It sounds like a line from a sci-fi novel, but it’s not…
“The world’s largest Communist government is co-developing a 40-square-mile business and recreation complex entirely devoted to the metaverse,” writes Wagner James Au at GigaOm. Translated into English, that means that the Chinese government, in a bold move, is backing the Chinese Recreational District (or CRD) in creating the largest 3D virtual world…in the world! The 40 square mile CRD complex in West Beijing will include a corporate park, a public center showcasing 10 or more virtual worlds, such as Chinese-based HiPiHi, UOneNet‘s uWorld, and RTMAsia, which is Second Life‘s affiliate in Asia. The area is currently home to 200 game and multimedia content producers. CRD will also launch a “DOTMAN” brand to aggregate various online world services (games, shopping, etc.). It projects 150 million worldwide users by 2010! That is a staggering projection — 15 times the size of World of Warcraft, one of the most played games on the planet. It adds new relevance to the recent announcement by IBM and Linden Labs about the need to develop transportable avatars that can move seamlessly between virtual worlds. (Of course, this begs the question of why the 10-year-old ISO standard is not adequate, but that’s another discussion.)
The CRD metaverse will run on the Entropia platform, and will launch in June, 2008, just a few weeks before the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Think we will be seeing any promo ads during the games? Count on it. And what they promote should be revealing of the direction they plan to go. In particular, there are three interesting aspects to this development:
1. They are appealing to both businesses and individuals, because they are gambling that immersive virtual worlds are the way of the future. Their slightly confusing press release says, “The fast growth of the virtual world industry drives lots of governments in the world thinking that to own the key technologies of virtual world will be the quickest way to become the winner of international economy in the future.” (sic) They are bidding to “own” the key technologies of the virtual future.
2. They are consciously building a virtual economy to aid them in dominating the emerging global virtual economy and aid their real world economy — a concept that Second Life and EVE Online piloted, and the Chinese plan to take to a fine art. They have already partnered with China Mobile, Mindark, clothing manufacturer China Beckman, and Everbright Bank, and intend to provide banking and transaction services to both businesses and individuals. Their “goal is to create a virtual economy providing infrastructure and platforms through which any business – not just those based in China – can come in world and sell their real-world products and services,” according to Christopher Sherman at Virtual Worlds News.
3. They have failed to prevent the widespread use of the Internet in China, and may be using CRD as a way to tap into the information that gets exchanged among its citizens. Information wants to be free, but China notably wants to regulate it.
There are staggering issues to be dealt with to make such an ambitious undertaking fly — security, authentication, currency exchange rates, international copyrights and piracy, corporate partnering, site planning, publicity, intellectual property protection, governance, product support, language translations — just to name a few. There’s also the not-so-small issue of trust. Can the world trust the government which gave us Tiananmen Square? Which represses use of the Internet by ordinary citizens? Which restricts free speech? Whose standards of manufacture and indifference to safety practices put the citizens of other countries at risk? Some people see the CRD as a bold move by the Chinese government to gain additional control over its people and the 2-way flow of information.
Putting those concerns aside, maybe it’s just a shrewd financial play, as they suggest. Korea achieved dominance in the virtual gaming industry in Asia early on, and China has fought back strongly, reducing Korea’s hold on the $1.3 billion Chinese gaming industry to 10%. Their press release says the ‘China Virtual Economy District’ has provided an idea of a brand-new business model of virtual world industry to help traditional enterprises become virtual enterprises easily…With a series of trading rules and data exchange standards, virtual enterprises with different resources and advantages can cooperate and help each other raising their abilities in doing business.” Is the Chinese government also going to drive business adoption? Unlike most other nations, they have the ability to do so.
Should any of this concern anyone? It will definitely concern the U.S. government and others who are aware how easily money is laundered or transferred in a virtual economy without “local” laws and regulations interfering. There was speculation last July, for example, that the U. S. government had levied pressure against Linden Labs to shut down its thriving virtual gambling activities in Second Life because it was an easy way for terrorist organizations to transfer funds worldwide. Is there going to be some sort of global watchdog or U.N.-type organization created to monitor virtual worlds, set up virtual regulations, and enforce with virtual police? It’s an interesting thought — and a little scary. Since the virtual worlds belong to the creators of them and the organizations that host them, who will be in charge? Who will be making the rules? In the case of the new CRD and its 150 million potential users, it will definitely be the Chinese government. Reminds me of the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly do.