The virtual abyss

By Alexandre Lesto
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, March 8, 2011
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There's a new drug on the streets, and it's started claiming lives. You don't drink it, smoke it, sniff it or inject it; you play it.

The exponential rise of the online gaming market, which in China now concerns over 450 million people and racked up in the vicinity of 34 billion RMB (US$5 billion) in 2010, has led to the blossoming of a new type of dependency. According to state media, over 33 million Chinese now suffer from Internet gaming addiction; a virtual drug that claimed yet another life last week in Beijing.

A 30 year old man died after a marathon three-day gaming binge in an Internet cafe, during the course of which he did not sleep and hardly ate. Over his last month, media reports stated he had spent over 10,000 yuan ($1,500) on Internet gaming.

A quick google search will reveal this is hardly an isolated case. In 2005, a 13 year old boy jumped to his death in Tianjin, revealing in suicide notes written from a game character's narrative his desire to be reunited with fellow players in the after life. In South Korea, a country that reveres online gaming as a sport, a couple in 2009 were so enthralled by the raising of a virtual child, spending hours a day in Internet cafes, their real 3-month-old baby died of malnutrition. Internet search results will even send you to websites dedicated entirely to cataloguing cases in grisly game-by-game death-toll inventories.

Online games, the source of an addiction far more innocuous than alcohol or gambling, can neither be scoffed at nor put to blame for this new social phenomenon.

Discarding or derisively labeling them "teenage-traps" would be missing the picture, as the increasingly sophisticated and diversified virtual realities have regrouped players of all ages and backgrounds. Massive multiplayer online role playing games, or MMORPGs, where thousands of players interact in fantasy or science fiction worlds, have taken the gaming market by storm by offering an inexhaustible and immersive source of entertainment. World of Warcraft, for instance, leads the contest with now well over 12 million subscribers worldwide, with an estimated 4 to 6 million of them being Chinese.

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