Chinese Government Gets Into Virtual World Business

crd.jpgHere’s a sentence I never thought I’d read outside of a cyberpunk novel: “The world’s largest Communist government is co-developing a 40-square-mile business and recreation complex entirely devoted to the metaverse.”

But as it turns out, this is more or less the case. Recently unveiled under the unassuming moniker of the China Recreation District (or CRD), the project is a government/corporate partnership currently being built in Western Beijing. The English version of the official site is a bit confusing, but Chris Sherman of Virtual World News was in China recently, and just reported some first-hand details, among them:

– Set for a June 2008 launch (just in time for the Beijing Olympics in August), the CRD has already partnered with China Mobile, the country’s largest cell phone operator, and China’s Everbright Bank, which suggests some kind of micro-transaction/virtual currency setup, though details apparently haven’t been finalized.

– The CRD complex will include a corporate park, a public center showcasing numerous virtual worlds, and a “DOTMAN” brand to aggregate various online world services (games, shopping, etc.); the organization expects 150 million users (!) by 2010.

Entropia Universe will provide a virtual world platform for the CRD, but 10 or more other virtual worlds will also be featured there, including Chinese-based HiPiHi and probably Second Life via RTMAsia, Linden Lab’s representative in China.

“To be honest,” writes Sherman, “I’m still trying to understand [what] the government’s role is in the business and am curious to what extent the government will be able to drive business adoption as well as consumer adoption.” This kind of confusion is applicable to many of the enterprises based in China, and it’s a cause of both interest and concern. On the plus side, it suggests the government is serious about further fostering a local virtual worlds/online games industry that’s already competitive with formerly dominant South Korea. And if you believe virtual worlds will be integral to the Internet’s next generation, it’s also a move to own a central stake in our online future. (The metaverse meets the middle kingdom.)

The concerns are, of course, more obvious. While it’s a truism to say China is only nominally Communist, the government’s sporadic bursts of ideological authoritarianism are often most evident around Internet-based services, not just in censorship (something I recently discussed with Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale and wrote about on my Second Life blog), but in the cultural/economic legitimacy of online worlds in the first place. Last year, for example, the government issued a warning against “QQ” virtual currency, and has, since 2002 , maintained tight restrictions on Internet gaming cafes. Is the CRD working at cross purposes to all of this, or is it actually part of a government move aimed at better controlling the industry — by partly co-opting it?

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