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Thailand cracks down on multiplayer obsession

It sounds like a small explosion outside the window of my hotel room. The lights go out, and the air conditioner stops humming. The local power transformer has burned out for the third time this week. Tossing my notebook, camera, and digital recorder in the pocket of my knapsack, I head for the door.

It feels like a poetic reminder that the entire world is coming online. In the early 21st century, everyone needs juice to power laptops, cell phones, and portable DVD players. At airports and coffee shops, we desperately seek out electrical outlets and wireless internet routers with the glassy-eyed intensity of heroin addicts.

Elevators need electricity, too. I realize that I will have to walk. Dashing down 19 flights of stairs in Chiang Mai’s Duangtawan Hotel, I emerge on the street and flag down a tuk-tuk driver. He charges me 80 baht ($2) for a lift to Thanin Wet Market. Twenty-five minutes later, having been ejected into the heart of the market in the noonday heat, I realize that I’m lost. Wandering through the mob of pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars, I wish for the hundredth time this week that one could instantly learn Thai simply by ingesting a pill.

Eventually, I recognize an intersection where I was once almost flattened by a Mercedes-Benz. There’s something about near-death traffic experiences that etch themselves into one’s memory, and Thailand is full of these mnemonic perks. The game shop is just half a block away from the site of my near-demise.

From outside, the shop doesn’t look like much. Sandals and sneakers are lined up neatly near the sliding glass door. Inside, rows of gamers sit side by side in comfortable chairs, their attention riveted to the screens in front of them. The bare walls could use a coat of paint, but why bother? For all practical purposes, these gamers “left” the internet café about 90 seconds after they entered it.

From Indonesia and Vietnam to Thailand and China, this is the face of online gaming. Americans think of gaming as a relatively solitary activity pursued in the comfort of one’s own home, but most Thai gamers rely on public cyber cafés to get their digital fix. There are more than 5,600 internet cafés in this country, and most of their clients are under the age of 20.

In a nation that boasts a per-capita income of $2,000 per year, computers are an expensive luxury. Few families can afford an entry-level computer, let alone monthly bills for internet service, game subscriptions, and productivity software. This has not stopped Thais from diving into the world of online games. Around the clock, they pay between 25 cents and $1.50 per hour to explore a variety of virtual worlds. And, though there are dragons, magicians, trolls, and bards, the most fantastic aspect of these games might be the way that in-game wealth and fame stem from skill rather than family connections. In a very real sense, the games offer a level playing field.

The Asian market for multiplayer games dwarfs that of the United States. More than 2.5 million Asian gamers play Lineage II, while the game Ragnarok Online claims 17 million subscribers.

As one might expect, Thai parents, teachers, and politicians have expressed widespread concern about gaming addiction. They cast a suspicious eye on the comfortable chairs, the sofas, and the air conditioning. They fear that game-shop owners are like the Pied Piper, luring their children to disaster. In one well-publicized incident, a woman tried to stop her son from sneaking out to the game parlors by chaining him to the front gate of their house.

Eager to combat gaming addiction, the Thai government has clamped down on the cafés. Before playing games such as Ragnarok Online, Thai youth must apply for an age-verification ID card at the local post office. Minors are no longer allowed in Internet cafes during school hours or after 10 p.m., and are limited to three hours of online gaming a day. Thai police have been given increased power to patrol shops and arrest those who break the rules.

Even the most passionate gamers would concede that addiction is a serious problem for some players. In a recent study, researchers calculated that approximately 1 million Thai citizens under the age of 24 are hooked on online games. On average, they spend 31.5 hours per week exploring their favorite worlds. However, some activists fear that Thailand’s cyber-café regulations may be part of a movement toward stricter controls on the internet.

The Ministry of Information and Computer Technology actively polices cyber cafés and online content, filtering out approximately 500 websites each month. Primarily concerned with pornographic material and content that criticizes the King, they recently blocked Yale University Press because the scholarly publishing house is promoting a less-than-favorable biography of the monarch.

What do Thai youth think about the regulations? Pong, a thoughtful young man in his early 20s who regularly visits the game shops with his younger brother Lek, strongly opposes the new rules, noting that Lek is only 16. Because of the curfew, they have to leave the shop earlier than many of their friends even if they’re in the middle of a raid.

However, at least one person thinks that the curfew is a step in the right direction. “My mother is happy about the new laws,” chimes in Lek. “Now she gets to see us at night.” When asked what they do at home in the evenings, the two brothers blush sheepishly and admit that they also have gaming systems at home. “We play games here,” they say. “We play games there.”


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