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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Fantasies inspire Chinese gamers
By Louisa Lim
BBC News, Beijing

An internet cafe in China
Many Chinese use internet cafes because they cannot afford PCs

Ancient warlords and dragons that breathe fireballs loom large in China's online fantasy games.

And the virtual world is sometimes taking precedence over the real one for the growing band of online gamers.

International firms are eyeing China's computer gaming industry because it offers huge prospects for growth.

But one unusual story which recently hit the headlines here possibly points to a worrying trend.

Harsh reality

It involved a 41-year-old man, Qiu Chengwei, who had become hooked on a popular online game called the Legend of Mir 3.

Mr Qiu had spent many hours amassing points to earn the right to use a cyber weapon called a Dragon Sabre.

But he had made the mistake of lending his precious weapon to another player, who promptly sold it for almost 900 real world US dollars.

Mr Qiu was so incensed he went to the police, but was told that the law doesn't protect virtual property.

He then went to the house of the man who sold his cyber weapon and stabbed him in the chest, killing him.

Mr Qiu has pleaded guilty to intentional injury but says he never meant to kill.

This cautionary tale shows just how seriously people are taking online games in China.

Something to do

For some, internet games are more important than virtually anything else. I know two thirty-something friends who decided their aim in life was to gain supremacy in one particular game, in this case a historical war game.

For more than a month, they took it in turns to play - one sleeping on a camp bed by the computer, while the other played.

For them, the reason was simple: boredom. One had been laid off and had nothing better to do. The other worked at a state-owned bank, so could catch up on his sleep at work.

Eventually, through their joint efforts, they amassed enough points to become nationwide champion, so they decided to stop.

That's the story they told me, though I suspect that their wives had something to do with it.

Gold rush

In Chinese country towns especially, there isn't a lot to do at night. But go into any internet cafe and you'll find rows of youngsters tapping away, oblivious to the outside world.

China's puritanical press has even labelled internet cafes "hotbeds of juvenile crime and depravity".

And this notion is reinforced by stories of internet-related deaths, like the unfortunate seller of the Dragon Sabre or two students who fell asleep on a railway track after an all-night session at an internet cafe.

Nonetheless, money is king in China. Online gaming is a massive market, and one that is increasing exponentially.

Last year China had almost 100 million internet users; one-fifth of them played online games.

In 2004, the online gaming industry was worth $600m. That may not sound like that much, but it represents growth of 60% over the year before.

A 31 year-old who set up an online gaming company just six years ago has been named China's second richest man, with an estimated fortune of more than $1bn.

Beijing wants to capture the market, and is setting up a college of internet gaming to train developers to come up with healthy games.

With hundreds of millions of potential gamers still lacking access to the internet in China, this could be the new gold rush.

And no one wants to be left out.


SEE ALSO:
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China 'ripe' for media explosion
13 Mar 05 |  Technology
China's tight rein on online growth
08 Mar 05 |  Technology
China's Shanda buys stake in Sina
21 Feb 05 |  Business


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