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Avatars in the Middle Kingdom: Online Gaming in China

Go find the gamers, if you dare, in smoke-filled wangbas and feeding their online pets


Avatars in the Middle Kingdom: Online Gaming in China

Go find the gamers, if you dare, in smoke-filled wangbas and feeding their online pets


On a cold night in Beijing, a Peking University student walked back to his dorm room, exhausted. Zhang Qi had suffered a hard day of Orc-slaying. He isn’t abnormal or a lone freak. He’s one of millions. Across China, more youths are escaping the crowded streets, entering a new world of fantasy and adventure, and spending their money and time living as digital avatars.

Already the largest Internet market in the world, China is poised to leapfrog the United States as the world’s largest online gaming market as well. In less than ten years time, gaming has flourished here, with hundreds of developers clamoring to create the next hit for the growing armies of Chinese gamers.

A little over a decade ago, video games and Internet access were almost nowhere to be found in China. They were luxuries, available to the privileged few. Mario and Luigi meant nothing then to Zhang Qi’s peers, who were far more familiar with good old mahjong. Even email was a rarely-seen novelty.

And then suddenly, in the late 1990s, the market opened up. Broadband Internet became available across China. South Korea eyed their neighbors to the west, and dove in on the video game business, creating titles specifically targeting Asian countries. There was money to be made, and it was.

In China, most computer games are played in wangbas. Literally translating to “Internet bar,” these dungeons really are like bars. They’re often hidden in discounted subterranean nooks, just outside of university campuses. The air is thick with smoke, the room crammed full of kids. But instead of laughing and drinking and flirting and rolling dice, the wangba youths are fixated on computer screens, locked in deadly battles, unaware of anyone else around. These addicted kids are flocking to “World of Warcraft” or “Westward Journey,” to pass free time, or escape from their obligations.

This is not unique to China. Gaming is global. But here, it’s like a caricature of its Western counterpart. University students are skipping classes, spending entire days tucked away in the darkened worlds. They order food and drinks directly to their console, leaving the rented computer only when the urge to use the bath room is unbearable, or phone calls come in from neglected girlfriends and concerned parents. Anti-addiction boot camps, and deprogramming companies, have popped up across the country. It’s an incredible market to be served.

Struck by the army of obsessed gamers, Chinese game developers have of course seized the opportunity. One of the first homegrown hits, Westward Journey, is an immersive retelling of the Chinese lit classic, “Journey to the West,” where you can play any one of the four main characters from the novel. To give you an idea of how popular a hit can be here, this game alone had 83 million user accounts. 83 million. That’s a quarter the number of citizens in the USA, all playing Monkey King. That’s a lot of Monkey King.

Li Huijie is also an avid gamer. She’s young, and works in Shanghai. But rather than battling Orcs in a smoke-filled wangba, and monkeying around with 83 million other anonymous kings, she procrastinates online by buying trendy new outfits, and feeding her fluffy poodle. Sadly, she’ll never actually wear these clothes; they’re for her avatar on QQ, the popular Chinese instant messaging program. Likewise, she’ll never cuddle up with the pooch. Its puffy tail only wags on Renren, the local answer to Facebook.

Yes, this battalion of gamers isn’t full of lonely male geeks. It’s young and old, male and female. It’s 210 million-strong online, with a backup of 560 million gamers on mobile devices. It’s almost half the people in China.

“I have a pet dog on Renren,” Li Huijie boasted to me. “Sometimes I forget to go online and feed him, but he’s fine because my friends will help take care of him.” That she cares whether the virtual pup is fed or not shows how attached she is to her virtual world. Another Facebook clone, Kaixin, The Happy Network, is entirely devoted to interactive community games. “Kaixin Farm” allows urbanites to start their own virtual gardens and farms. Initially, there’s just maintenance to do, seeds to plant, fertilizer to lay. This takes time. But as crops grow, users need to keep a wary eye out for friends who, once you log off, can hop a fence and steal your crops. The result? Obsessive users, reluctant to leave the computer’s side. When asked why she plays these games, Li shyly offered, “It’s fun. It’s just something to pass the time.” It sounds like something more.

The government in China has recently warned of a growing Internet Addiction Disorder among the young. They’ve started regulating wangbas. Customers need to register with a national identity card. No admission to those under 18. In areas where under-18s can play, timed warnings pop up mid-game, insisting users take breaks. But, as it is around the world, rules are bent. “There are many wangbas that don’t care about your age,” said one underage gamer we met. “They’ll warn you when inspectors are coming to check.”

However, one thing that all gamers agree with is that Chinese games are not as appealing to a global audience. “Even in China,” said the rule-breaking teen, “foreign games are still more popular.” But it’s clear that the Chinese market is the future of the industry. As China becomes the largest online gaming market in the world, Western developers will need to keep one eye on the East while developing new titles. They don’t have to produce the next “Westward Journey,” but they certainly need to keep Zhang Qi, Li Huijie, and the other half-billion Chinese gamers in mind.

  • Internet bar
  • wǎngba网吧
  • computer game
  • diànnǎo yóuxì电脑游戏
  • fantasy
  • huànxiǎng幻想
  • reality
  • xiànshí现实
  • Where is the nearest internet bar?
  • Zuìjìn de wǎngba zài nǎér?最近的网吧在哪儿?
  • I need to escape reality.
  • Wǒ xūyào táobì xiànshí。我需要逃避现实。
So, what are China’s favorite video games?
Casual games are huge too in the East, like it or not!