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Too Young to Gank?

Editorial By Tim Dale on August 19, 2005

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China Bans Underage PvP, Where They Right or Wrong?

PvP; love it or hate it, if you’ve played a massively multiplayer online game, you’ll have seen it, probably have taken part in it, and most likely have strong feelings about it. Little else in online gaming can generate such passionate opinions, and deeply polarised points of view, as one player going at another with an axe, or laser, with murder in mind. Right or wrong? Just a bit of fun, or malicious griefing?

Well it seems that for over 20 million Chinese online gamers, these questions are to be answered for them, by the government. Amid a raft of measures to designed to improve and regulate the Chinese internet gaming industry, it was announced that any network game which depends on ‘PK’ (PvP) to advance rank would be made illegal for players under the age of 18 to play, effective from the date of the proclamation, 12th July 2005.

The actual wording, fed through Alta Vista’s Translation service, is surprisingly short and rather vague, forbidding minors ‘PK kind practices the level game (to depend upon PK to enhance rank)’, but the intention was further elaborated by the head lawmaker behind it:

"Minors should not be allowed to play online games that have PK content, that allow players to increase the power of their own online game characters by killing other players," Liu Shifa, head of the Ministry Of Culture's Internet Culture Division, which drafts policies governing the online gaming market, told Interfax. "Online games that have PK content usually also contain acts of violence and lead to players spending too much time trying to increase the power of their characters. They are harmful to young people."

To the average Western online gamer, these measures may seem needlessly draconian and unnecessary, but does he have a point?

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Violence in online gaming is typically always a very stylised and abstract affair, usually consisting of two or more marionettes waving their arms at each other, amid a welter of sparkly particle effects more at home in a firework display than a swordfight. Rarely is there blood, and never anything more gory than the defeated enemy just falling down on the spot. While offline titles, such as Doom 3, Painkiller and GTA might glory in the gore, most online massively multiplayer games already have a squeaky clean bill of health. The violence is implied, but rarely shown.

So is the implication itself enough to cause alarm? This seems to be the case in the Chinese ministry. Clearly it is not the idea of killing virtual enemies in a computer game that has prompted this, but instead the idea of the kind of online culture PvP competition creates, and the fear of aggressive PvP behaviour influencing young people, and leaking out into real life and polite society. The MOC evidently does not trust young gamers, and their families, to be able to treat online gaming in a responsible and detached manner; also contained within the same proclamation were measures to enforce a maximum number of hours of continuous play. Perhaps this attitude is not without good reason.

This month saw a Korean gamer collapse and die after a 50 hour Starcraft marathon, and earlier this year, a Chinese gamer was given a suspended death sentence for tracking down and killing another player, in real life, over a stolen in-game weapon. Both make for headline-grabbing extreme cases, but are these the tip of an iceberg? While in neither case, MMO PvP was involved, or minors, it is easy to see why the blame might be laid at the PvP door. However, unlike most onlookers who see aspects of computer games as destructive or detrimental, Liu Shifa is actually in a position to do something about it, and has.

So what will this mean for online gaming as a whole? The Chinese online gaming market is expected to be worth over a billion dollars in 2005, and a sizable proportion of those gamers will be under 18, which most of the existing online games companies will find hard to ignore. But will the necessary neutering of all their titles leave playable games behind?

A quick looking at the current MMORPG.com reader-voted top ten list reveals the scope of the new laws, in that with the possible exception of Everquest II, they all feature PvP in some manner, and even in EQ2, the upcoming expansion monster fighting arenas could be deemed unsuitable for Chinese minors. Even the famously simplistic and child-friendly Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates is a no-no, involving Tetris-style duel sword-fighting in which it is possible to win money and items from the loser. The fact that in most games, the PvP is consensual isn’t the point; the problem seems to be that it is there at all. Almost without exception, the entire crop of current MMO games is now off-limits to Chinese minors.

How then do game developers resolve this dilemma? Remove PvP altogether? For some titles this might work; Everquest II for example, would hardly be touched. World of Warcraft and Star Wars: Galaxies would still function fairly well, although both would lose a significant parts of their gameplay in the process. Eve Online and Guild Wars might fare worse as PvP makes up large parts of the core gameplay, and it’s questionable whether what was left could stand alone as a game at all. Planetside would vanish altogether.

Extreme measures, but the devil is likely to be in the detail, with the critical phrase ‘increase the power of their own online game characters by killing other players’. A matter for legal experts, but surely if it can be proven that you in no way ‘gain power’, by killing other characters, would that then be suitable? On that basis, the legislation seems not to affect a rousing eight-player game of Battlefield 2 or Counterstrike in the slightest. So which is the worst case, a game in which you get nothing for winning in PvP, a game with no PvP at all, or a game with risk-based PvP, but which you aren’t allowed to play?

What this will all mean in real terms, for the Chinese online gamer, is hard to say. Certainly in the short term, the only real impact will be in the internet cafes and other public internet connections; enforcement of this kind of law will be difficult at best for the home user, and already, some anonymous game operators have stated that they don’t want to comply with the new laws, and may even ignore them totally.

How far the Ministry are prepared to go to protect China’s children remains to be seen, but Liu Shifa seems determined:

“The MOC's Liu also said that implementation of the new policy would pose many challenges, but said that the MOC and the MII were now drafting compulsory industrial standards to ensure enforcement of the new regulation.”

In other words, any enforcement of these laws is likely to, in time, be programmed in to the games themselves, at the server end, if they are to be allowed in China at all.

As China’s campaign to clean up the internet gathers pace, making their part of the online world a safer place and setting precedents as it goes, the eyes of the world will be watching with interest, as it could be the West next.

On the face of it, a far fetched notion; that PvP could be banned worldwide, but rarely does a month go by without a computer game being linked with some real life criminal incident in the US, or Europe. Certainly a centralized mandate forbidding an online game is not something that can happen outside China, but a similar effect can be achieved in more subtle ways.

Recent high profile controversy over a hidden and quite graphic ‘sex minigame’ hidden within the release version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and ended up earning the game a revised ESRB rating of ‘AO’, Adults-Only, which is widely regarded as a kiss of death for sales; as many stores simply won’t stock games with that rating at all.

Rockstar felt that commercially, this was such a major issue, that they are going to the trouble of recoding, and remastering the game and will be re-releasing it in Q4 2005, purely so the all-important ‘M’ rating can be regained. As it is, this one single incident forced Take Two Interactive to lower its fiscal year projections, and had cost shareholders a loss of 6.72% by the time the news had settled, but presumably, simply accepting the ‘AO’ rating would cost the company far more in the longer term.

Our own gaming habits may not be subject to central authority approval in the same way as China, but we’re probably a lot less free to play what we want, as we’d like to think. Could MMORPG games ever attract an ‘M’, or even ‘AO’ rating in the West, simply for having PvP content? Who decides, and on what basis?

The real decisions are unlikely to rest with the people who play online games.

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