China's online games under microscope after 'farmer' caught in the act

China's love/hate relationship with online gaming has taken another twist this week with the news that one "internet addict'' has taken her love for the Happy Farm game a little too far.

Li Xia, of the northwestern Gansu province, was caught stealing her neighbor's real vegetables - one of the things players of Happy Farm can do to increase their own crops and earn more points in its virtual world - and the case has now reignited the debate in China of just how much influence these games are having on society.

Judging by the numbers alone, online gaming has permeated the nation's very fabric. China has more than 400 million internet users and the revenue last year from online games alone amounted to 25 billion yuan (2.7 billion euros), with estimates being that figure is set to rise by 30 percent in 2010.

There are currently 138,000 internet café across the country, according to China's Ministry of Culture, and they attract some 135 million customers per year.

For most of them, the attraction is online games such as Happy Farm (, Miracle Journey to the West ( and, of course, the wildly successful World of Warcraft (, accounting for tens of millions of internet users daily.

But the Chinese government has been increasingly concerned about their content, releasing a paper this year that identified addiction to the games and "vulgar content'' as the two main problems facing the online game industry. There have also been calls for legislation that allows for the censoring of content.

Happy Farm - a game similar to Facebook's wildly successful Farmville - is already "phasing out'' the stealing function from its game, according to mainland Chinese media as Li emerges from the five days in custody she received for her offence.

But not everyone is convinced that controls should be the way forward.

"Only a handful of people can't tell games from reality,'' Beijing computer shop owner Zhang Qi told China Daily. "I've played these games lots of times but I have never copied."