Even for China — often the butt of Western gamer jokes about Internet addiction, boot camps to cure it, and neglectful, obsessed parents — the report sounds bizarre: A couple there are in jail, accused of selling two sons to child traffickers, and using the proceeds to buy virtual items in free-to-play games.
Yet it isn't the first report of Chinese parents selling children to fund a gaming habit. Three years ago, a story out of the same province of southern China told of parents selling three children, with the proceeds funding their collective gaming habit.
First, this week's story, reported by a television station in Guangdong. The couple in question is described as young and unwed and in a jailhouse interview the mother described her plight: Neither child was a planned pregnancy, and the father (pictured) had no intention of supporting them. The first child was sold to traffickers from Fujian, according the report; when they sold the second, the baby's paternal grandfather turned them in.
"[The father] likes buying items in online games, and he likes staying out all night at internet cafes," the mother said. [Stories use pseudonyms for both of the accused.] Not only were the children seen as a drain on the money he'd spend on those games, the proceeds from selling them went to fund the habit.
China has a touchy history with video gaming, somewhat warily viewed as a foreign cultural incursion. Video games legitimately doing business in the country must have a Chinese-owned publisher and are subjected to strict censorship. Though it was never legitimately for sale, last year the Ministry of Culture there went out of its way to ban Battlefield 4 as "an aggressive attack on our culture." The game featured mainland China as the scene of fighting and the story featured a Chinese antagonist attempting to overthrow his his government.
Only recently has China loosened restrictions in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone to allow for the legitimate sale of foreign consoles. The PlayStation 4, Xbox One and even a natively built gaming console all are due for launch soon in the country.
The country's most popular games remain free-to-play online titles, such as the South Korean-made Crossfire, where money is spent not necessarily to play the game but to customize and enhance the character on a player's account. Activision is stepping carefully into this arena with Call of Duty: Online, a title that is carefully factoring in Chinese gamer sensibilities but, like the most popular titles available, is a free-to-play PC game that makes money through microtransactions.
Internet addiction has become a top-of-mind subject for a country where it is officially classified as a clinical disorder and so-called "boot camps" exist to wean youngsters off their screen addiction. Child trafficking, whether actually selling a child or forcing one to beg, is a visible problem in China and criminal punishments go all the way up to death. This latest story unites the two controversies.
The parents are being held in jail awaiting trial.