The Role of Video Games in Chinese Youth Culture

September 30th, 2010

We’re all aware of the role video games have within a US and European cultures, but rarely do we know or hear very much about the importance of video games in other countries. In China, where I live, video games play a huge role in modern culture, particularly youth culture, and much of its effects I’ve noticed first-hand at the school I work. Video games are an outlet in a life otherwise full of great social pressure and hard work. In this regard video games take on a completely different form than what we may be comfortably use to.

In my school, we have an area with roughly 22 dedicated computers for students to use in their breaks or for parents who want to kill time while their child is in class. In a recent staff meeting, one of my colleagues complained about the negative influence the “computer lab” has over students. The teacher griped that many students would rush upstairs to play games on the computers during the 15 minute down time punctuating each hour of study and then subsequently loose track of time and arrive late to the second period. Obviously this is a real problem for our classes when students arrive 5 minutes to even half an hour late as they have done, and in fact regularly do, in some of my classes. (The half an hour example was, however, a once-off instance). Other teachers chimed in to the discussion, citing video games as a negative influence upon the children. The discussion moved away from the lab and into how every male student invariably uses the phrase “game over” instead of “die”, how video games seem to instil a violent tendency in some of the boys or how students could surprisingly reference a rich English vocabulary for firearms and weapons.

These are in fact real problems and as a teacher, they impede on my role as an educator. Never mind the irritation caused from comments like “teacher you’re game over”. However, video games, just like alcohol, film, junk food, pornography and literature are largely innocent on their own and further, it as not as though we can simply remove them from society. It is how society prevents possible issues that may arise from these things that is of larger importance. In which case, these issue is more of an indictment of China’s wider social problems as opposed to an intrinsic harm of the video game medium*.

*It should be noted that, equally, there are some issues on the other side of the fence too, regarding the design of maliciously addictive games.

In order to deal with the massive amount of children being educated in schools across China, the Chinese government employs heavy standardisation largely through the means of traditional examinations. Examinations play such an important role in Chinese education, culminating in what is called the gaokao 高考 (high test). The gaokao is the end-of-high-school/university-entrance examination sat around the nation every June. In the Chinese education system, your score in the gaokao represents your entire academic worth and ultimately acts to place you somewhere within China’s hierarchy of tertiary institutions. Get a good score in the gaokao and you may be accepted into one of the country’s better universities, giving you major advantage when lined up against the innumerable number of applicants gunning for the same job come 4 years times. Get a bad score and your prospects in life are all but shattered.

So obviously tests, and particularly the gaokao, are a big deal. Fail at the gaokao and your fate at the bottom of the ladder is partially sealed. Mass population and a system of standardisation built around examination and thereby ROTE learning are of great detriment to the development of critical and creative thinking, the arts as well as quality of life. And this is where video games come in.

In this world that I’ve just painted, escapism is a precious commodity. And in this modern world, nothing does escapism quite as well as video games (or the internet for that matter). With such an imbalance between work and pleasure, it’s no wonder my students are so memorised by video games. They desperately need an outlet and when they finally get it, the worth is invaluable. In this light, we can somewhat empathise with the reports we hear about Chinese people and video game/internet addiction.

The imbalances between work and relaxation are perfectly viewable from within the classroom. The majority of my students enter the class tired and exhausted. We have classes for kids that are 7-8 years-old which run until 9pm at night. With an open-minded foreign teacher replacing their unruly Chinese teacher, they treat our school like a social club, a reprieve from hard work. This is perhaps the reason why they’re so reluctant to knuckle down in our classes.

Another side of this social issue is the lack of moderation over what children play. If you thought the generation gap between you and your parents was a big deal, consider the changes that have occurred throughout China over the past 30 years. Parents of Chinese children today grew up in the decade Chairman Mao died, the Gang of Four were imprisoned and Deng Xiao Ping introduced sweeping economic reform. Thirty years later and their children are growing up in a world of mass population and accelerated capitalism on a scale the world has never seen where the rich are enormously wealthy and the poverty-stricken incredibly poor. The generation gap is massive and a significant part of that is the digital divide. Chinese parents, unlike their western counterparts, have had so little background experience with technology, that monitoring their children’s consumption habits of digital media is a challenge entirely new to them. When you have the combination of the parents unfamiliarity and the children’s almost religious like worship for video games, given that they can get access, the potential consequences for abuse are quite serious. Moderating children’s play time and actively engaging with a game together with a child is an important social responsibility threatened by the wide digital divide.

In our world, video games are a form of escapism from life’s troubles. In China, where the youth face enormous pressure in academic life due to overwhelming importance of the Gaokao and the immense amount of competition as a result of the large population, escapism is all the more precious and thereby so too are video games. Since video games are a means to escapism, they are often pinpointed as the reason behind social unrest. However, video games highlight the lack of reprieve from work in Chinese culture, bringing to light social issues such as the need for mediation between work and pleasure, the enormous digital divide and the phenomena of media addiction.