LIAOZHONG, China—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's 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's hard on the wrist but better than factory labor.
"It's easier than making shoes," said Wang Xin, 27, an entrepreneur who keeps 30 young people working in his stable of gamers. "You 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. "There are so many idle people. What I mean is, some of them are high school graduates who haven't found a job yet. They like to spend many, many hours at Internet bars."
There are "gold farmers" in other countries, primarily Eastern Europe, the Philippines, Indonesia and Mexico. But China's abundant labor, availability of high-speed Internet connections and cheap computers have made it a powerhouse in collecting virtual assets for online games, fueling the market among the 30 million or so online gamers worldwide.
"If you search online, you find most gold farmers are from China. China is really pretty dominant in this industry right now," said Jin Ge, a 30-year-old Shanghai native who has done a documentary on "gold farms" in China as part of doctoral research at the University of California at San Diego.
Some game players in North America and Europe disparage the "gold farms" for allowing those with financial means to take shortcuts—just as in real life—without investing time or accumulating skill in the games.
"Twenty to 30 percent of gamers out there in the world object to the buying and selling of assets in the virtual world. ... They don't feel it's fair. They think it's cheating," said Thomas Morelli, a spokesman for IGE, a major broker of online items.
Many gaming companies, such as Blizzard Entertainment, developer of the globe's most popular game, World of Warcraft, ban the resale of virtual assets. The company has shut tens of thousands of players' accounts, but can't seem to halt the trade.
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.
"A good 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.
The rise of the industry in scattered cities such as Liaozhong and the provincial capital of Shenyang has left many people shaking their heads in disbelief.
Qi Changliang, 26, said he's built a formidable base of some 800 players who supply virtual assets to his business. He sells the assets on an English-language Web site, using Paypal as a means of collection. Even Qi's parents don't understand his success.
"If you tell an older person you were making millions sitting around playing games, they wouldn't believe you," Qi said in his sparsely furnished loft headquarters in Shenyang.
In some parts of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, municipal governments support the industry, even invest in it, said Jin, the doctoral student. But up in China's northeast, the industry falls in a gray area, neither legal nor illegal.
"There are worries. You never know what the government's attitude toward the industry will be," Qi said, noting that officials have difficulty measuring sales volume of any supplier. "How can you impose a tax if you don't know what the profit is?"
Moreover, what's being traded doesn't exist—at least in a tangible sense. Under Chinese law, virtual property isn't recognized as actual property, even if gamers claim the contrary.
"The gamers believe they own the characters and their virtual assets in China, and we believe that as well," said James Clarke, the Shanghai-based chief operating officer in Asia for IGE, the broker company.
Clarke cast the emerging industry as a positive force for China, saying that entrepreneurs in rural areas get going with "very low start-up costs."
A relaxed mood of fun prevails at some of the Internet cafes and computer labs, Jin said, although others are less pleasant. Pay averages about $100 a month, average by Chinese standards.
"Most of them are game lovers, like me. I play games myself. We in management have to play better than our workers," Peng said.
Much is topsy-turvy about the industry, where playing games is actually work and things that don't exist bring cash. Chinese laborers, low on the global totem pole, reinvent themselves in the virtual world as powerful sorcerers, warriors and high priests.
"It's not an unpleasant job," said Castronova, the economist. "We're learning something about the nature of work here. The line is blurring between work and play."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map