INTERNET GAMING, CAFES, ADDICTS AND GOLD FARMERS IN CHINA

INTERNET GAMING IN CHINA

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Internet cafe in Lijiang
Online gaming is a very fast-growing industry in China. Revenues from online gaming in China reached $1.54 billion in 2007, and increase of 61.5 percent from the previous year. Revenues are expected to reach $5 billion by 2012. About 70 percent of the players have an average monthly salary of around $300 month but many are students with no income.

In mid 2008, thee were about 120 million online gamers in China and they played an average of 7.3 hours a week. Liu Bui, an analyst at the research firm BDA China, told the China Daily, “Online games are so successful in China because other alternatives such as PC games, console games or even sports...are limited in the country, especially in remote areas...The introverted side of the traditional Chinese culture also means many people find it easier to make friends in the virtual rather than in the real world.”

In 2004, when the game Legend of MIR was very popular, an estimated 13.4 million gamers spent $240 million on online gaming. Revenues are expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2008. One gamer who plays a lot of Internet games but said he preferred playing real sports like basketball told AFP, “China has too large a population and too limited space for entertainment, that’s why computer games are so popular.”

At any given moment more 2 million Chinese are gaming online. The addictive multiplayer Internet game EverQuest is very popular. Sony has marketed the game very heavily in China. Software and electronic companies like Internet games because they are more difficult to pirate than CD-ROMS.

China’s one-child policy has been seen as a force for expansion of the gaming industry. Children with no brothers or sisters to play with have turned to Internet and computer games to amuse themselves. One 23-year-old sales executive told Reuters, “Games are my main form of entertainment and a great way to meet people...Some of my friends play 18 hours a day. They never leave the computer and get their meals delivered.”

Popular Internet Games in China

World of Warcraft was among the most popular online games in the mid 2000s. It is a game of wizards, elves, dragons and other fantasy characters inhabiting a mythical land called Azeroth. Players battle monsters and other warriors, earning points with each kill. The game was created by California-based Vlizzard Entertainment, which earns close tp $1 billion a year from the game. Points earned by players are virtual money which the players can use to purchase powerful weapons and advance to higher levels of the game.

After the Chinese version of World of Warcraft was launched new subscribers were signed up at a rate of 1.5 million a month. Coca-Cola is very involved in marketing the game, sponsoring carnivals in which gamers can play some real-life versions of the games. One two-day carnival in Shanghai was attended by 20,000 kids.

An online game called Incorruptible Fighter---in which players can torture and kill corrupt officials---has proven to be very popular in China. The game was established by China authorities in Zhejain Province to teach ordinary people about dangers of corruption. Player advance and ultimately reach a corruption-free paradise by killing officials and their children with “weapons, magic or torture” based on well-known incidents from Chinese history. One player told AFP, “I feel a great sense of achievement when I punish lots of evil officials.”

The Swedish company MindAtk has created a virtual world specifically for the Chinese that will be ready in 2008. It is hoped that the game will generate $1 billion a year in economic activity

A popular online game in the late 2000s was Parking Wars, a game in which players have a certain number of parking spaces to park their vehicles. If they find another player parking illegally they can give them a ticket which earns them virtual points which they can use to buy more vehicles which they have to park.

Some of the new games developed by Chinese companies have an anti-Japanese theme. The Chinese company Loyu.com created a game called 9-18, Anti-Japanese Frenzy in which players can change the outcome of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident that triggered the Japanese occupation of China in 1931.

Online Game Companies in China

Shanda Interactive Games and Net Ease.com are leaders in online gaming in China. Half of NetEases’ incomes comes from online gaming. Both companies are listed on Chinese stock markets and privately held. Internet gaming is particularly profitable for South Korean gaming companies that control about 80 percent of the market. The make games like Legend of MIR, Actoz Soft and NH.

Shanda Interactive is the largest online game company in China. Gaming companies Perfect World, Kings of Interactive Giant and Netdragon are listed on domestic and foreign stock exchanges. Kimsoft is one of China’s oldest software companies. Founded in 1988, it struggled for a long time selling office software. In 2005, it switched its focus to making online games and quickly began making nice profits. By 2008, online gaming accounted for 70 percent of the company’s revenues.

Peng Haitao, a 24-year-old college dropout, sold Aurora Shanda Technology, which he founded in 2005, to Shanda Interactive for $14.63 million in 2008.

Kaixin is a popular site that combines online games with networking services similar to Facebook or MySpace. It is more popular than Facebook and MySpace in China and has been able to win many users using an “invitation virus” that sends out e-mails to everyone on the user’s MSN contact list.

Gold Farmers in China

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Internet cafe in Khotan
“Gold farmers” are paid employees who play Internet games like World of Warcraft, Lineage and Magic Land for long stretches of time to earn points that are sold for real money to players of these games so they can buy virtual goods such as magic spells, amulets and swords that allow them to play the games at higher levels. One 23-year-old gold farmer told the New York Times: “For 12 hours a day, seven days a week, me and my colleagues are killing monsters. I make about $250 a month, which is pretty god compared to the other jobs I’ve had, And I can play games all day.”[Source: David Barboza, New York Times December 9, 2005]

One gold farming factory in Fuzhou visited by the New York Times consisted of a series of large dark rooms with about 70 players playing quietly and a few sleeping at their keyboards. The owner of the factory, which mostly employs males between the ages 18 to 25, said, “We recruit through newspaper ads.” The workers “all know how to play online games, but they’re not willing to do hard labor.” In another factory visited by journalists, players sat behind 40 computers, all playing the same game, with dormitory rooms and bunk bunks on the second floor.

According to figures from the China Internet Centre, nearly $1.7 billion of make- believe currencies were traded in China in 2008 and the number of gamers who play to earn and trade credits are on the rise. It is estimated that 80 percent of all gold farmers are in China and with the largest internet population in the world there are thought to be 100,000 full-time gold farmers in the country. [The Guardian]

There are an estimated 400,000 gold farmers out there, mostly in China and other east Asian nations such as Vietnam. According to researchers at Manchester University gold farming was a $711 million a year business in 2008. The Internet is filled with advertisements from small companies auctioning off weapons and products. Shanghai-based 5173.com which specializes in gold farming transactions has over 3 million registered users. In China there are hundreds---maybe thousands---of online gaming factories, maybe employing as many as 100,000 full time paid gamers, and possibly a million part timers. Many operate with a few computers in abandoned warehouses or internet cafes.

Customers can pay a company like 5173.com $450 to advance from Level 1 to Level 70, the highest in World of Warcraft or can hire a gold farmer directly, a practice called power leveling, to advance them to higher levels. Some game owners accuse gold farming businesses as being illegal. Virtual factories tend to operate quietly to avoid paying taxes.

There are an estimated 4 million gold farmer customers, mostly in Europe, North America and Japan. Typical customer include gamers who love the games but because of jobs and family don’t have the time to earn “virtual gold.” They might send $44 for a World of War horse or $71 for 5,000 gold pieces that can be used to buy a variety of weapons and accessories.

Chinese Gold Farmers at Work

Describing a gold farmer playing World of Warcraft, Julian Dibbell wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “It was an hour before midnight three hours into the night shift with nine more to go. At his workstation in a small fluorescent-lighted office space in Nanjing, China Li Qiwen sat shirtless and chain-smoking, gazing purposely at the online computer game in front of him. The screen showed a lightly wooded mountain terrain, studded with castle ruins and grazing deer, in which warrior monks milled about. Li, or rather his staff-wielding wizard character, had been slaying the enemy monks since 8:00pm, mouse-clicking on one corpse after another, each time gathering a few dozen virtual coins---and maybe a magic weapon or two---into an increasingly-laden backpack.”

Ge Jin, a PhD student at the University of California who has filmed gold farmers, told the Times of London, “Their virtual lives give them access to power, status and wealth which they can hardly imagine in real life.”

On a good day a gold farmer can earn $25. Li gets paid about $1.25 for every 100 gold coins he earns, which works out to about 30 cents an hour. His employers sells the 100 gold coins to a retailer for $3 and they in turn sell them to customers for as much as $20. A typical gold farming business with 10 employees earns about $80,000 a year.

Some “virtual sweatshops” provide employees with room and board, and all the cigarettes they can smoke. Many of the players are migrant workers. Few are over 30. Those that are over that age often burn out. Younger ones often go to Internet cafes when they are not working to relax. Some live in the same building where the work and rarely set foot outside or see the sun. One Chinese town has so many gold farmers it has been nicknamed “Heaven of Legend” after the online game Legend of Mir.

Serious gamers don’t like the virtual factories because they feel they cheapen the value of the virtual product and allow players to advance not on skill but by simply paying money. These gamers often go online and attack the gold farmers while they are playing and run blogs with names like “Chinese Farmer Extermination” and “Chinese Gold Farmers Must Die” that list the names of the gold farmers and runs messages with anti-Chinese and racist overtones. One gold farmer who is often attacked online told the Times of London, “They treat me bad...They keep calling me farmer, China, dog and such. They non-stop racist me.”

American gamers say they can easily spot the gold farmers because they have no weapons or armor, having sold them all. Most of those that oppose the gold farmers don’t have jobs and have the time to do the repetitive tasks required to get to high levels.

Gold Farmers and Gaming Companies

The games are known as massive multiple player online games (MMOGs). World of Warcrafts is the largest MMOG with 10 million players, The real dollars spent playing the game EverQuest would make it the world’s 77th richest nation. Other popular games include Star Wars Galaxies, Second Life and Age of Conan .

World of Warcraft has decided that gold farmers compromise the integrity of the game. Accounts that looks as if they are engaged in commercial activity are shut down. When that happens a gold farmer losses his $45 registration fee. Some players that have been shut down on a U.S. account switched to a German one, where scrutiny is less severe.

Regulating Gold Farming

Danny Vincent wrote in The Guardian: “The trading of virtual currencies in multiplayer games has become so rampant in China that it is increasingly difficult to regulate. In April, the Sichuan provincial government in central China launched a court case against a gamer who stole credits online worth about 3000rmb. The lack of regulations has meant that even prisoners can be exploited in this virtual world for profit. [Source: Danny Vincent, The Guardian, May 25, 2011]

In 2009 the central government issued a directive defining how fictional currencies could be traded, making it illegal for businesses without licences to trade. "China is the factory of virtual goods," said Jin Ge, a researcher from the University of California San Diego who has been documenting the gold farming phenomenon in China. "You would see some exploitation where employers would make workers play 12 hours a day. They would have no rest through the year. These are not just problems for this industry but they are general social problems. The pay is better than what they would get for working in a factory. It's very different," said Jin. [Ibid]

National Stereotypes in Fantasy World Online Games

"I don't think China should keep helping North Korea," my friend boldly declared the other day, "You can't trust Koreans." "Why?" I asked. "Simple," he said, "I was playing online with three North Koreans on the same team as me the other day, and they only talked among themselves and kept leaving me to die." [Source: Joseph Yang, Global Times May 10, 2011]

Joseph Yang, a programmer now working for a gaming company in China, wrote in the Global Times, “My friend's extension of online games to international politics might be absurd, but virtual worlds are starting to play powerful role in how people see each other. This is especially the case in Asia, where online games eat up the attention of millions of young people. When I was at university four years ago, it was normal for me and my friends to spend the entire weekend in Internet cafes. Some of us even fell asleep there.

It may sound weird, but the legions of Chinese in online games have an effect on how the world perceives us. Think about physical sports. The Italian reputation for being cheats and sneaks may be undeserved, but it persists in part because of the dirty way Italian soccer teams play. Equally, the Brazilian reputation for style and grace comes about, in part, because of their dedication to playing a beautiful game.

Sportsmanship matters, and, while online games aren't watched by millions of people, they are played by millions of people. For small-town Americans or isolated countryside Chinese, they're often the first real contact they have with foreigners. And reputation matters there. For instance, as my friend discovered, Koreans are known for being obsessive and clannish online gamers. I first realized this when I went to the U.S. I wanted to keep playing my own favorite game, World of Warcraft, while I was there.

Prejudice Against Chinese in Fantasy World Online Games Because of Their Links with Gold Farmers

Yang wrote: “World of Warcraft is the most popular online game in the world and has numerous servers in different parts of the real world, which are also, to some extent, separate virtual worlds. But I found that logging onto the Chinese servers that I was used to playing on was too slow and difficult, so I created new characters on a U.S. server.

Much to my surprise, however, I found other players on the servers hostile and unwelcoming. They often ignored my attempts to trade or form groups with them. It was a kind orc, controlled by a housewife from Connecticut, who pointed the problem out to me: I had a distinctively Chinese user name.

I wasn't being rejected because of real-world racism, though. Instead, the problem was that at the time World of Warcraft was overrun by gold farmers, young Chinese men who would work for companies online to earn gold, the game's fictional currency, and then attempt to sell it to Americans for real-world money. In a weird echo of real life, lazy Americans would often pay to have Chinese do the boring "grind" of building up gold in the game for them, so that they could be more powerful.

But ordinary players were sick and tired of being constantly spammed by messages from Chinese gold farmers, so they automatically ignored me. I even got killed a couple of times for no reason other than being mistaken for a gold farmer. When I created a new account with a generic fantasy name, I found no problems in making friends online and joining guilds.

These stereotypes cut both ways. I have friends who are convinced that every American is a racist, sexist homophobe because of the frequency with which they hear racial and homophobic slurs when playing with Americans. After all, many players are teenage boys, and they often take advantage of online anonymity to be idiots. There's little that can be done about this other than encouraging people to remember that, while they may be effectively anonymous, they're still affecting the name of their country. So whether I'm playing an elf, a general, or a futuristic killing machine, I try to be civil, friendly, and spread a good image of China.

Internet Addicts in China

Internet addicts are called "web worms" in China. Regarded as embarrassment to parents and teachers, they generally prefer to spend long hours playing Internet games to socializing. Some students fail their classes and have to repeat grades in school because they skip school and go to Internet cafes. Some become so addicted to the Internet and so negligent of their other duties, their parents think they are on drugs. Others raid their parent’s wallets and sell their bicycles to get money for the Internet cafes.

Internet addiction reportedly affects 10 percent of China‘s 338 million Internet users. The U.S. Center for Internet Addiction Recovery describes the condition as compulsive behavior in which “the Internet becomes the organizing principal of addicts’ lives.”

There are a number of cases of youths who drop out or are kicked of school, stop communicating with their families and spend all their times in their rooms playing computer or online games or surfing the net. Between September 2005 and July 2006, two thirds of the 90 students who dropped out of at Zhejiang University left because of Internet addiction.

One Internet addict told AFP he spent three days and nights playing online games, uninterrupted by meals or sleep. He said, “I had no sense of achievement from anything I did in the physical world.” Some addicts reportedly experience physical reaction when they are denied games similar to those experienced by drug addicts and alcoholics going through cold turkey.

After deciding to send her 12-year-old son for treatment a 45-year-old accountant told Time, “Things have absolutely gone out of control. My son just beat and bit me gain this morning after I wouldn’t let him touch the computer.” Some of the parents of addicts come from Peking University, Tsinghua and other top Chinese universities.

A counselor at an Internet addict clinic told AFP, “Some kids live in another world. They assume the role of kings and wizards .To use a Western expression, their soul has left for the other side,..The violence and sex of the games is likely to have a very deep influence on them. And its having this impact during the years that the personality is formed. Close to 40 percent of the kids here display violent behavior. They may start fighting over trifles.”

By some estimates there are 2.5 million Internet addicts in China. Most are male and young. Studies suggest 14 percent of teens are vulnerable to the condition. The Communist Youth League has called it “a grave social problem” that threatens the nation. According to one study 33.5 percent of the juvenile delinquency cases in the Beijing area---including rape and robbery---are linked with the excessive playing of online games. There is a debate in the psychology community worldwide as to whether Internet addiction should be considered a mental disorder.

Extreme Internet Addicts and Combating Internet Addiction

There have been a number of horror stores about Internet addiction. One middle school student played games so much he thought he had become abducted by aliens and had to be sent to a mental hospital. A high school boy who was confronted by his father over repeat visits a the local Internet café leaped to his death from a seventh floor window.

In 2004, a video game addict in Chengdu dropped dead from stress and exhaustion after playing Legend of Mir II for 20 hours straight in an Internet café. In Chongqing two highs school students were killed when they fell asleep on some train tracks after being online for two days straight. Beijing responded to these incidents by shutting down 16,000 Internet cafes.

Commenting on the death of a 26-year-old, 150-kilogram man, who collapsed after a gaming session that lasted for nearly seven days, a teacher was quoted as saying, “There are only two options: TV or computer. What else can I do in the holiday, as all the markets...and cafeterias are shut down?” [Source: Newsweek]

In June 2007, a teenager, described only by his surname Wang in the press, killed his mother and severally injured his father with kitchen knife after they refused to give the boy money to go to an Internet café. According to the Beijing Youth Daily, “After he got home Wang hacked at [his parents], causing serious injury. Seeing what he had done, Wang went to his room and sat on his bed.”: There was also a case of murder over virtual property and a series of suicides involving young people who played games online rather than doing their studies.

China’s Information Industry Ministry monitors the gaming industry. To prevent children from becoming addicted to the Internet the government it has passed rules banning youths from Internet cafes and developed technology that kick teens off networked games after certain period of time. There are periodic discussions of clamping down on addictive games with violent content. In December 2005 fifty types of computer software games were banned. Internet cafes are sometimes raided.

Internet Addiction Camps in China

Internet addicts are treated at the Juvenile Psychological Growth Base, an army-run clinic in southeastern Beijing suburb of Daxing. Opened in 2004 by a military researcher who developed his methods from treating heroin addicts, it treats between 20 and 280 patients at a time, nearly all of whom have been placed involuntarily in the clinic by their parents. The cost for a month-long session is about $1,300.

The Juvenile Psychological Growth Base in Daxing can treat about 100 patients at a time. The patients dressed in a military camouflage T-shirts shout Communist slogans like “Unity is strength, our spirit is stronger than steel” before marching off to lunch. The clinic had treated 1,500 people between the age of 14 and 36 as of 2007and claims a 70 percent success rate. About 50 percent of the patients are high school age, 30 percent are middle school age and most of the rest are university students. [Source: Time of London]

Usually about 60 Internet addiction patients are treated at one time. After being admitted to the clinic patients are given a diagnostic test to determine their level of addiction and are treated with a combination of therapy, medication, acupuncture and physical activities. During the first 10 days the patients stay in rooms whose barred windows and doors are locked. They can not contact friends back home. One 17-year-old patient told AFP. “Some of the patients go nuts when they realize they can’t leave, They scream and shout that they want to get out." Later during their stay the patients are let out of the facility to run short errands. Kids that run away and go to an Internet café are put in rooms with nothing but a desk and a bed and book and told to write about their feeling on why they ran away.

The patient’s day begins at 6:30am when they are woken by a man in military fatigues who shouts at them: “This is for your own good!” In the morning they are lead through exercises by a soldier. In the afternoon they participate in therapy session, in which family members are encouraged to attend. One of the doctors told the Times of London that their addiction is the result of personal and family problems---often related to being a spoiled single child---and not something inherently bad about the Internet. The patients also engage in sports such as swimming or basketball, do household chores, and play with toy guns and other real with aim of generating interest in the real world.

Some Internet addicts are treated with “nanometer wave machines”---devices that look a little like an old-style beauty salon hair dryer and is placed completely over the head. Others are hooked up to a machine that administers 30 volt electric shocks to acupuncture pressure points on the body. One official at the clinic told AFP, “Not everyone has to do this, but we suggest it for patients who have serious problems with sleep. We apply this three to five times a day over a 10-day period and the results are usually very good.”

Hypnosis, antidepressants, anti-psychotics and other drugs are also used. There are special rooms for severely addicted patients---ones have been addicted for four years or more---and are severely depressed and even suicidal. These patients are often given drugs and shock treatments. Some psychologists are critical of these approaches and say the one thing that help Internet addicts more than anything else is developing a social life.

Problems at Internet Addict Camps

About 400 improperly licensed Internet addiction facilities have sprung up to cash in the problem. Some of the been accused of being staffed by poorly trained individuals who sometimes use violent and brutal methods.

In August 2009, a 15-year-old boy died at Internet addict camp in southern Guangxi Province. He as reportedly beaten by one his teachers and had been at the camp for less than a day. Afterwards the camp was closed; thirteen people at the camp were detained; and the parents of the boy received a payment of 1 million yuan ($146,000) from a local education bureau.

Around the same time a 14-year-old boy died of acute renal failure after being beaten at a camp in central China. His family received 350,000. Afterwards boy’s parents told the Times of London, “The money will not ease the agony of losing our son. We can only hope this tragedy will ring an alarm for parents and the government to avoid such incidents.” A third teenager spent some time in the hospital recovering from kidney failure caused by a severe beating.

Internet Cafes in China

Internet cafes are known as wang ba (“net bar”) in Chinese. They are very popular, with users often hanging around for hours and hours. A personal computer and home Internet hook up are expensive in China and beyond the reach of most people. Internet cafes are the only way these people can gain access to the net. Many Internet cafes offer broadband service which is very quick. Most are open 24 hours a day and charge as little as 10 cents an hour.

There are more than about 200,000 Internet cafes nationwide---more than any other country. They can be found in remote corners of Tibet and Xinjiang as well as in Beijing and Shanghai. They are often packed with high-school- and university-age boys playing games and checking out Britney Spears sites. It is rare to see a girl or a middle-aged man or woman.

A typical Internet café in a rural area or town is around 100 square meters in size and located near a school or college. Sparsely decorated except for posters and advertisements for new games, and often filled with cigarette smoke, they are made up of rows of tightly-packed desks with computers operated mostly by young males playing online games. With the exception of occasional cheers they are mostly silent, except for the tap of keyboards and the click of mouses, as players concentrate on their games.

Some Internet café users play for days and even weeks and live and eat in the Internet cafes that charge at little as $1.50 to $3.00 to spend the night, Smaller ones usually sell drinks and snacks at the counter. Bigger ones have arrangements to deliver food to the players desks.

Many Internet cafes are illegal. They are easy to set up. All you need is a room and some computers. Some are hidden almost completely from public view in small offices and basements; have vaguely-worded signs to identify them; and require small bribes to police to stay open. A survey in 2002, found that only about 200 of Beijing’s 2,400 Internet cafes operated with all the necessary permits. Customers often use illegal cafes over legal ones because their rates are cheaper.

Problems with Internet Cafes in China

Internet cafes have a reputation for being a haven for school dropouts, low lifes and young people addicted to computer games. They are often smokey and filled exclusively with young men. Some have no bathrooms, just a bucket in a corner. Many parents regard them as the modern day equivalent of opium dens. In May 2004, customers at an Internet café stabbed to death two employees who told the killers they would have to buy membership cards if they wanted to play computer games all night.

It is not unusual to see middle-school-age and even primary-school-age children in Internet cafes past midnight smoking cigarettes. There have been many reports of teenagers stealing money from their parents to play games at Internet cafes.

Many Internet cafes are illegal. Someusers say they have no choice but use illegal Internet cafes because the government make it too hard to open up legal ones. For people who want to legitimately open an Internet café it is difficult to get all the licenses from different government agencies and costly to come up with bribes and “hurry up” money.

Tragic Fire at an Internet Café in China

In June 2002, a fire at an illegal Internet café in Beijing killed 24 people. Most of the dead were students at a nearby university. The fire blocked the main entrance. Other doors and windows were bolted shut or barred to keep the police out. One survivor told AP, “It was around 3:00am when I smelled gasoline and saw thick smoke coming up from the bottom of the stairs. I told a café employee, who went downstairs to check. He yelled there was a fire and we all tried to escape. My throat was filled with smoke and I couldn’t breath and couldn’t talk.”

A factory worker who lived near the café told the Washington Post, “They were yelling, ‘Save us! Save us! Good people, help us! We don’t want to die!!” Their voices sounded strange, desperate and hoarse from the smoke.” The worker managed to help save seven people by unscrewing bars on a window.

A 13-year-old boy and 14-year-old boy set the fire because the owner would not let them in the café. They were given life prison sentences. The owner of the shop was also imprisoned. The fire led to crack down on Internet cafes and the temporary closing of all the Internet cafes in Beijing.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated October 2011

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