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Vietnam Tries to Limit Online Game Playing

A new Vietnamese regulation is designed to prevent young users from spending endless hours on on-line games. But gaming companies say enforcing such limits is difficult, and it is not clear how serious the government is about the regulation.

Over the last three years, the market for on-line games has exploded in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government is worried that kids are now spending too much time in Internet cafes, battling each other with virtual swords and lasers.

A new government regulation requires gaming companies to make it harder for players to receive bonus points, or "level up", after they have been on-line for three hours, and to stop giving them points after five.

Vu Xuan Thanh, chief inspector at the Ministry of Culture and Information, says the government is responding to its own concerns, and those of many parents.

"Some kids play so long they collapse right on their keyboards," he said. "If your child played for 10 hours straight, he asked, would you be pleased with him?"

At one on-line gaming cafe in Hanoi, the kids admitted they tended to play for long sessions.

Trung, 15, was playing a game called Space Cowboy. He said the longest he has played at one sitting was five hours.

"No," said his friends, "it was 24 hours."

The new regulation took effect July 1, but neither the players nor the owner of this cafe had heard of it.

The owner, who asked that her name not be used, says that limiting the players' time would not work. She would have to record their ID numbers, and if she did that, she says, no one would come to her cafe.

American Bryan Pelz is the CEO of Vinagame, which markets Swordsman, the number one on-line game in Vietnam. Pelz says the government consulted extensively with the industry before issuing the regulation.

"Vinagame, FPT, VAFP, and maybe a couple of other online game providers were contacted, early on. And then I think that they met with gamers themselves, cafe owners, game operators, a variety of different groups, to discuss," he said.

But Mr. Pelz says that implementing the regulation may be difficult.

"There's a technical implementation issue. How do we make sure that after three hours they don't level up as quickly, and after five hours they're cut off? We don't actually write the games ourselves, we actually license them from abroad," he noted. "So we have to go to our partners abroad and have them make modifications."

Mr. Pelz says he is glad the government issued the regulation, since it provides the industry with a legal framework, and he says his company will comply. But some in the industry take a harder line.

Tran Vu Hai is the director of VDIG, the company that sells the scratch-off pre-paid cards used to play games like MU and Space Cowboy.

Hai says the restrictions are meaningless, because players can set up multiple accounts to evade the controls. He says trying to forbid things usually has the opposite effect, and says the government needs to build more sports facilities for young people, so they have something safe to do besides playing on-line games.

Vietnam is hardly the only country concerned about children spending too much time with on-line games. But the effort to limit on-line playing time does have a particularly Vietnamese flavor.

Just 15 ago, Vietnam was still a tightly controlled society, where the government kept tabs on people through their neighborhoods, their places of work, or their families. But as the Internet becomes a part of life, Vietnam is starting to get used to one of the signal qualities of cyberspace: anonymity.

"Anonymity is one of the fascinating things about an on-line game, because it allows anybody to be whoever it is they want to be, in the game," added Mr. Pelz. "And that's one of the reasons why people play the games. But yet at the same time, it's a double-edged sword. As a game operator, we really don't know who they are."

That anonymity will make it hard for Vietnam to keep its kids from playing till they drop.