China's fantasy craze

Online role-playing games played by millions have led to a spate of suicides, deaths by exhaustion and even an attempt at self-immolation.

By Jonathan Watts

Published April 1, 2005 7:00PM (EST)

When Qiu Chengwei reported the theft of his "dragon saber," he was laughed out of the police station. So the 41-year-old online game player decided to take matters into his own hands. Swapping virtual weapons for a real knife, he tracked down the man who had robbed him of his prized fantasy possession and stabbed him to death.

Qiu is now facing a possible death sentence in a Shanghai court case that has highlighted concern about the social, psychological and economic impact of one of China's fastest-growing industries. A spate of suicides, deaths by exhaustion and legal disputes about virtual possessions have been blamed on Internet role-play games, which are estimated to have more than 40 million players in China.

Qiu's favorite game was "Legend of Mir III," a South Korean game that is a huge hit throughout Asia. It took him hours in front of a computer to win the dragon saber, one of the game's most valuable weapons.

He used a feature of the game to lend it to Zhu Caoyuan, who reportedly sold it on without his permission for 7,200 yuan (about $870). Although this is considerably more than the average monthly wage, the police told Qui that they could do nothing because the law does not recognize virtual property. He has pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Zhu, a crime that can carry the death penalty.

The number of Internet users is estimated to have doubled from under 60 million in 2002 to more than 120 million. More than a third are believed to be game players, creating one of the world's most lucrative online markets. The operators' revenue has grown by more than 40 percent in each of the past two years. Shanda Networking, the biggest online game company, with at least 2 million users at any given time of the day, more than doubled its profits last year.

The national leadership said recently that the country's biggest skill shortage was of Internet game developers. The Information Ministry estimates that China needs 600,000 online game technicians to fight off foreign competition.

But there is also growing alarm about the social consequences. The government has cracked down on unlicensed Internet cafes, which the official news agency called "hotbeds of juvenile crime and depravity."

Newspapers are filled with reports of game-related crimes and tragedies, such as the suicide in January of a boy of 13 who left notes saying he was so addicted to online games that he had difficulty distinguishing between reality and virtual reality. Last March, two students in Chongqing fell asleep on a railway track after an all-night game session on the Internet, and a 31-year old "Legend of Mir" addict reportedly dropped dead after a 20-hour session.

Many of the crimes are related to the thefts of virtual possessions. Hardcore players invest so much time and money in building a powerful online character that the loss or theft of a virtual identity prompts some to take violent action.

At the Shanda customer complaints office in Shanghai, where the staff work behind reinforced glass panels, an advisor, Cassie Fan, said: "We get about a thousand complaints a week. I have been threatened on several occasions. People put so much time and energy into the games that some get extremely upset." One customer was so enraged that he set fire to himself, suffering serious burns.

Jonathan Watts

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