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.
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, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
billion estimated revenue of Chinese video
gaming industry in 2013
Video game stalls on the sixth floor of Soshow shopping mall in Beijing.