[In Gamasutra's latest China Angle column, Frank Yu looks at the ramifications the devastating Sichuan earthquake have had on China's games industry, including what the government's three day ban on entertainment media (including online games) might say about future state intervention.
It was only a few weeks ago that I mentioned in a previous article
that Chengdu can arguably be called China’s gaming heart. A few weeks later, China’s most devastating earthquake in almost 50 years hit only a 50-80 kilometers away from Chengdu. As one of China’s emerging online game development areas, the earthquake in Sichuan has caused many ripples in China’s online gaming industry for many reasons.
Chengdu has been designated as one of China’s new emerging game development centers to help offset the rising costs of development in Shanghai and Beijing. Ubisoft, Microsoft and Shanda have set up significant game development centers in Chengdu with other companies planning to open more in the future. Initial reports from indicate that many of these game offices received only a few scares and some new cracks on their walls.
Another issue is that some data centers and servers for some well known Chinese game operators reside in Chengdu as well. As people returned to their jobs, it seemed that server and data operations escaped the earthquake without much harm since most were housed in modern building with fail safe systems for data and power failures.
Of course, with all these events happening, few in Sichuan province, one of the most populous regions in China, will want to go online to play games in the midst of dozens of aftershocks and continued building collapses. People in the affected region did continue to go online, but not to play games but to learn news of the emergency and to communicate with friends and family.
For many not in the areas of devastation, the events in Sichuan disrupted their lives as well as many turned to television or the internet to learn more of the disaster and rescue efforts. Many in China were glued to their televisions, news sites, or bulletin boards to learn minute by minute updates on the disaster as the death toll mounted every day.
Although no official data has yet been released by game operators on a drop in users for May, the earthquake most likely diverted many regulars from their game world onto the stark reality of the real world crisis.
The impact of this drop, which may be large, may affect the industry beyond May as well, as people lose interest in online games in light of a national tragedy and the upcoming Olympic coverage. One woman when asked why she watched so much earthquake news coverage on TV said, “We don’t have much money to give, but my heart can still be there with them.”
The earthquake has had another major impact on the China gaming industry as well in what seems like an exercise of government media control. China has declared May 19, 20 and 21 as national days of mourning for the victims of the earthquake and has suspended all forms of public entertainment during those three days. This includes, concerts, television shows, movies and for the first time, even online games.
Although the government has not flicked a magical switch to stop online games, many online game operators are complying both in memoriam to the victims and to avoid incurring the wrath of the government come license renewal time. One can call this week as the week that China stopped playing and laughing.
In a more extreme case, China Eastern Airlines suspended in flight movies for domestic flights during the mourning period. Video sharing sites can only show earthquake videos. News papers are allowed to print only in black and white on their front page.
What worries many people following the Chinese game industry is that this period of mourning sets a bad precedent in government intervention in game operation. It is becoming clear that China game operators have become a mainstream media outlet in China that will continue to have further regulation and oversight into their domestic operations.
Although not directed at the game industry in general, the entertainment ban reveals to some degree government attitudes on the superficiality of the gaming industry in China, and will no doubt feel compelled to be the nanny for the next generation of emerging gamers.
[Frank Yu is a director of strategy at eCitySky Beijing. Prior to his current position, Frank started and led the first China game team for Microsoft Casual Games. He has also served as the first Regional Business Manager in Asia for the Xbox and Home Entertainment Division. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org