Last spring I took the measure of my life, and decided that my favorite video game, World of Warcraft, had to go.

I was 30, and by most objective standards, was doing pretty well. I lived in an old building in majestic Harlem, with a lovely son and partner, and made a show of wearing a suit and fedora to a job that merely requested jeans and a collar. I had a joint bank account and dental insurance. Yet, on any given day, if you'd asked me about my greatest accomplishment, it invariably began with my second life - the one in which I was a seven-foot blue elf whose hobbies included firing crossbows, trapping wild boars and reenacting the video for Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." In May I quit because I didn't want any illusions about which of my two lives were more important.

Like most of my generation, I was raised on video games. Like most of my generation, I assumed that this obsession would pass at the proper time-say when I turned 30. But like most of my generation, I was wrong. Our assumptions were based on the idea that video games would never grow up.

But no genre has worked harder to disprove that maxim than MMOGs-Massively Multiplayer Online Games. Unlike with normal video games, where you interact with just a computer, MMOGs allow millions of people to play with each other in sprawling online virtual worlds. Most MMOGs target people like me who, as kids, took 20-sided dice and J.R.R.Tolkien a little too seriously, and none do it better than World of Warcraft. At last count there were 8 million people journeying through its fantasy world known as Azeroth. On Tuesday that number will increase, when the game's creator, Blizzard Entertainment, releases its sequel to WoW, The Burning Crusade, a game that will likely smash all previous records for games made for the PC.

All those trips to Azeroth add up to a lot of money. WoW subsists on a monthly subscription fee of $14.95, which means Blizzard rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars monthly. Their clientele are mostly young men like myself - the same young men who've been giving studio executives headaches as we abandon the box office and TV.

It doesn't take much to see why. This summer I could have paid 10 bucks to watch Superman Returns for three hours. Or I could have paid 15 bucks to be Superman whenever I wanted. It isn't just the thrill of playing dress-up either; Superman Returns is static, always saddled with the same ending. But WoW, like the real world, changes with every choice I make. Fighting with two swords instead of one gives me a better shot at beating down an opposing mage, while spending hours wending through a haunted manse might win me a coveted staff. Also, unlike with old media, my choices affect people around me. I can form guilds, essentially virtual clubhouses, band together to quest for rare breastplate, recite the assorted lore of Vin Diesel or Chuck Norris, or simply hang out in front of the local inn doing the electric slide.

WoW wasn't the first MMOG I'd ever played, but it is the best. The interface is clean and easy to master. The world feels mammoth and its geography runs the gamut from painted deserts and sprawling savannahs to snow-covered mountains and swamps teeming with gators and fish men. Despite its size, players easily navigate the world via roads, ships, zeppelins, giant bats and mythological creatures like hippogriffs. Players in Azeroth choose to be members of races like humans, orcs, trolls or night elves, and then pledge allegiance to one of two factions. But unlike in other fantasy games, neither side is wholly good or evil, and both factions are under siege from a plague that turns its victims into mindless undead.

Its biggest draw, without a doubt, is its human factor, and WoW's fans have quickly shaped Azeroth into a second Earth. Players hunt for gold, and epic items, then put them up for sale on eBay, thus turning a hobby into a livelihood. They have cyber-sex, date, and get married. They hang out with old friends who may live hundreds of miles away.

I'd started playing MMOGs six years ago, shortly after my son was born. The kid was great from the moment he popped out. My lady and I were not. She was hospitalized with pregnancy-related heart problems. I was fired by a small alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia. In those days, we lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Delaware. Paychecks floated into our mailbox randomly. We ate take-out more then we cooked. Our rent was habitually late. We spent many hours home together with a new son, and when we weren't looking, the walls closed in on us.

It was at that point that I retreated to my old haven of video games and purchased Everquest, the forerunner to WoW. The dude at the counter rang me up and laughed as he said "Picking up Evercrack, I see." I didn't fully get the joke until two years later. By then I was playing the game 16 hours a day. I'd gained 30 pounds. I didn't have a job. The end came one weekend when I played a marathon session, which I only interrupted for trips to Dunkin' Donuts. I quit, lost the weight, and put my life back in order. But when WoW premiered in 2004, it promised to be the MMOG that allowed you to have a life. The game even gives bonuses to players who don't log in for periods of time. Its loading screen features quotes like, "Moderation in all things, even World of Warcraft."

I played two characters - a hunter named Longaxe, and a shadow priest named Salaam. When I brought Longaxe, from his meager starting zone in the quiet forest of Tendrassil to the capital city of Stormwind, I felt like I had actually gone from Wisconsin to New York. The people were of all races, from gnomes to dwarves to regular old humans. Vendors sold cheeses, meats, cloaks and hats. Monks would train you in the art of swords. Giant griffins ferried you to smaller far-flung towns. WoW's art style is cartoonish, and each of its many worlds more fantastical than the last, so it always amazed me that, on an emotional level, I believed it.

But there was something else about it, something I really didn't want to admit. I asked Paul Sams, the Blizzard COO, why people played WoW and his answer was simple, if a bit depressing: "How often in your everyday world do you get to feel heroic?" he said. "How often do you get to step into a world and do something big and meaningful? People need an escape from ordinary life. It's just something people need."

What's implicit in that, however, is a sense of defeat, an admission that for the denizens of Azeroth, our normal lives just aren't good enough. This is why most adults who play WoW are ashamed, and, on a scale of morals, rate their hobby only slightly above porn. We ourselves razz those who are ultra-accomplished in WoW, asserting that they are either kids with no responsibilities, or more likely, dudes who can't get laid. This unspoken envy only conceals a potentially darker truth-that we've all come to accept that WoW is fundamentally better than our real lives.

That conclusion, of course, can have unfortunate consequences for people in our real lives. Shelly Quintana, a 30-year-old New Jersey housewife and mother of three, is one such person, but she isn't taking it lying down. A native of New Zealand, Quintana has been married for 10 years, but she says her husband has spent much of their marriage cruising through games like WoW. "He's excellent with the kids, but our relationship is nonexistent," says Quintana. "I'm completely torn - he provides for us, and he works really long hours. But at the same time I believe he owes me some companionship."

Quintana enlisted the Internet, of all things, to strike back. She started the website, which features a blog that chronicles the travails of "gamer widows," women whose husbands are more interested in building up their character in-game than building relationships with their wives. Quintana's site simmers with sexual tension; a comic strip that she draws tells married gamers to cut off the PC and "push some real buttons."

Most of the attacks on MMOGs sounded familiar to me - in the '80s when I played Dungeons & Dragons, it was taken as practically gospel that the game was the devil's work. But while I knew, even as a kid, that those claims were stupid, I wasn't so sure about WoW. I believed that there was something wrong about how easy excitement came in WoW.

And indeed, the summer after I abandoned WoW, I learned much more subtle pleasures. I took a basic Spanish class. I purchased a book on drawing. I woke up at 5 a.m. and ran through Central Park. But still, I felt like I had left something behind, something old and essential, that went back long before I started playing WoW.

I was born into a big family with four brothers, and it is no stretch to say many of my great memories are virtual. We were all very different, some of us bookish, some of us athletic. When I was seven, my father brought home a used Commodore 64, and it almost immediately became a bonding point for my brothers and me. Our contests were no longer as simple as who had the best natural jump-shot, or an innate feel for chess; video games featured all sorts of contests, and thus became a lingua franca for us all.

But while some of my fondest memories are based around video games, it's the people involved that I remember the most. Even with WoW, my best times were spent playing with my younger brother. We lived five hours apart, and saw each other only a few times a year. But when we were online, it was almost as if we were sitting in the same bar, presiding over the same pitcher.

What I came to understand was that WoW was not necessarily an escape, but a surrogate for a community that is harder and harder to find in the real world. I lived further from my parents and siblings than my parents had. I wasn't raised in the church. In my 20s, I built a shocking amount of community around illicit substances and bars. But with age and a child, that was no longer as attractive or even possible. Into that void, I brought WoW, which instantly connected me with the world-not just mine, but others I could never have imagined or found on my own.

It may not shock you to learn that by September of last year, I had returned to WoW. I missed the orcs, the swords and the small hamlets of make-believe. But more than that, I missed my guild, Gnomeland Security, a loose cross-section of military guys, history majors, high school students, writers and singers. They were the place where everyone knew my name-even if they didn't.

Of course, even as I write this, I'm not completely convinced. The anonymity of the Internet and digital worlds allows for amazing incivility. And in mid-November I watched one of the most devious acts I've ever seen in a MMOG. A guild decided to hold an online memorial service for a player who'd died in real life. In a macabre but heart-felt gesture, the player's character was accessed and brought out to a lake in an area known as Winterspring. A rival guild caught word of the event and ambushed the other players, killing the deceased person's character first and then killing everyone else in the guild. The rival guild then posted a video of the entire event online.

I suppose these are just the same kind of problems we deal with in the so-called real world-certainly I see my share of the same walking down any street in New York.

But even getting past that, I still have one problem of my own, one that I still haven't solved. My son is six now, and no longer willing to accept my proclamations unquestioningly. On Saturday evening, he is liable to wander into the room, stare at the screen for a few seconds and then ask questions - Who is that? Where are you going? Did you win? - that I am too afraid to answer. I still can't shake the old taboos, and part of me wants desperately to impute them on my son. I am clear on what's being recreated on this second earth. But in age of climate change and war, I afraid I might be teaching him to abandon the first.