China Struggles to Evolve in the Age of Online Gaming

Worldofwarcraft_chinaChina is an interesting case, a society where strict cultural censorship gives way to a vibrant community of online gamers. But this online freedom only exists up to a point, as both Google and World of Warcraft can attest.

China's educated middle and upper classes are voracious online gamers, and many are unhappy with several proposed changes to the popular Chinese online game "Legend." This caps off a tumultuous few months for a Chinese government struggling to come to terms with the emergence of virtual worlds.

Let's take a look at why some Chinese gamers are staging virtual world protests, and why the Chinese government is moving to shut down offending servers in a bid to control the potential threat of unchained protest.

Brutal Legend

Legend's virtual protests were first reported by the International Business Times. It seems young Chinese are taking the fight between communism and capitalism to a new reality – the introduction of real-world currency transactions to ‘Legend’.

Western gamers are familiar with the prevalence of real-money transactions like those in Second Life and FarmVille. They might not understand why the introduction of capitalism to Legend inspired such wide-ranging protests. At issue is the idea of pay-to-play gamers degrading the relative rarity of items many Chinese gamers struggled to acquire.

Legend is a free-to-play fantasy MMORPG which, unlike its American counterparts, has no ‘pay-for-premium’ features. For those unacquainted, games like Evony and Runescape offer a free play experience for the bulk of players while relying on a core of committed gamers to pay for premium features like extra skills, special items, and extra character-building points.

‘Legend’ amassed a huge Chinese player base without the option of premium add-ons. In the tradition of Asian MMORPGs like Lineage, a premium was put on the effort an individual gamer put into his or her character. Legend’s ranking system puts emphasis on those players who have devoted large amounts of time to growing their character from a fledgling rat-slayer to a feared warrior.

Now all that is changing.

Western Style Gaming Goes to China

Chinese authorities are already skeptical about Western gaming's arrival. Fearing a flood of Western culture, China banned all foreign investment in native Chinese virtual worlds and developers, a move that proved divisive and led to some of the most vocal criticism of a government decision by high-level ministers in recent memory.

Legend's developers announced the game would now allow players to purchase advanced characters through a system not unlike Evony’s “cents” system. Under this payment plan, a player exchanges real-world currency for points that can be expended on any number of game enhancements. The reaction proved explosive.

Well aware of the coming changes, Chinese players organized massive protests that tested the capacity of Legend’s servers. Within minutes of the game’s launch, hundreds assembled at the gates of Legend’s major city center and blocked off all traffic headed in and out.

The protest’s road-blocking fervor resembled the virtual “coup” orchestrated by disgruntled Ultima Online players, which resulted in the unseemly death of Ultima creator Richard Garriott’s in-game avatar.

Legend’s administrators, in true Chinese fashion, spared no effort in responding to the protest with harsh force. Protestors found themselves transported across the world to unpopulated areas, silenced in in-game chat channels, and banned outright for disrupting the game experience.

In a culture where gaming is taken seriously and independent achievement is valued above all else, the slipshod way real-world commerce was integrated into Legend leaves many questioning.

Could Legend Cause a Virtual Uprising?

By releasing every object in Legend as available for purchase with real-world currency, the game’s creators instantly devalued months and years of legitimate gameplay from long-time players. Who does this serve?

Should game designers and administrators consult players before making changes that fundamentally alter the gameplay experience? Would Legend’s players have consented to gradual integration of real-world currency if they had been approached as equal partners in the success of Legend?

The continuing protests in-world provide hard evidence that not every world is prepared to take on Second Life-esque market economics. But if China is going to expand its entertainment options for a growing middle class, it will have to relax its restrictions against major Western games like World of Warcraft

China will have to evolve or fall behind in the increasingly tech-knowledgeable world. That is a slip the besieged central government can ill afford.

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