's the up and coming fun way to live life," she says. "So it is very hard to get people to see it for what it is as an addiction."
Meanwhile, with a dearth of support, the widows deal with their loved ones' addiction the best they can. Some try to nag their mates into quitting, some beg and plead. Some break game discs, install key loggers, or sabotage the computers all together.
Quintana draws comic strips.
She started drawing the "Widow's Revenge" strips and posting them to GamingSucks.com as a way to vent her frustrations and poke a bit of fun at gamers and their compulsive behavior.
In one cartoon, a "WoW" addict can't understand why the electric company won't take gold from the game as payment after the power to his home gets cut off. In another, a game widow gets all dressed up for date night with her husband only to find that his idea of a date night is playing a two-person video game together.
"Finding some humor in it has really helped," she says, explaining that her husband is playing less these days. "You get into a rut and you start nagging your spouse and that doesn't help the situation. Putting humor into it made it less painful for me so I was able to discuss it better with him."
Gamers don't get it
Of course, the gamers out there haven't been entirely understanding of the plight of the widows. Quintana has dedicated a section of GamingSucks.com to show the often vitriolic response her site has inspired.
Writes one: Instead of acting like a cranky old skank and bashing your husband's hobby why don't you pony up and buy your own PC and actually play it with him??
Writes another: Your man likes video games. Why the hell are you with him then? I'm sure the hobo in the dark alley way in the middle of the city doesn't play WoW; he's just your type!
"I think they all think we're nagging horrible luddites and that's not true," says Quintana, who was a web designer before becoming a stay-at-home mom. (Myrow has a degree in computer science and Newberry works as a programmer.) "We're just normal people who are begging for a little normality in our relationships."
The widows say that, even more frustrating, are the people who tell them that they should simply leave their gamers and move on. While it seems many a divorce has come from homes divided by gaming, many of the widows say it's not that simple.
"They say 'why don't you get a divorce' and 'why did you even marry a gamer?'" says Quintana. "But I didn't marry a gamer, I married a man. I married somebody I loved."