Gamers still ea­ger to try their hands at Le­gal Mine­fields

The na­tional con­sole sales ban fails to ex­tin­guish a pas­sion from childhood, re­port Eric Jou, Yang Yang and Yang Wanli in Bei­jing.

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA -

Song Lin runs a small video games stall on the sixth floor of the So-show shop­ping mall in Bei­jing. How­ever, the 30-year-old for­mer game pro­gram­mer doesn’t sell reg­u­lar run-of-the-mill video games. In­stead, he sells relics, games that be­came part of the child­hoods of Chi­nese game play­ers, de­spite an of­fi­cial ban on the sale of con­soles, which, un­like com­put­ers, are de­signed solely for play­ing video games.

Song’s tiny stall con­tains games and con­soles span­ning more than 30 years, many of which were il­le­gal or at least legally un­ob­tain­able in China.

In 2000, the State Coun­cil and the Min­istry of Cul­ture banned the sale of video game con­soles. How­ever, the ban didn’t cover the man­u­fac­ture of con­soles, and the plat­forms made in China were for the ex­port mar­ket only.

e ban lim­ited the avail­abil­ity of con­sole-spe­cific game ti­tles be­cause with­out the plat­form there was no real way to play the games. In ad­di­tion, with­out pass­ing through the proper reg­u­la­tory chan­nels, the games didn’t con­form to do­mes­tic rules.

Para­dox­i­cally, al­though it was il­le­gal to sell con­soles in China, it wasn’t ac­tu­ally il­le­gal to own one, and gamers such as Song were able to buy video games in reg­u­lar stores.

Song has fond mem­o­ries of play­ing video games dur­ing his childhood. His ear­li­est mem­ory of do­ing so dates back to when he was about 5 years old. “My fa­ther trav­eled over­seas a lot for work,” he said. “When he re­turned af­ter one trip, he brought back a Fam­i­com.”

‘Red and white ma­chines’

The Fam­i­com, an abridged ver­sion of the full name, Nin­tendo Fam­ily Com­puter, known in the United States as the Nin­tendo En­ter­tain­ment Sys­tem, is one of the most iconic videogame con­soles in the world. In China, it’s known col­lo­qui­ally as “the red and white ma­chine” be­cause of the dis­tinc­tive color scheme.

Like Song, many Chi­nese gamers were en­tranced from the mo­ment they laid their then-tiny hands on the rec­tan­gu­lar con­troller and peered at the un­so­phis­ti­cated, blocky 8-bit graph­ics.

Ma Tianyu, 27, also runs a video game shop in Soshow mall, but un­like Song, he sells con­tem­po­rary games and hard­ware, such as the Sony PlayS­ta­tion 3, Mi­crosoft Xbox 360, and Nin­tendo Wii U.

“What we sell isn’t ex­actly le­gal, but it’s not ex­actly dis­al­lowed ei­ther,” said Ma. “There are peo­ple who sell le­git­i­mate hard­ware and soft­ware, but there are also some who sell pi­rated copies of games.”

De­spite the re­stric­tions, game con­soles are read­ily avail­able na­tion­wide via the “gray mar­ket” and a quick search on the e-com­merce gi­ant Taobao shows a wide range of con­soles for sale online.

The term “gray mar­ket” refers to goods bought over­seas and then smug­gled into the coun­try with the ex­press pur­pose of re­sale. The most pop­u­lar items in­clude smart­phones and tablet com­put­ers, plus a large num­ber of elec­tronic items that are not com­mer­cially avail­able within China or, if they are, are too ex­pen­sive for reg­u­lar con­sumers.

“I started to play video games when I was about 2 or 3. My friends and con­tem­po­raries were among the first gen­er­a­tion of gamers in China,” said Ma. “I can still re­mem­ber play­ing on the orig­i­nal red and white ma­chines.”

Ma was in­tro­duced to video games when his grand­fa­ther brought back a Nin­tendo Fam­i­com af­ter a trip to Ja­pan. Ma’s mem­o­ries of the time he spent play­ing games with his school­mates are some of the hap­pi­est of his childhood.

“I’d share my con­sole with my class­mates,” he re­called. “Think about it: four kids hold­ing con­trollers and play­ing the same games all day long — it’s a happy mem­ory.”

Later, Ma stud­ied art and an­i­ma­tion with a view to cre­at­ing his own game. That am­bi­tion may now be at­tain­able af­ter an an­nounce­ment in early Jan­uary that the ban on the sale of con­soles will prob­a­bly be lifted. How­ever, therein lies the rub, as some ex­perts say the an­nounce­ment equates not so much to aban­don­ment of the re­stric­tion, but an amend­ment. So far, though, there’s been no word as to whether any new reg­u­la­tions will come into ef­fect.

Lisa Hanson, a mar­ket re­searcher and founder of Niko Part­ners, a videogame re­searcher that fo­cuses on the Chi­nese and South­east Asian mar­kets, said re­scind­ing the ban won’t have a huge im­pact on Chi­nese gamers, but could have some pos­i­tive ben­e­fits.

“They (Chi­nese gamers) didn’t even re­al­ize the ban af­fected them,” said Hanson. “They didn’t have the choice of play­ing on con­soles le­git­i­mately.”

She said the ban re­sulted in a lack of rev­enue for the in­dus­try be­cause off-the-book sales gen­er­ated no tax rev­enue for the gov­ern­ment, leav­ing hard­ware and soft­ware mak­ers un­able to track the num­ber of units sold. The re­searcher es­ti­mates that the Chi­nese video-gam­ing in­dus­try raked in around $12 bil­lion in 2013. How­ever, most of that came from sales of online com­puter games and very lit­tle from con­soles.

Hanson be­lieves that open­ing the mar­ket would be a good thing. “It goes back to movies, it goes back to books. Con­tent is king,” she said. “As­sum­ing the con­sole games ap­proved for use in China are fun, have good game play and are suit­able for the mar­ket, why wouldn’t they be suc­cess­ful?”

She added that there could also be a knock-on ef­fect in terms of ex­pan­sion of the do­mes­tic mar­ket. In­deed, one of the first moves came on Wed­nes­day when the Chi­nese tele­com-equip­ment gi­ant Huawei Tech­nolo­gies an­nounced that it will likely make its in-house con­sole avail­able in China in the sec­ond quar­ter of the year.

“I have a feel­ing that a lot of th­ese out­source game-de­vel­op­ment stu­dios, which ex­ist in China for rea­sons of cost-cut­ting (by over­seas com­pa­nies) and have served the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket for so long, have a lot of knowl­edge. Cou­pled with de­mand from do­mes­tic hard­ware mak­ers and gamers, they will prob­a­bly have the abil­ity to de­velop Chi­nese games with Chi­nese themes ap­pro­pri­ate for the mar­ket,” said Hanson. “You can see this in mo­bile games, cer­tain games are in de­mand by Chi­nese gamers.”

A com­mu­nal af­fair

Wang Jing, a con­sole-game de­signer in Tokyo, said the pas­time was never re­garded as a bad thing among reg­u­lar Chi­nese peo­ple. For her, play­ing along­side her cousin, it was a com­mu­nal af­fair.

“When I was lit­tle, my par­ents wanted me to play pi­ano. They had me en­rolled for lessons and ev­ery­thing, and that didn’t give me much time to play games. On top of that, my fam­ily would never buy a con­sole, so I ended up do­ing all of my early gam­ing ei­ther at my cousin’s house or at a neigh­bors,” she said, adding that the ban nei­ther deterred nor en­cour­aged her to play.

Later, she de­vel­oped a love of art and de­voted much of her time to draw­ing and paint­ing, but she never gave up play­ing video games.

“Online games are cool, I play a lot of them from var­i­ous parts of the world,” she said. “How­ever, a lot of things have been banned, blocked or ac­cess has been re­stricted, but that hasn’t stopped peo­ple from get­ting hold of them.”

Her fas­ci­na­tion with art and video games left her dream­ing of find­ing a job in the gam­ing in­dus­try. Even­tu­ally, the dream be­came re­al­ity and she spent seven years work­ing for Square Enix, one of the world’s best-known de­vel­op­ers, man­u­fac­tur­ers and dis­trib­u­tors of video games.

Zhao, 28, who works in the garment and fash­ion in­dus­try, was first in­tro­duced to video games at the age of 6.

“Back then, when game sys­tems first en­tered China, ev­ery­one was cu­ri­ous about the de­vices and there wasn’t any re­ally neg­a­tive press or bad con­no­ta­tions as­so­ci­ated with them,” said Zhao. “The phrase ‘dig­i­tal opium’ hadn’t been coined back then.”

That was to change, though, and in the run-up to the ban on con­soles, me­dia re­ports con­stantly sav­aged video-game play­ing as a “neg­a­tive” pas­time, one that was con­sid­ered ad­dic­tive and harm­ful to the growth of ado­les­cents.

Zhao re­mem­bers play­ing Tetris or Cir­cus Char­lie with his par­ents and grand­par­ents prior to the ban, but his par­ents and teach­ers rapidly changed their at­ti­tudes to­wards video games. Co­in­ci­den­tally this was around the time that online mul­ti­player games be­came ex­tremely pop­u­lar in China.

“It’s true. Video games are very ad­dic­tive and can take up a lot of time and en­ergy, I used to stay up all night play­ing,” said Zhao. “Then I got re­ally hooked on online games — they have a so­cial as­pect.”

“Maybe if I hadn’t played games, I would have done bet­ter in the col­lege en­trance ex­ams,” he said.

De­spite the ban, Zhao con­tin­ued to play and the pas­sion re­mains, so much so that, along with some friends, he started Ga­dio, one of China’s most pop­u­lar pod­casts about video games.

The pos­si­ble lift­ing of the con­sole ban doesn’t ex­cite Zhao. For him, the most ex­cit­ing thing is the pos­si­bil­ity of lo­cal­ized ver­sions of pop­u­lar games that are cur­rently not of­fered in sim­pli­fied Chi­nese char­ac­ters.

For older gamers, such as Zhao, who grew up be­fore and af­ter the ban, the best parts of gam­ing are the bonds of friend­ship made and the mem­o­ries evoked.

“I have a friend from childhood; we grew up to­gether and we used to game a lot to­gether,” said Zhao. “Now, ev­ery time we meet up we get to­gether to play on an old Sega Ge­n­e­sis con­sole at my home or his. It’s a way of re­liv­ing our child­hoods.” Con­tact the au­thors at Er­icjou@chi­nadaily.com.cn, yang­wanli@chi­nadaily.com.cn and yangyangs@chi­nadaily.com.cn

LI FENG / CHINA DAILY

$12

bil­lion es­ti­mated rev­enue of Chi­nese video

gam­ing in­dus­try in 2013

WANG JING / CHINA DAILY

Video game stalls on the sixth floor of Soshow shop­ping mall in Bei­jing.

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