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Virtual insanity


FOLLOWING a year in which the popularity of multiplayer online games rose dramatically in Cambodia, the number of Internet gamers in the Kingdom has seen a steep drop in recent months, with simultaneous users during peek hours falling from 10,000 in late 2009 to 6,000 today.

Given this trend, it seems odd the two companies who occupy the online gaming market are optimistic about plans to introduce a variety of new games and ramp up their marketing and distribution in the coming months.

The drop in gamers was part of the fallout from Hun Sen’s speech earlier this year blasting gambling, along with a variety of other morally corrupt activities.

According to Chy Sila, chief executive officer of CBM, the parent company of CIDC and its subsidiary Sabay, the country’s largest distributor of online games, online gaming centres have been grouped with massage parlours, sports books, and karaoke bars as the city’s centres of sin, and the repercussions have been disastrous.

“It is scary when one man’s words can take down an entire industry,” Chy Sila lamented. “There is no law against gaming. Hun Sen speaks and the next day it just happens.”

However, Sabay and VTC Online, a subsidiary of Vietnam’s Military Telecom Corporation Viettel, which operates under the name Metfone in Cambodia, are predicting the impact of Hun Sen’s words will fade and greater understanding of online gaming will soften the government’s stance against the pastime.

“We have not taken legal action, but we have sent letters to the government trying to explain that online gaming is not the same as gambling,” explained Chy Sila, adding that once officials understand what online gaming is there will be no grounds for outlawing it.

Sabay introduced Justice X Wars II to Cambodia in 2008, having bought the licensing rights from a Chinese company for “a few hundred thousand dollars”, and it quickly became the Kingdom’s most popular online game.

Although users are able to download and access the game’s servers for free, Sabay has adapted profitability models from companies in Asia who have been part of a thriving gaming market for over a decade. JX2 users must spend money on specific items online which allow them to advance their character, or avatar in their quest for domination of ancient China. Audition, which will be the first game released by VTC Online, will adapt the same model where users can buy new clothes and skills for their virtual pop star.

In the last decade, the rise of online gaming in Asia can only be described as a phenomenon. In neighbouring Vietnam, the number of online gamers has ballooned to 10 million people out of 18 million Internet users in recent years. In Japan some 16 million of the country’s 67 million internet users visit gaming sites regularly.

But these numbers don’t even begin to compare with South Korea, where it is estimated that 17 million of the country’s 48 million people are online gamers. Recent stories show the depth of many Koreans’ commitment to gaming, with frightening results.

In March of this month, a couple was arrested for negligence when their infant daughter died after they spent too much time at an internet café raising their virtual daughter on Prius Online, a game similar to Second Life in which people create an alternate online identity.

In February, a South Korean man killed his mother for giving him grief about too much online game playing and then returned to an internet café where he was arrested by police.

And, in 2005, a man collapsed after playing the game StarCraft almost continuously for 50 hours. Upon reaching the hospital he went into cardiac arrest and died.

Perhaps it is this sort of impact which has led Cambodia’s government to crack down on internet cafés, which attract thousands of young Cambodians to enter virtual worlds everyday. However Hung Ha, the vice director of marketing for VTC Online, says that, although gaming might distract children from pursuits in their real life, such as getting a proper education, the games are not completely void of positive contributions to society.

“The latest version of Audition, called Audition English, encourages people to improve their language skills in order to improve their character,” he said, adding that improving computer skills should not be overlooked in a country where most people are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

But while the lure of online games might scare authorities, it presents a business opportunity which cannot be ignored within the expanding IT sector.

VTC Online says that they will use Audition, a game that targets a young female audience, to test the Cambodian market, looking to offer FIFA Online, multiplayer role-playing games such as JXII, as well as first-person shooters, to Cambodian gamers in the future.

Sabay, which has dominated the market with JXII, plans to present a first-person shooter called Attack Online in the coming months. Both companies said it was difficult for them to project the size of their target market.

Mike Gaertner, chief operating officer of CIDC, estimates that there are over 100,000 gamers in Cambodia, and says he hopes gaming will lead the way in the crucial development of Cambodia’s IT sector.

“If you look at Vietnam, it was gaming which brought computers to thousands of homes,” he explained. “Parents see their children on the computer and begin to understand what a computer can offer. I think that this same thing can happen in Cambodia.”

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