July 24th, 2007 by Benjamin Duranske
Readers with good memories will recall that about three months ago, VB ran a short piece on an odd item from the international desk. China planned to impose a new law which would require that online computer games generate half-points after three hours of play, and zero points after five hours. Games that did not comply would be shut down. Three months ago I made fun of it. Now, I’m worried about what it might mean for Second Life. It’s amazing what a child porn allegation from Germany and an ill-considered policy statement from Linden Lab can do to change one’s attitude.
According to China Daily, the law went into effect on July 17. A few interesting outtakes from the article:
The government guidelines don’t flat-out denounce Internet gaming, which has become a popular pastime, stating, “measured gaming is good for the brain, but gaming addiction hurts the body.”
The explanation says the three-hour cutoff is based on the time it takes to play a game of the strategy chess game Go.
Shanghai-based gaming company The9, which runs the popular “World of Warcraft” game in China, said on its Web site it was scheduled to launch the screening software this past Saturday at midnight. The world’s most popular online game has more than 3.5 million players in China.
This law raises questions for companies who run virtual worlds and are considering doing business in China, and it particularly raises questions about Second Life, given Linden Lab’s recent moves to force Second Life users to comply with foreign laws.
The Chinese government hasn’t zeroed in on Second Life yet. This is probably because there were just 3200 Chinese registrations as of late 2006, which in turn is because Linden Lab has not released a Chinese client. (Makes me wonder who runs this site and why Linden Lab hasn’t gotten it shut down, if it isn’t theirs. Whois doesn’t help much.) In any case, one significant news piece or spike in popularity will put it on the radar screen; the Chinese internet censors are among the most aggressive in the world. And when they do start paying attention, the first thing they will do is ask Linden Lab to help them enforce Chinese law — and particularly this law, which targets MMO platforms.
I know it sounds absurd, but it really isn’t. Remember, this is a real law that huge companies like The9 are already complying with.
Second Life doesn’t award points, of course, but there are dozens of successful in-world role-playing games that do (like, for example, Darklife, pictured). What happens to them? They aren’t going to start following this law on their own. After all, the Chinese government can’t very well shut them down. No, the issue will land in Linden Lab’s lap, and that’s where it starts to get really interesting.
We have, of course, seen Linden Lab force users to comply with international laws that don’t comport with U.S. laws in the face of opposition before. But unlike the Germans’ anti-simulated-child-porn law (which causes some conflict for even open-minded people like Sex Drive columnist Regina Lynn and, for that matter, me) this law is simply asinine, and people from California to Munich are going to agree. Why? Because it runs right up against our gold-plated right to raise our fat, lazy, western kids however we want to. Sad, but true. If there’s a defining characteristic of western civilization, it’s that we’re staunch defenders of couch-potatohood.
All of this sets up a question I’ve wanted to ask for months: just how far is Linden Lab willing to go to force users to comply with international laws that users disagree with in order to increase international acceptance?
I mean, there’s awful lot of potential revenue in China. One company with more than a little experience in this field is even developing a China-based virtual world. Going to let them get there first?
Sure there will be protests, but all you have to do is tell a handful of small-time game developers (who have been paying you for land for years, but screw them… there’s 1.3 billion Chinese) that they must start halving the points of their Chinese players after three hours of game play or else you’ll toss them off the grid. That’s no big deal, right? And with the new information verification system you keep hinting at, it should really be pretty easy.
So that’s it. Problem solved!
Wait, there’s actually one more thing. You’re going to need to take care of any Chinese dissidents who pop up too. You know China doesn’t let them speak out against the government online, right? Just turn over the names, and your Chinese comrades will take care of the rest.
And this, readers, is why it is called a “slippery slope.”
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