During my first few years in China my experience with gaming was very much an offline one, but also a communal one.
Packed into stuffy gaming houses, I would squeeze next to 20 other customers as we stared at the rows of PS2s and CRT screens. Chain-smoking, drinking iced-tea and slurping on bowls of noodles; I finished games such as God of War and DMC3 from start to finish. Rent a memory card and leave it at the door on your way out, pray to whatever god you believe in that your 20 hour Final Fantasy save survives till your next visit.
Often (as I was the only foreigner in town) a crowd would gather to gawk at my awkward combos. Some would bring pages torn from magazines containing walkthroughs for their own gaming sessions. They’d play through entire games this way, never bothering to deviate from their allotted course on paper. Perhaps it was just a way to unwind after work, or perhaps it was because so many of the games were in Japanese.
While I can’t say I was there for all of China’s comparatively short gaming evolution, I have found it interesting to compare some of the aspects of that scene to our own.
Last year Tencent VP Cheng Wu gave the keynote speech at the “China Game Industry Annual Conference” (the Chinese version of the GDC). He said the theme for that year’s conference was “Chinese Dream of Gamers” (It’s right there on the official banner). (1)
Not, the dream that Chinese gamers are having mind you, nor a sort of general communal dream that Chinese people are having about gamers in general, but Gamer’s Chinese Dream.
He means a dream that all of us gamers and game designers are (theoretically) having about China, about where this exciting new frontier could take us!
To an outside observer, it may seem pedantic to nitpick like this, but it’s important to note that even when an idea is properly translated this kind of confusion and head-scratching is a common occurrence among those of us who have tried to understand what goes on in China.
Cheng elaborated that he believes every developer dreams of gaming being elevated to “The ninth art form”, “How far are we (Chinese devs) from realizing this dream?” While I’m not qualified to answer that question for him, I hope I can offer the western reader some small insight into what happens over there that doesn’t happen here:
We all know the debates on art, violence and gender roles that rage on in western gaming media, but what kind of perception does gaming have in Chinese media? While in the past western media has tended to focus on tenuous links between gaming and violence, Chinese media may have a more solid basis for bias.
Namely, so-called “addiction”.
Packed internet cafes are -by now- fairly well recognized in the west as one of those idiosyncratic traits of Asian countries. They fill with hundreds of teens and young adults, they never close, people play games till they die in them (2), you can have food delivered to you there and there is little reason to every go back to the real world if you have money to burn and they just so happen to be very cheap. Easily affordable to middleclass Chinese.
An oft repeated story is of newly graduated college students; disenfranchised and unhappy at work in an unfamiliar city, they turn to gaming for solace. In some cases spending a fortune -tens of thousands- on micro-transactions.
One notorious case involves a gamer turned conman. He quit his job and quickly spent his personal savings of nearly 60,000 Yuan (over 6k EU) on his habit. Not satisfied, he conned someone from his home town to invest 800,000 Yuan in a hotel that they would both run.
As you may have guessed he amazingly blew it all, but what’s more unbelievable is that he did so immediately by adding the full amount (over 80k EU) to his game account. (3)
The response from the Chinese media is no less stigmatizing than the idea that games insight violence (Remember that the state-run media's response is the government’s response). People that play even a couple of hours a day are painted as having a social disorder, to the extreme that the government began a program in 2005 to limit the amount of playtime to no more than three hours a day before either in-game assets no longer functioned or the games simply shut off.
There was a massive outcry from gamers, China has 100 million MMO players alone (4). Matched by an equal (in voice, if not in numbers) outcry of Chinese game designers, reeling from the news that they would have to retroactively add this system to their already published games. After several years the planned system was modified to include only people under 18 years of age and the deadlines were extended to give designers time to prepare (lucky them).
Another facet of this fight against addiction is the concept of sending people, mostly teenagers to military style boot-camps. It's been the subject of several recent documentaries, the latest of which premiered at this year’s Sundance film festival.
I think it's a fascinating clip to watch because the exact same sort of bragging about hours spent in-game is common on this side of the world, the difference being you're not likely (to my knowledge) to be sent to boot camp for it.
Let’s return for a moment to the men with the PS2 guides; no reason for me to think that is a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. Late area RPG farming or a second run-through of Dark Souls are good reasons for anyone to use a guide. Many of us remember the days when difficulty was artificially added to some games in the hopes that you might call their ludicrously over-priced hotlines for assistance... or even further back, as a mechanism to facilitate you dropping coins into the machine.
But what about paying someone to coach you in how to play a game?
Yes, in China there exists the actual full-time occupation of Professional Co-Op Partner
You can hire people to meet you in an MMO and be your buddy to take on challenges, or level up. You even can hire them as trainers, the way you might hire a fitness trainer to coach you for a day in the best way to gain exp or even just show you the ropes.
It’s certainly niche, but on the more successful end of the spectrum one of these professionals can earn up to 10,000 Yuan per month (over a thousand Euro) (5), a fantastic wage by local standards.
China has a strange (to me) fascination with its own history and myth. In entertainment it is often mixed to the point where historical figures with Marvel-style superpowers or completely po-faced romantic time traveling melodramas are the norm.
If you’ve ever played a Dynasty Warriors game, you have a good idea of what a typical afternoon of Chinese television looks like. The equivalent would be a show where Alexander the Great regularly fights other heads of state in one on one combat where lasers shoot out of their swords.
So it’s no surprise then that the many popular games in China’s are MMOs that feature plots and characters like these TV shows. However, what may be news to some is that there have been several Chinese games made into popular mainstream shows. While anime has been a natural fit for many game to TV transitions elsewhere, live action has never really succeeded.
Popular show “Chinese Paladin” is based on the 1995 Taiwanese RPG “The Legend of Sword and Fairy”. It had 3 seasons and close to 40 episodes. (Interestingly, the Chinese name for both is “仙剑奇侠传”; only the English title -which the vast majority of viewers are sure to ignore- got the update. I guess a name like “The Legend of Sword and Fairy” can only survive in the wild for so long before an actual English speaker is asked to do the Google-translate.)
PC RPG Xuanyuan Sword (1990) saw a similar transition to the small screen but reliable information on its success is hard to find.
What differentiates this from western game-based TV shows are the target audience and relative success. These shows were squarely aimed at adults, featuring mature themes and brutal violence. Much more serious than say Captain-N or a Sonic cartoon.
In the winter of 2011, as I prepared to make my return to Ireland to study Game Design, I did a brief stint with a Beijing mobile game developer. I don't have massive amounts of western experience to compare it to, but I have been fortunate enough to spend time with a couple of companies here in Ireland as a beta tester, and I continue to have a good relationship with them.
One thing that was apparent from speaking to my Chinese colleagues; China has a wealth of highly talented designers especially artists and programmers. While experienced leaders in the field are quite rare. It’s not uncommon for game companies to bring in successful designers from abroad to tutor their managers in game dev management, rather than actual design.
Another difference between my Beijing and Dublin experiences was the focus on emulating the success of others rather than basing the project on clearly defined creative goals. A pervasive attitude in all Chinese business, analytics tracking and building on the success of existing ideas was valued quite highly over innovation. While in the west many find distaste in making that strategy a core guideline of your project, it's viewed as just another useful tool by Chinese devs.
One interesting comparison was how Chinese indie devs seem to share the more relaxed and easy going attitude common among western indies. A nice contrast to other Chinese industries I've worked in.
The actual workload is taken seriously of course, but there seems to be a certain playfulness that persists across game devs of many cultures.
So, as a global community, are we any closer to achieving Cheng's dream of the "Ninth art-form"?
Chances are, if you're reading Gamasutra then you already consider gaming to be an art-from. But whether or not gaming is perceived this way by the general public has always felt largely irrelevant to me. The growth of game design, just like any art, is an organic process that grows alongside a culture, as part of that culture. I just enjoy being a part of it.