Saturday, December 10, 2005

Is this what our lives are for?


With more than 100 million people worldwide logging on every month to play interactive computer games, game companies are already generating revenues of $3.6 billion a year from subscriptions, according to DFC Intelligence, which tracks the computer gaming market.

For the Chinese in game-playing factories like these, though, it is not all fun and games. These workers have strict quotas and are supervised by bosses who equip them with computers, software and Internet connections to thrash online trolls, gnomes and ogres.

As they grind through the games, they accumulate virtual currency that is valuable to game players around the world. The games allow players to trade currency to other players, who can then use it to buy better armor, amulets, magic spells and other accoutrements to climb to higher levels or create more powerful characters.

The Internet is now filled with classified advertisements from small companies - many of them here in China - auctioning for real money their powerful figures, called avatars. These ventures join individual gamers who started marketing such virtual weapons and wares a few years ago to help support their hobby.

"I'm selling an account with a level-60 Shaman," says one ad from a player code-named Silver Fire, who uses QQ, the popular Chinese instant messaging service here in China. "If you want to know more details, let's chat on QQ."

This virtual economy is blurring the line between fantasy and reality. A few years ago, online subscribers started competing with other players from around the world. And before long, many casual gamers started asking other people to baby-sit for their accounts, or play while they were away.

That has spawned the creation of hundreds - perhaps thousands - of online gaming factories here in China. By some estimates, there are well over 100,000 young people working in China as full-time gamers, toiling away in dark Internet cafes, abandoned warehouses, small offices and private homes.

Most of the players here actually make less than a quarter an hour, but they often get room, board and free computer game play in these "virtual sweatshops."

"It's unimaginable how big this is," says Chen Yu, 27, who employs 20 full-time gamers here in Fuzhou. "They say that in some of these popular games, 40 or 50 percent of the players are actually Chinese farmers."

So now leisure activities are outsourced?

I've never played one of these games, but if this ain't samsara, I don't know what is.

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