Farm game sows seeds of Web control debate

08:28, October 18, 2010      

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Beijing resident plays the online game, Happy Farm, in which players can "steal" vegetables, at home over the weekend. (Zhang Tao / China Daily)

When it comes to online games, few have reached the dizzying heights of Happy Farm (Kaixin Nongchang) in recent years.

The game, which has a function that encourages people to steal virtual vegetables from friends' online gardens, was the smash hit of 2009, quickly attracting upwards of 1 million players across several websites.

Today, Happy Farm is hitting the headlines for a very different reason.

Following the detention of Li Xia, an alleged Internet addict apparently caught pinching real produce from a neighbor's vegetable patch in Gansu province, netizens went into overdrive when one report about the alleged incident claimed the Ministry of Culture is ready to block the game.

Happy Farm had "already received complaints from the public due to its bad effect on society", an unidentified "staff member" with the ministry was quoted as saying in the Gansu-based Western Business newspaper on Oct 12.

The source then reportedly added that the game's stealing function will either be "phased out" or undergo improvements.

Forums hosted by the likes of Kaixin001 (which originally developed the game), Mop and Baidu were quickly bombarded with comments; the mood for and against pretty much 50-50.

A statement published on the ministry's website one day later dismissed talk of a block, claiming the views expressed by the staff member were "personal".

However, industry analysts and communication experts told China Daily that the incident presents a much-needed opportunity to explore valid questions about the control of Internet games.

China now has more than 400 million netizens surfing the Web, a fact that has helped make the nation's gaming industry one of the largest in the world, as well as an important part of the economy.

According to figures released by the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), the revenue from online game sales rose to 25 billion yuan ($3.74 billion) last year.

Things look even brighter in 2010, with analysts predicting a revenue growth of 30 percent, while the value of the entire market will top 30 billion yuan.

Yet, behind the boom lie many social shortcomings, warn experts.

The 2009 White Paper on China's Online Game Market, which was released by the Ministry of Culture in January, points out that "vulgar content" and addiction are two major problems facing the development of Internet games.

As the market is relatively unsupervised, games designers today have a great deal of "autonomy", said Zhou Qingshan, deputy director of the information management department at Peking University.

He said the fear among many people is that, in the drive for profits, companies are forgetting their social responsibilities in favor of attracting the highest number of players.

"We need to enhance the supervision of online games," insisted Zhou, who said reports about parents worried about their Net-addicted children are now nationwide.

"The Ministry of Culture, the GAPP and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television all strengthened their management this year but the effect has not been that obvious," he said.

However, he argued strongly against the government having a heavy involvement in the supervision, adding that the industry should be built on "self-discipline".

By He Na, China Daily
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