Stealing by another name is allowed in online game

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 December, 2009, 12:00am

It's only a game, right? Not as far as the Ministry of Culture is concerned, and especially not if it encourages thieving.

In the latest crackdown on perceived internet subversion, the ministry yesterday announced all social networking sites had to purge references to 'stealing vegetables' - a popular title everyone uses for a controversial online game, known as 'Happy Farm'.

Mainland media reported yesterday that sites such as and had already begun removing the offending taglines last week, renaming the game 'plucking fruit'.

However, there were still numerous online references to it yesterday evening.

The order appears to refer only to language used in the game, rather than the actual content of the play.

The game allows players to run their own virtual farm, growing various crops which they need to water, spray with pesticides and harvest - or if they're lazy they can simply steal crops from their online neighbours.

They can still pilfer other players' parsnips, but the action is now referred to in the game using the euphemism 'plucking'.

But the edict met with a fierce reaction and ridicule from the mainland's online community. Posters on the website said the ministry interfering with online games was a waste of public funds.

'What's wrong with being straight about it? What are we to call taking things from someone else's garden if it isn't stealing?' wrote one anonymous poster.

'Does this mean that in the future pickpockets are going to be known as 'little pluckers'?' wrote another. An online poll on the site found almost half of 1,878 respondents opposed official interference, compared to just a third who felt that 'stealing doesn't sound too nice'.

Happy Farm, released a year ago, is the mainland's first mass social networking craze. It has been blamed for distracting workers in offices up and down the country, and even for affecting the productivity of local government officials.

Last month, mainland media reported that 19 officials in Hunan province had been given warnings for playing the game in office hours. But not everyone is losing out due to Happy Farm. It is estimated to bring in 50 million yuan (HK$56.7 million) for the Shenzhen-based internet giant Tencent, according to a report by MainFirst Securities Hong Kong.

The fad has even spawned a new greeting: 'Have you stolen your veg yet today?' A Google search for the Chinese phrase tou cai (steal vegetables) yesterday evening produced over 24 million hits. The new officially sanctioned term, cai zhai produced just four million.

Hits for the kleptomaniac title included the sites, which provides links to virtual-farming communities such as 'Steal vegetables and add good friends' or 'Royal vegetable-stealing group'.