China puts online Mafia games on hit list


POSTED: Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BEIJING » Whether it be religion, environmentalism or nonprofit charities, the Chinese government has always been wary of any organized activity it cannot directly control.

A new addition to the list: simulated organized crime.

On Monday, the Ministry of Culture issued a notice banning online games that feature Mafioso kingpins, marauding street gangs or any sort of hooliganism predisposed to organization.

The decree, which promises “;severe punishment”; for violators but fails to specify the penalties, also prohibits Web sites from including links to Internet games that glorify organized crime.

Such games, the ministry said, “;embody antisocial behavior like killing, beating, looting and raping”; and “;gravely threatens and distorts the social order and moral standards, easily putting young people under harmful influence.”;

By Tuesday, a number of popular games, including “;Godfather,”; “;Gangster”; and “;Mafioso Hitman,”; had been excised from the ether, although scores of other violence-laden games were still available.

The ruling is not entirely surprising, given the government's ongoing war against Internet pornography and other sites that can be construed as “;socially disruptive.”;

This year more than a thousand Web sites have been shuttered for “;vulgar”; content, although some critics complain that academic or public service sites that deal with sexually transmitted diseases have also been swept up in the juggernaut.

Other efforts to control the Internet have been less successful. In June, China issued a mandate that would have required all new computers sold domestically to include install filtering software, known as Green Dam-Youth Escort. The government insisted the program would only affect pornography, but critics suggested it could also be used to block politically sensitive Web sites. The government bowed to pressure from computer manufacturers and everyday users and postponed the new rules this month.

It is unclear whether the ban on mafia-themed computer games will similarly stoke the fury of China's 200 million online gamers, although some of those who work in the industry did not seem to be too concerned.

Chen Yongjin, the founder of an online game company in Beijing, said designers can still provide customers with the blood and violence they crave without the offending themes. “;The problem is when the killing correlates to real life,”; said Chen, who asked that the name of his company not be printed.

Online games are hugely profitable in China. In 2008, the industry brought in revenues of 18 billion yuan, or a bout $2.64 billion, a 77 percent increase over the year before, according to an association of Chinese gaming companies.

Industry experts say that at least 90 percent of all online games in China have some form of violence, whether they involve homicidal kung-fu masters, sword-wielding hobbits or monsters with a taste for human flesh.

“;If the games stick to the fantastical or the mythological, there should be no problem,”; Chen said.

The new regulations reflect increased concern over the pernicious effects of computer games on Chinese youth. There are summer camps for teenager who spend too much online, and in Shanghai, volunteers monitor Internet cafes, looking for children younger than 18.

According to a survey by the National People's Congress, more than 10 percent of the country's young people are “;addicted”; to the Internet, though some psychologists in the West have questioned the validity of such a diagnosis. In China, the definition includes children who spend more than six hours a day staring at a computer screen while avoiding sleep, social interaction and school work. The China Youth Association for Internet Development issued a report last year claiming 70 percent of all juvenile crimes are “;induced by Internet addiction.”;

One psychiatric hospital in Shandong province came up with an unconventional remedy for such a dependency: electric shock therapy. The Linyi Mental Health Hospital said it treated 3,000 youths during a four-month period this year, according to an article in the China Youth Daily.

Health officials in Beijing, however, were not pleased, and they banned the treatment this month, saying there is no evidence it is effective.