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Vietnam: Online gamers elude crackdown

Despite government efforts, young gamers still flock to internet cafes.

Vietnam Online Gaming
A Vietnamese youth plays games online at an internet cafe in Hanoi, April 24, 2009. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

HANOI, Vietnam — Compared with many Vietnamese teenagers, Nguyen “Stun” Tung is old-school: He plays computer games without the internet.

Offline games are less time-consuming than online ones, says the busy 19-year-old college student. Between English classes and soccer practice, Stun only has time to play computer games twice a week for two- or three-hour sessions.

But that isn't the main reason he stays away.

“Online games can be very dangerous,” he said, while playing computer games at Anh Beo, a noisy internet cafe near Hanoi University of Science and Technology. “That’s why I stay away from them.”

Stun would make Vietnamese authorities proud. Out of concern that violent online games provoke bad behavior, Vietnamese authorities announced new internet restrictions in July. They restricted internet access at cyber cafes in the wee hours of the night, blocked online-game advertising and closed internet cafes located within 200 meters of primary and secondary schools.

Now they are going a step further, ordering Vietnamese internet companies to shut down online-gaming servers after 10 p.m. and developing software to monitor computer usage at internet cafes.

(Other countries have banned and criticized video games for reasons that go far beyond violence. Take a look at the world's banned video games.)

But according to Vietnamese online-gaming industry professionals and internet cafe managers, while the restrictions may hurt business and prompt slight modifications in user habits, they won’t significantly diminish the time — or love — that Vietnamese youth currently invest in online-gaming.

“The laws won’t really affect gamers’ behavior, because there are so many ways to go around the laws,” said Pham Thu Trang, a 28-year-old independent game developer and former employee at two Vietnam-based internet companies.

Every day in Vietnam, young people swarm internet cafes and spend hours playing online games — or “game online,” as the pastime is called in Vietnam. For 15 cents an hour, they can scale castle walls and zap goblins from the comfort of a computer kiosks.

At Anh Beo internet cafe, the manager said most of patrons visit four or five times a week and play online role-play games for up to 10 hours a session.

Roughly three out of four Vietnamese primary schoolkids play online games on weekdays, according to a recent survey. Another survey of five Vietnamese cities reports that more than 1,000 schoolkids and 12,000 university students play online games for between three and 16 hours daily.

Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, has an estimated 4,000 internet cafes. According to a game developer in Ho Chi Minh City, most Vietnamese online gamers are between the ages of 14 and 24.

Youth play games at an internet shop in Hanoi on April 24, 2009. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

Hanoi cafe managers say that while the order to cut their internet access between 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. has hurt their businesses’ bottom line by as much as 20 percent, the restriction isn’t significantly altering gamers’ habits. Night-owls can always play at home or in cafes that operate past curfew by siphoning connections from private homes — a popular way to circumvent the new restriction.

In August, officials from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) ordered 18 local telecom providers to shut down online gaming servers between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. Now, online gamers can’t access some servers through public or private connections after 10 p.m.

A game developer from rival company FTP Software, requesting anonymity because he isn’t allowed to speak to the media, told GlobalPost in December that the city order to close domestic gaming servers is causing logistical headaches inside FTP’s Ho Chi Minh City office.

“It’s quite a complex situation,” he explained, “because it’s not easy to shut down several hundred servers.”

If night-owl gamers can’t access servers after 10 p.m., they will play online games through servers in other countries, said independent game developer Pham Thu Trang. The only catch is that the connection may be slower than on domestic servers.

Vietnamese authorities are drafting new legislation designed to further curb online gaming. Proposed restrictions would officially require domestic internet companies to close online-game servers between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., as well as censor illicit content from their games.

A draft restriction would also require online gamers to present identification at internet cafes. An official from Hanoi’s Department of Information and Communications said that by 2011, government officials would begin monitoring internet cafes with special software.

“At present, control of users at internet shops is very poor,” the official, Pham Quoc Ban, told the Vietnamese media. “If we continue the loose management of these shops, Vietnam will have corrupted youth infected with bad thoughts.”

The measures in Vietnam echo a crackdown in neighboring China, which in 2007 introduced “fatigue systems” that cause characters in online games to lose strength after long periods of playing. China’s national assembly is now considering a draft law that would restrict internet access between midnight and 6 a.m. for underage gamers, according to the Korea Times.

This isn’t the first time Vietnamese authorities have tried — and failed — to regulate a popular digital activity, said a Hanoi-based IT expert who requested anonymity. Vietnam’s 2009 Facebook ban has been easily circumvented, he said, and its current online-gaming crackdown will be at worst a “temporary hindrance” for online gamers.

As Vietnamese authorities roll out new internet restrictions, hordes of Vietnamese teens and 20-somethings are flocking to internet cafes every day to play popular online games like “Swordman Online” and “Gunbound.”

More than 50 online games are available in Vietnam, and top online games here attract 200,000 players from among the country’s 22 million internet users, according to the California-based consulting firm Pearl Research. Vietnam has 22 licensed computer-gaming companies.

While Vietnamese authorities have characterized online gaming as an “addiction” that provokes crime and truancy, young gamers defend their favorite pastime.

On a recent afternoon at the internet cafe Anh Beo — Vietnamese for “Brother Fatty” — a finance student named Phan Trung Hieu said that online games are a good way to deal with stress.

Hieu, 25, sat in front of his computer, jeans and a denim jacket. In the game he was playing, a version of “World of Warcraft,” his wizard avatar was dodging fireballs while traversing a snowy, apocalyptic landscape.

“It’s always like this in Vietnam,” Hieu said without looking away from the screen. “Everything has two sides, good and bad, and it’s the same with game online: The government couldn’t control the bad side, so they banned it.”

At a nearby kiosk, 20-year-old Quang Pham Ngoc said he usually plays online games for seven or eight hours a day unless he has to study. But he said he felt confident he would be able to stop if he got a job.

Ngoc’s avatar, a warrior named “Baka,” had just reached level 47 of a possible 120 levels. Ngoc said he could pass early levels in a few minutes, but that completing a level in the mid-40s could take hours.

Baka entered a windswept stone courtyard and mingled with a levitating pumpkin, an enormous gray cat and a princess in a sparkly green dress. The avatar shot a few beams of light, from a weapon that looked like a Star Wars lightsaber, at no one in particular.

Ngoc said he wasn’t sure what made online gaming so fun, but that one thing was clear: “The more you play, the more powerful your character becomes.”

When asked what he thought of Vietnam’s attempts to curb online gaming, Ngoc shrugged. “A law may control part of the problem,” he said. “But no one can control our love for the game.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/vietnam/101222/online-gaming-internet-restrictions