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In China, Online Gamers Raking in the Cash

For a law student, Zhao Mengyuan has a peculiar way of making money -- slaying dragons, killing orcs and saving princesses in distress .

It all takes place in cyberspace, where earning credits for online gamers who are too busy to do it themselves has become a handy source of extra income for the 21-year-old -- and a full-time job for thousands of other Chinese.

Zhao, a third-year student at Beijing's Central University of Finance and Economics, says he much prefers real-life fun such as playing basketball to sitting in front of a computer, but the courts are always too crowded.

"China has too large a population and too limited space for entertainment, that's why computer games are so popular," he says.

So instead of sweating it out on the sports field, Zhao spends 20 to 30 hours a week in World of Warcraft, Lineage and other fantasy universes, which are typically set in ancient empires or occult territories.

He sometimes delves into the massive multi-player online games in his dormitory but more often goes with friends to Internet cafes, and says the only tools needed for the role-play adventures are cigarettes, an ashtray and water.

When he earns extra credits and online commodities, such as online gold and magic potions, he often sells them to other players so they can take a shortcut to virtually enhanced reputations.

"The buyers pay real cash for virtual gold. They have proper jobs but not enough time for games," he said, adding that sometimes the rewards are quite lucrative.

"In just five hours playing one time... I made 2,000 yuan (260 dollars)."

Often the players do not really need the commodities to survive in the online fantasy world, but they want them anyway for bragging rights.

"It's about vanity, just to show off," Zhao said.

The vanity, however, is by no means confined to China.

Players of various games worldwide who do not have time or patience to advance to higher levels or acquire virtual items often outsource the uninteresting parts of game play to so-called "gold-farming factories".

China, with its cheap labour and low operational costs, has become a hub of such gold farms that export the online credits to South Korea, the United States and other developed nations.

IGE, the largest online seller of virtual goods in the United States, has set up an office in Shanghai to collect virtual currency and assets from more than 1,000 Chinese suppliers and sell them to American players at fat prices.

On the website of another American company, IGoldC, 10,000 golds for EverQuest II can be bought for 154.70 dollars.

Having your World of Warcraft level raised from level one to 70, the highest, costs 450 dollars -- more than an average worker in Beijing can earn in a month.

With an estimated online gaming population of more than 30 million last year and growing, there is no shortage of Chinese who are willing to play for profit.

Estimates of the number of Chinese gold farmers vary from 500,000 to over one million, as teenage drop-outs and jobless 20-somethings from poor villages or underdeveloped cities flood into the mushrooming gold-farming factories.

Gold farmers in the northern city of Harbin work eight to 12 hours a shift to rack in enough gold to fulfil the daily quota, said Li Gang, a journalist who has reported on the industry for over three years.

For that they earn around 1,600 yuan a month -- in a city where per capita monthly disposable income was less than 1,000 yuan in 2006.

However, the government has not roundly endorsed this new source of job creation, amid concerns that teenagers are spending far too much time on the Internet and becoming addicted to such games.

The government imposed a rule in April requiring all games operating in China to install a so-called "indulgence prevention" programme.

The online harness means anyone aged under 18 can earn no more credits after they have played for more than five hours.


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