Like people everywhere, the Chinese (especially young men) love video games. But Chinese gamers aren’t fighting over the latest Halo game or snatching up Grand Theft Auto. Video gaming in China is a little different. Here’s why:
Console ban leads to PC domination
Since 2000, game consoles like Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s XBox have been banned in China. That means neither consoles or games could be legally sold or advertised in mainland China. Both consoles and games were still widely available on the gray market (illegal imports that are nevertheless sold openly in electronics malls around the country), but because of the lack of an official market, very few console games are localized for the mainland and as a result console gaming doesn’t have much of an audience in China.
As of late 2013, things may be changing, as China’s console ban could finally come to an end with the advent of the Shanghai free trade zone, which Chinese authorities have said will permit the sale of consoles so long as manufacturers meet a few requirements and set up shop in the designated Shanghai area. But don’t expect the next Call of Duty to blow the roof off of China; if consoles are ever widely adopted in China it’s going to take a lot of time, because right now the vast majority of China’s gamers prefer the PC.
China’s favorite kinds of games
Unlike in the West, where FPS and action games tend to clean up when it comes to sales, China’s gaming masses have different preferences. Real-time strategy games like Starcraft and Warcraft are hugely popular, as are MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. Increasingly, Chinese gamers also like MOBA games; League of Legends and Dota 2 are among the country’s most-played PC games at present.
Outside of the hardcore gaming demographic, browser-based games of all sorts from racing and rhythm games to light RPGs, MMOs, and puzzle games are popular nationwide. Casual social games are a fixture of screens in any Chinese office when the boss isn’t around, and as more of the Chinese population gets access to smartphones, casual mobile games are growing in popularity too. On mobile, China’s tastes are probably more familiar: Angry Birds, and Plants vs. Zombies, and Fruit Ninja are among the country’s most-played games.
Although this too is shifting, a decade ago most of China’s gamers didn’t have their own laptops or internet connections, so when they wanted to game, they went to internet cafes. These shops, called “internet bars” (网吧) in Chinese, are ubiquitous in Chinese cities, and are generally dark, smoky rooms full of teens and young adults playing games, eating instant noodles, and chain-smoking.
The problem with this approach to gaming, of course, is that it occurs away from the watchful eyes of parents. Partially as a result, gaming addiction is perpetually a hot topic in Chinese society and it’s common to read stories in the press about children who snuck out of school to play games, or young adults who’ve robbed and even murdered to get money to support their online gaming habits. Whether or not China’s gaming addiction problem is more serious than any other country’s is hard to measure, but it’s prevalent enough that the company has a few boot camp-style rehab centers parents can enroll addicted (or just unlucky) gamers in if they’re not careful.
To be officially published in China, video games must be approved by the country’s Ministry of Culture, and this has either directly or indirectly led to the censoring of some foreign games to make them appropriate for Chinese audiences. World of Warcraft, for example, was censored to remove the skeletons (although this decision was made preemptively by the game’s China-based publisher in order to avoid trouble with the Ministry of Culture). A few games have been banned from the country entirely (mostly games that include and denigrate the Chinese government or military in some way). And of course, since pornography is illegal in China, any games that include pornographic content are also banned from the country.
Chinese games abroad
China’s domestic developer pool is getting deeper as the country’s economy grows, but China’s game industry hasn’t produced many games that made a big splash outside of their home country. Perhaps the most widely-known Chinese game in the West is Farmville, which was created by a Western developer but is a pretty direct copy of the Chinese game Happy Farm. As the industry continues to grow, though, Chinese developers will increasingly look to capture markets overseas, and we may finally see more Chinese games breaking through the barrier and spreading throughout the world.