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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 April 2006, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
China wrestles with online gamers
Richard Taylor
By Richard Taylor
Click editor

Skyline of Shanghai
China is presenting a brave new image to the Western world
The public face of modern, metropolitan China is all gleaming towers and conspicuous consumption.

But behind the facade of the new China lies a less glamorous underbelly, a world inhabited largely by the next generation.

Internet cafes do not often look up to much but, for the country's 30 million online gamers, they offer a means of escape to worlds far, far beyond.

The hugely popular World of Warcraft is typical of role-playing fantasy games. Hundreds of players can be pitted against each other at any one time, using their in-game characters to battle it out for status and riches in this virtual universe.

However, the real fortunes are made elsewhere, by the games providers themselves. Last year alone, Chinese players paid out $500m (280m) in subscriptions for this part-time escapism.

Online addicts

The government wants a piece of the action too, recently announcing it will invest almost $2bn (1.14bn) developing the industry.

Gaming analyst Jim Sun says: "They try to encourage the local games companies to improve their in-house game development capability, so in future they can export more and import less."

But there is a social price to be paid. Players often spend hour upon hour in front of PC monitors, not even taking a breather for life's most basic necessities.

Some even end up at Beijing's internet addiction centre. It opened its doors last year to players who are prepared to slay their own demons and take up healthier living.

To the Chinese authorities, the mere existence of the centre is symptomatic of the dangers the internet can present.

Keeping control

So the same government actively encouraging home-grown gaming is, somewhat schizophrenically, drawing the conclusion that the online gamers themselves should be regulated.

Gamer, eating
No time to eat, too busy gaming
Since the end of last year they have taken aim at the hardcore players, issuing directives to make sure the games have technical blocks hindering excessive game play.

Under the new system, your online character becomes less and less effective. After three hours, the number of in-game "experience points" for, say, killing an opponent are reduced by half.

After five hours you do not get any at all. It is called the fatigue system.

One government official told Click the new directive has won the support of both players and parents.

Kou Xiao Wei, from the Chinese Internet Agency, said: "This regulation strikes a good balance between the interests of the games developers on the one hand, and the need to foster a healthy game-playing environment on the other.

"I think in the long run people will come to realise the importance of this new directive."

This may happen in time, perhaps. But for now the regulations are proving easy to skirt.

Internet addiction centre
Some gamers end up at Beijing's internet addiction centre
One cafe owner said they are not a problem because players can simply swap to other games, or play the same game under a different account.

But this is not a battle the government is prepared to lose. With immense resources at its disposal it is set to tighten its white knuckle grip even further.

From June it will test an authentication system. Players will be able to use only one gaming account, which will be tied to their real-world identity cards and matched against a government database.

Benefits of gaming

Games makers like Kingsoft have little choice but to comply with the government on these new directives.

Their developers are spending time and money rewriting the code to accommodate the restrictions.

Asian countries need to criticise and really review our education system
Bruce Ren, Kingsoft
But they believe online gaming is being given a bad name by the excesses of the few and that, far from being regulated on the basis that it is unhealthy, it should be actively encouraged.

Kingsoft's Bruce Ren says: "A game is not a completely negative thing, because in our human development, when we were children we were always addicted to something, which is actually very helpful.

"Just simply by moving your fingers very quickly when you were a child helped your brain grow. Actually Asian countries need to criticise and really review our education system."

Though that is not likely to happen soon, this is a phenomenon slowly seeping its way into the mainstream.

While the Chinese authorities are intent on regulating online gaming, they are at the same time helping to unleash a monster.

The real question is whether they can tame it.

China imposes online gaming curbs
25 Aug 05 |  Technology
Tapping into China's online gamers
25 Jun 05 |  Technology
'My life as an online gamer'
31 Aug 05 |  Technology
Treating China's online addicts
10 Oct 05 |  Asia-Pacific
The great firewall of China
06 Jan 06 |  Click



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