Fed up with what it sees as the corrupting influence of computer games on youth, the Chinese government plans to introduce to the online world a new cast of characters based on old-fashioned Communist values.
Instead of heavily armed superheroes licensed to kill, the new game will highlight the likes of a model Communist soldier famous for helping other people. To advance in this game, players won't gun down their enemies. They'll mend socks, lots of them, and gain points by getting appreciation letters for doing good deeds such as helping old ladies home in a rainstorm and stopping people from spitting on the sidewalk.
The prize is a signed virtual copy of Mao Tse-tung's Little Red Book.
This soon-to-be-released video version of a vintage Communist scenario is part of an effort to clean up the Internet. Sponsored by the government and developed by the country's biggest online game company, Shanda, the "Chinese Hero Registry" aims to revive 100 icons of Chinese history and turn them into virtual warriors to combat the negative influence of video games.
It's a classic approach: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. But some observers and players doubt that such clean-cut heroes can outdraw the gun-toting protagonists of many Western games.
Beijing has made minimal progress taming the foreign-dominated gaming industry, which is making a killing providing entertainment to China's youths. Of the country's 100 million Internet users, about 20 million play computer games, according to industry data. Revenue from China's computer gaming market reached $298 million in 2004, up 48% from a year earlier, and could quadruple by 2009 as Internet access becomes more widespread, according the market research company IDC.
Young people make up a large percentage of the gaming population -- and thus of those believed to be suffering from online addiction or involved in Internet-related crimes. For many of them, the computer is less a modern tool for learning and communicating than a hypnotically attractive video arcade.
Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, in recent years the Chinese media have been replete with stories of cyber victims.
A 13-year-old boy leaped from his family's 24th-floor apartment after playing online games for 36 hours straight. According to his diary, he had "flown to the sea" to join his friends in the virtual world.
A man stabbed another in the chest after the victim sold a hard-earned and coveted virtual sword won in cyberspace to another player.
An online feud between rival gamers continued "outside," leaving a 23-year-old man dead on the street and another with a death sentence.
Other youths reportedly have dropped out of school, or have been jailed for petty crimes reported carried out to support the gaming habit.
In response, the government has opened the country's first clinic for Internet addiction, offering electroshock treatment and psychotherapy.
Officials have proposed rules that would limit playing time to three hours or force players to log on with their resident identification numbers in hopes of preventing minors from accessing violent games. Experts say such regulations are easily circumvented.
Makers of the "Chinese Hero Registry" believe they can beat evil at its own game.
While it will take up to a decade to introduce the registry's entire slate of 100 heroes, the first batch of five starters will include such historic figures as the imperial eunuch many believe sailed to the New World seven decades before Columbus, a Ming dynasty general who defeated foreign aggressors, and an incorruptible judge.
But Zhang Chunliang, a Beijing-based scholar who specializes in youth and online addiction, says that although the new game may be well-meaning, it lacks punch.
"The problem is this game is not attractive enough to make the kids abandon the old games," Zhang said. "It's like saying we've invented a new economy car that's really cheap and small and no one is going to want to drive a Mercedes anymore."
Initial reaction from the few youngsters who have played trial games suggest that Zhang is right.
Some sixth-graders told a Beijing magazine that the game didn't make any sense. Mostly, they found the obligation to perform good deeds less than stimulating. After a few minutes of trying to persuade virtual characters not to cuss, traipse on lawns, jaywalk or litter, they didn't want to play anymore.
Only 20% said they were definitely interested in the new patriot game while 49% said they had no interest, according to one Internet survey.
"Some resistance is to be expected," said Xia Xueluan, a sociologist from Peking University.
A better idea, according to Zhang, is to hit the game developers in their pocketbooks.
He is trying to organize a class-action lawsuit to penalize game makers for the impact of their products and has collected more than 700 examples of game-related incidents, such as cases in which children physically attacked parents who tried to stop them from playing.
"Each one of these is a personal tragedy," Zhang said. "I want online game companies to start taking responsibility for what happened."