July 23, 2003 10:44 AM PDT

Lawmakers restrict online game in Asia

A Korean game maker has created an online hit that has millions in Asia hooked, and some lawmakers are not amused.

Ragnarok Online, a so-called massive multiplayer online role-playing game, has become so popular that it prompted Thai authorities to prohibit players from enjoying the game past bedtime.

The game, created by Korea-based Gravity Interactive, is played over the Internet and can support millions of users globally. In countries like Thailand, where computer ownership is relatively low, Internet cafes and gaming centers have sprouted up and operators and are seeing a jump in revenue from the game's popularity.

Avid gamers say the game improves their computer skills and familiarity with the Internet. However, the game also has spawned an online black market where users can sell their virtual weapons and characters for cash.

Thai authorities and some parents feel that the negative effects of Ragnorak far outweigh the pros, saying young people play the game at the expense of sleep and studies. Thai authorities last month instituted the ban on online games from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily from July 15 to Sept. 30.

Under the ban, both local and overseas game servers, including those running Ragnarok, will be blocked during those times. Thai officials said the restriction could be extended, and they are mulling a registration system so that people cannot profit from playing online games.

Ragnarok shares a similar theme and style of gameplay to that of popular online PC games such as EverQuest and Diablo, a genre dubbed "heroinware" by some gamers.

To begin their quest, users first have to register with their local Ragnarok operators to obtain usernames and passwords. This allows consumers to download a program to run the game and log on to one of its multiple servers.

The basics of Ragnarok are simple. Players begin as a novice and wander through imaginary lands in order to gain experience points and valued items by killing monsters. They also can interact with others in real time though a chat screen and work as teams.

After gaining enough experience, players can then upgrade skills and join one of six job classes--archers, acolytes, merchants, thieves, magicians and swordsmen. Gamers also can sell hoarded artifacts to merchants in exchange for currency, which can be used to purchase weapons and magical potions to aid their quest.

The game has an open-ended goal and the basic objective is to upgrade a player's avatar to the highest level possible, with 99 being the cap.

According to market research firm IDC, the popularity of Internet gaming in Asia has topped online shopping. In countries such as China and Malaysia, the number of online gamers outnumbers online shoppers by a ratio of 2-to-1.

CNETAsia's Winston Chai reported from Singapore. CNET News.com's David Becker contributed to this report.

 

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