Offshore gaming, what’s really inside?
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - June 27, 2019 - 12:00am

It’s almost impossible for a journalist to see what’s inside an offshore gaming company in the Philippines. Thus, one would be tempted to imagine that it’s a dark, multibillion dollar netherworld known only to the few who run it.

Indeed, these entities – popularly known as POGO or Philippine offshore gaming operators – conduct their business under a heavy cloak of secrecy that is off-limits to outsiders.

Nobody even knows where exactly they operate except, of course, their landlords and employees. 

Last week, however, I was fortunate to get inside the offices of a big POGO player in the country. I’m grateful to my sources for the trust and the exclusive access. I know I’m not the first journalist to visit an offshore gaming firm in the country, but I’m sure I’m one of the few. 

Veil of secrecy

 More importantly, I’m happy to pierce the seemingly dark veil of secrecy surrounding offshore gaming in the country.

In my two-part special report on POGO published last June 17 and 18, I wrote about what I saw inside and why there’s an influx of Chinese workers in the Philippines.

 To those who haven’t seen it, I hope you’ll find time to read my story. I’m particularly proud of the report because I was able to get an exclusive peek inside. And trust me, it makes all the difference.

 Most articles about POGO rely on second hand information and sources who merely narrate what happens inside.  I did that too, last year because I wasn’t able to get access.

 But I tried again this year and luckily, I got my story – a better one.  I won’t repeat what I wrote in my special report, but I’d like to share more. 

 During my visit, for instance, I learned that POGO businesses are just like any other private enterprise. In fact, they look more like business process outsourcing companies than gaming firms.

 The competition is cut-throat, they use proprietary technology for online game apps and other creative offerings, they’re profit-driven and are vulnerable to shake-down by unscrupulous local authorities. This, I surmise, is the reason for the industry’s very conscious effort to stay low-key and far from the limelight. 

What are pogo?

 POGO are offshore gaming firms that facilitate online gaming via the internet. Only foreigners based in another country are authorized to play.

The role of the Chinese

It was only during my visit that I began to understand why there are so many Chinese workers in the country. They are critical to POGO operations. They provide backroom support to these entities – from sending emails to potential customers, to addressing customer concerns, and creating new gaming apps.

The workers serve Chinese companies that cater to Chinese-speaking players from different countries.

 But work is not limited to the Chinese. There’s a sizeable number of Filipinos inside the facility – game developers, I.T., finance, electricians and other maintenance crew. Hundreds of drivers transport Chinese workers from the offices to their living quarters. 

This seems to support claims by Pagcor that three to four Filipino jobs are created for every 10 Chinese workers who join the POGO workforce in the Philippines. 

Unfortunately, Filipinos can’t speak and write Mandarin, thus the need to hire Chinese.

Cultural backlash

Amidst the online gaming boom, there’s an obvious cultural backlash brought by the growing Chinese working population in the metropolis. With no xenophobia intended, it’s a fact that many Filipinos complain about their loud talk, brash attitude, and lack of personal hygiene in some cases. 

I’ve seen it first-hand. In some residential condos, Chinese workers are seen in a huddle, smoking heavily and engaged in boisterous laughter. 

But it pays to show Chinese workers some respect and understanding, difficult as that might be for some of us. 

During my visit, I realized they are just like our OFWs, who by force of circumstances, find themselves in strange lands with an entirely different language and culture.

Most workers are fresh from high school and come from China’s interior provinces where the pay is low. Their most valuable skill is the ability to speak and write Mandarin, and much like the Filipino diaspora, the Chinese “kids” who are barely out of their teens, are taking their chances thousands of miles away from home in search of better pay.

 Missing their families and friends, they spend their off hours in different malls. While it’s a boon for most establishments that have accepted popular e-wallets like Alipay and WeChat Pay, it has rubbed against the sensitivities of Filipinos who, like the Chinese, are avid mall goers. It even sparked controversy when the popular Avenger’s End Game movie was shown in the Bay Area theaters carrying Chinese subtitles. 

POGO hubs

 To prevent this clash of cultures, those who run POGO facilities are exploring the concept of POGO hubs. These building clusters in exclusive sites follow the popular live, work, play concept and contain Chinese workers in specific zones. Thus,  POGO operators can avoid cultural clashes, protect workers from becoming victims of petty crimes, and ease demand for housing that’s causing the overheating of the rental property market.

 At least one operator is taking the POGO hub concept to another level. I heard that there’s a plan to convert a former resort into a “POGO island” to house online gaming operations and thousands of Chinese workers. 

This experiment, though untested, could probably be the long-awaited solution to problems brought by the Chinese diaspora to the Philippines.

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the POGO industry provides much needed jobs not only for Chinese workers, but also for thousands of Filipinos as well. It should be allowed to flourish in a way that is mindful and respectful of both Filipinos and Chinese and our respective cultures. 

Iris Gonzales’ email address is Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales.

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