Internet & Tech

Den of thieves

The latest craze: an online game that encourages the stealing of vegetables

Den of thieves

All that's missing is the smell of manure...

One of the reasons Chairman Mao was so keen on collectivization was that he believed farmers were thieves.

Well, a new online video game would seem to give some credence to his view.

The game is called Happy Farm and it is hosted on social networking sites (such as local Facebook equivalents and Xiaonei).

According to AppLeap’s website statistics, the number of active concurrent users has now reached 3.68 million – making it the nation’s top game.

The 21CN Business Herald quotes the case of Wang Jun, an urban white collar worker, who says he has become a diligent ‘vegetable farmer’ on Happy Farm.

Wang says he enjoys planting and collecting his own vegetables. But he also admits to stealing vegetables from his friends. “The theft is best done in the middle of the night,” confides Wang. “That’s when fewer people are online, and it is easier to steal.”

He grins that his colleagues in the office often switch on their computers in the morning and groan, “Wang has stolen our vegetables again.”

The fact that many of the nation’s 20-something office workers have become devoted to a game that rewards dishonesty may not offer a flattering image of modern China. But such is the reality.

“Why,” asks the Herald, “are tens of millions so obsessed with such a simple game?” The answer, says Wang, is that white collar workers long for “a piece of blue sky and a vegetable plot in the countryside.” Happy Farm allows them to fulfill this dream in the virtual world. Wang archly adds that stealing vegetables gives many a “sense of accomplishment”.

The game’s success has spawned copycats. So aside from Happy Farm (still number one), there is Happy Peasants, Sunshine Ranch and many others.

The hit was developed by Shanghai You & Me Informations Services, a company founded by two young entrepreneurs, Gao Shaofei and Xu Cheng.

Both were graduates of East China University of Science and Technology and were awarded start-up capital by a special government VC firm designed to aid Shanghai college students.

They opened for business in 2006 as a website outsourcing firm, but when they saw the explosive popularity of social networking sites, they diversified into making games, under the brand, Five Minutes.

The firm’s first three efforts failed to capture the online imagination.

But with Happy Farm they knew they had an instant hit. Five Minutes is now thought to earn Rmb3 million ($439,790) a month. It is free for users to play but there are charges for fertiliser and other add ons (to help the veggies grow).

Happy Farm has won praise thanks to its homegrown status. Previously successful online games, such as World of Warcraft, have been imported from the likes of the US and South Korea.

Meanwhile, Happy Farm now enjoys three times as many users as World of Warcraft, reports the Herald. And Five Minutes has set up an office in the US to monetise the game among American Facebook users.

The local industry’s cheerleaders say the future is bright, since games designed for social networking sites require very little capital – unlike big budget PC-based ‘roleplaying’ games like World of Warcraft.

That means that a whole host of small developers (and new games) look certain to sprout up.

So, when the Happy Farm fad ends, expect another slew of online games to compete for the attention of bored office workers.

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