It seems that in America everyone wants to be somebody else. This desire underscores the comic superhero craze currently gripping the country, beauty ads on TV and paparazzi star hunts. So central to our culture is this self-loathing that satires like “Being John Malkovich” make it their central joke. Maxine’s glib catchphrase for the “Malkovich” portal summarizes our body-swapping desires best: “Be all that someone else can be.”

Enter Massive Multiplayer Online games, computer-based worlds for which more than two million American subscribers currently pay a monthly subscription fee to inhabit the body of a customized digital hero. Through these alter egos they can interact in real time with the game’s numerous villains, monsters and (most importantly) other gamers. While there are many different games that make up this fledgling genre, one has far surpassed the rest, courting the mainstream.

Since its debut in late 2004, World of Warcraft has garnered more than four million subscribers worldwide, with more than a million in the United States. While WoW, as it is dubbed by its players, is classified as a game, the truth is far more complicated. Set in a medieval fantasy world complete with two continents, boats to travel between them, auction houses, merchants, a postal service, a currency subject to inflation and dozens of professions and racial classes, the game delivers the most sophisticated virtual environment to date. Add to that seamless interaction — players can work together on quests, sell each other items and engage in instant-message conversations — and WoW creates a genuine parallel universe.

In this online world where a battle is won with a mouse click rather than any actual skills, a very different sort of hero prevails. In my seven months of playing WoW, I have been able to interview several of the most respected and friendly players, the ones that can be counted on to help any other player in need. These players exhibit numerous virtues from generosity to loyalty, and in the game world, they have dozens of friends. Yet not all of these heroes are successful in real life.

Take James. Frequently on the game at 3 a.m., James is known for spending most of his time helping other players get ahead, even when there is nothing to gain for himself. He can always be counted on to give away armor to those in need, to soothe conflicts and to tell a good joke. Yet, in reality, he is 23, has a child and girlfriend (both of whom he neglects) and is jobless. One session, he came online panicked because his son had to be hospitalized after he burned his face while James was busy playing. Another time his girlfriend entered the game to complain: “This game isn’t real you know. Don’t end up like James, go get a real life!” His generosity and caring, it seems, do not continue once the computer has been shut off.

Some players abandon the real world entirely. Sam comes across as extremely intelligent and said he loves to help other players “enjoy the game even more,” giving away virtual money that took him weeks to earn. Unlike James, who stops gaming early in the morning, Sam is online pretty much 24/7. Seemingly the ideal player, it turns out that he is a clinically depressed 17-year-old who dropped out of high school and now has so little energy he has not left his house in six months. WoW gives him a chance to live in the world without really living in it; his only remaining friends are now virtual.

For people like James and Sam, WoW has become far more than a game. It gives them a chance to escape from the problems and responsibilities of real life. But while it is easy to condemn similarly addictive escapes like gambling and drugs, online gaming seems slightly more beneficial. Since the virtual world is populated by real people and teamwork is required to get anything done, interaction is a necessity. Far from being socially alienated, players have to work together and understand each other.

In addition, the cultural emphasis on appearance is negated, giving less-attractive people a chance to shine based on personality alone. I never would have met either James or Sam in real life; I would have passed by them without a glance. WoW gives people who may be unattractive, overweight, psychologically disturbed or asocial a chance to show off their inner worth and be treated as equal members of its society. In the game world everyone has an equal chance — WoW radically levels the masses.

Although these advantages make it an appealing antidote to life’s harsh reality, without any real world responsibilities or hardships the game remains merely a fantasy — staying too long ultimately feels hollow. WoW may be a fun place to play, but it is no place to call home.