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Earthquake not the only impact on China's online games

James Egan

In the wake of the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan Province, China, the government mandated an observance of the tragedy. In addition to Monday's three minutes of silence in national mourning, the Chinese government placed a three-day moratorium on all 'public amusements' in the country. This imposed break extended to online gaming and virtual worlds throughout the mainland, which prompted some commentary by Frank Yu, the China Angle columnist at Gamasutra.

While residents of Sichuan or those with friends and loved ones in the quake-affected region were not likely to want to play games in the aftermath of the disaster, the three-day imposed blackout on entertainment media was an unusual move for China. The suspension of these activities essentially made the entire country give up something, albeit briefly, in order to share the pain of those whose lives have been affected by the catastrophe. "The earthquake has had another major impact on the China gaming industry as well in what seems like an exercise of government media control... This includes, concerts, television shows, movies and for the first time, even online games," Yu said. The virtual worlds of China's major online game companies remained dark between May 19th and 21st. Although the game companies and operators complied with the suspension of their activities, they clearly assumed substantial profit losses.

However, any financial losses they took pale in comparison to how public opinion of their respective IP's would have declined, had they refused to observe this period of national mourning for the earthquake victims. "Although the government has not flicked a magical switch to stop online games, many online game operators are complying both in memoriam to the victims and to avoid incurring the wrath of the government come license renewal time. One can call this week as the week that China stopped playing and laughing," said Yu.

The full impact of this event on the online gaming industry in China is still uncertain; no hard facts have been released about the losses that game operators took from both the quake and the nationwide shutdown of service. Indeed, such figures may never be released, and the full extent of the situation is not yet clear."The impact of this drop, which may be large, may affect the industry beyond May as well, as people lose interest in online games in light of a national tragedy and the upcoming Olympic coverage," Yu stated.

Beyond concerns about drops in active users, the fact that the government simply decreed an unchallenged media-wide entertainment blackout has some people in the industry on edge. "What worries many people following the Chinese game industry is that this period of mourning sets a bad precedent in government intervention in game operation. It is becoming clear that China game operators have become a mainstream media outlet in China that will continue to have further regulation and oversight into their domestic operations," Yu said.

Yu finished by saying, "Although not directed at the game industry in general, the entertainment ban reveals to some degree government attitudes on the superficiality of the gaming industry in China, and will no doubt feel compelled to be the nanny for the next generation of emerging gamers." Given that China is a nation where online gaming is growing at a rate unmatched anywhere else in the world, how the government approaches the industry -- either choking it or nurturing it -- will continue to affect players and operators alike.

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