China's massive gaming community is making its presence known online and in the real world. Stephen Hutcheon of the Australian newspaper The Age reports that roughly ten thousand avatars -- online representations of human players -- quit competing and rallied in the virtual streets of the game The Fantasy of the Journey West to protest the display of an image similar to the rising sun of the Japanese flag, or Hinomaru. The controversial sun graphic was first spotted in a government office inside the game about the same time a leading player's avatar was virtually incarcerated for refusing to change his screen name, Kill the Little Japs. The 'arrest' then forced the disbanding of The Alliance to Resist Japan, a guild of 700 players led by this avatar.
The idea of online political action is not entirely new. Activists have been staging virtual sit-ins for years, and hacktivists also have established an online presence. A 2002 AlterNet piece tells of a 160,000-strong virtual sit in against the World Economic Forum that caused the international organization's site to collapse. Smaller sit-ins supporting the Zapatistas in Mexico took place as early as 1998. More recently, in July of last year, 27,000 protesters made several anti-immigration websites unreachable for three days through an action organized by the group SWARM the Minutemen.
In the Chinese case, the use of avatars made the incident uncannily similar to a real-world protest. (Images of the rally depicted protesters lambasting the internet portal that runs the game with signs like, 'NetEase, you have even hung out the sanitary napkin,' a reference to the Hinomaru's red circle on a white background.) The root of the protest has real-world ties as well: Though the Chinese government has previously sanctioned nationalist protests against Japan, NetEase claimed the measures against the anti-Japanese avatar were based on rules formulated by the Chinese government's National Internet Supervisory Bureau. With plenty of crossover between the real and virtual worlds, the Chinese example may point to a new front in the rapidly evolving landscape of online protest.
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