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Bob Moon: You might be surprised to learn that the nation whose people enjoy the most high-speed Internet access the nation is not the same country that created the World Wide Web. It's South Korea. Which may explain why around 30 percent of South Koreans are regular players of online video games.
For a price — monthly fees, or paying by the hour at Internet cafes — they roam virtual worlds, fighting virtual enemies, amassing virtual wealth. But now, some of that wealth is spilling over to the real world, and spurring enactment of real laws.
We sent Rico Gagliano to South Korea — and, if you will, through the looking glass.
Rico Gagliano: South Koreans love video games. Here's how much:
That's 150 people watching a live video game tournament in the city of Seoul. Players sit in futuristic pods, playing the sci-fi wargame "Starcraft." Announcers call the plays as the crowd watches the action on seven giant overhead plasma screens.
The competition is broadcast on two Korean TV networks and the fans cheer their favorite players like they were football stars.
The industry's so profitable, the government has a special department to promote and protect it, "The Game Industry Division."
Kyoo Young Kim is in charge of online game policies. And lately, he has focused on getting a certain law passed.
Kyoo Young Kim (voice of interpreter): In English, it would be called something like, "The Bill For Promoting the Game Industry."
It's a boring name, but a one-of-a-kind law. The world's first legal crackdown on a form of video-game commerce players call "gold farming"— and non-gamers call "insane."
In a smoky Internet cafe in Seoul, a gamer who calls himself Nacho tries to explain gold farming to me. He sits at a beat-up PC, playing the online swords-and-sorcery game "Lineage II."
With a mouse, he guides his little dwarf character through a medieval landscape. Most of the creatures he passes — scary orcs, half-nude elves — are controlled by other players. He heads into a dungeon.
Nacho (voice of interpreter): This place we're going to, I'm guessing there will probably be a lot of gold farmers there.
Nacho: Because there's a lot of good items here.
By "good items," Nacho means virtual magic swords, or baby dragons, or lots of virtual gold. These things can make a player's character more powerful. "Gold farmers" are players who figure out when and where these items appear, and then spend time — lots of time — hoarding them.
Nacho: You see the same game character, in the same spot, doing the same hunting for the same item for two, three, four days, even up to a month. That's a gold farmer.
They're not playing for fun. They're playing for cash. 'Cause the farmers can sell this virtual stuff to other players for real money.
The South Korean government estimates game-item trade is a billion-dollar industry in Asia — enough to inspire some gold farmers in China to open sweatshops, paying workers low hourly wages to harvest items. And farmers aren't the only ones who profit.
Hyungshin Park (voice of interpreter): My name's Hyungshin Park. I've worked at Itembay since 2002.
Itembay.com was the first so-called "mediating site" in South Korea. It's the eBay of game-item trade. Gamers post their virtual scepters and laser rifles for others to buy. Itembay gets a 5 percent transaction fee.
Park: We get roughly 50,000 transactions every month, and $35 million is the amount that's traded on the Web site.
Gagliano: A volume of $35 million per month?
Park: Yeah, per month.
Gagliano: So, really, a lot.
Sites like Itembay love gold farmers. Farmers post lots of items for sale, so Itembay earns lots of fees. But the government's Kyoo Young Kim says for companies that make online games, farmers can be costly pests.
Young Kim: Some gold farmers work in groups. They use a hundred computers at once and hack into the software of the games in order to generate and grab more items. So the software companies try to prevent this kind of hacking, and the cost to maintain security keeps going up.
What's more, gold farmers supply rich players with such powerful items, it can ruin a game. Poorer players can't compete, some quit playing and the game-makers lose money.
Which brings us back to "The Bill For Promoting the Game Industry."
The government's first draft of the bill fell like a mighty hammer on mediating Web sites like Itembay. It seemed to outlaw item-trading, even between casual individual gamers. Itembay responded by forming the Digital Asset Protection Association, a lobbying group of Web sites threatened by the bill.
And after much deliberation, in the 2007th year after Christ, the final bill passed into law.
And it's actually pretty straightforward. Use hacking software, or engage in bulk item-trade, and you can be fined up to $50,000 and jailed up to five years. Otherwise, individual small-time gold farmers are free to harvest.
Still, it all begs an obvious question, which I posed to Itembay's Hyungshin Park.
Gagliano: Do you ever stop and think, "There's all this money and all this time and effort — and now laws and trading associations — being built up over these items that don't exist?"
Park: I would say never.
In Seoul, Korea, I'm Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.