CHINA / National

Playing online games a job for millions in China
By Tim Johnson (
Updated: 2006-07-24 10:52

Liaozhong - this rural county seat in northeast China has an Internet cafe on almost every street, 63 in total, and most of them are full of young people passing time.

Parked in front of computer screens, they move through virtual dungeons to slay ogres and gather gold in online games.

But it is not mere idleness. Many of the gamers are working.

A vast shadow industry has mushroomed in rural China. Savvy entrepreneurs harness teams to play popular online games, gathering magic spells, battle hammers, armor and other virtual assets. They then provide the assets to brokers, who sell them to rich players in the United States and Europe wanting shortcuts to gaming success.

At any given time, as many as half a million Chinese gamers are completing quests and gathering such assets as virtual gold pieces to sell off for real money. They toil in Internet cafes and in makeshift computer labs, sometimes sleeping on cots in nearby dormitories in shifts.

In industry lingo, the gamers are known as Chinese gold farmers.They do the cyber scut work, menial jockeying of the mouse that are hard on the wrist but better than factory labor.

It is easier than making shoes,said Wang Xin, 27, an entrepreneur who keeps 30 young people working in his stable of gamers. We don't work so hard. The physical pressure is not high. This is much less demanding than the sweatshops.

The industry is largely clustered in coastal Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, and in the rustbelt region of China's northeast. Liaozhong, an agricultural hub of 120,000 residents, is near Shenyang, the largest city of northeast China.

"There are thousands of these little companies," said Peng Wen, another young businessman who employs gamers. In rural areas, the companies have no trouble finding workers.

Millions of gamers think the trade is fine. A thriving business has popped up on auction giant eBay and other sites selling virtual assets. Buyers say they want to enjoy the games without spending hundreds of hours working up to levels where it gets fun and frisky.

Conservative estimate of global annual sales of virtual items for real money is $200 million a year,?said Edward Castronova, an economist who specializes in the study of virtual assets at Indiana University.

Courtesty of Tim Johnson,