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.

Ingrained Japanese culture and handling of Chinese Ethnicity within the Metal Gear Universe

March 25th, 2009

Lots of Metal Gear Solid spoilers, and a pretty deep look into the lore, so you’ve been warned!


This post was originally going to be about how Solid Snake is a terrible representation of an American born Chinese, but on going over my fact checking I realized that he is actually Japanese/American, surrogated through a Chinese mother (EVA).

I was a little dumbfounded at this revelation when watching the video that re-affirmed this for me (1:50). Mentioning of the Japanese egg donor (IVF process) seemed a little suspect, as it just appear hammed in there. I mean, it appears as though the developers simply wanted to clarify and cement the fact that Snake is actually Japanese, and not of Chinese ethnicity, the latter which would be an easy assumption given the events of MGS3, EVA’s titular title of Big Mama and how she openly states that she is Snake’s mother.

I can see how this was perhaps needed to justify the lines of Vulcan Raven in MGS1, but it does feel very self conscious of itself, that Snake is not Chinese. It really wouldn’t matter either way but consider these two previously glossed over points:

Mei Ling’s odd representation in the later half of MGS4. As I’ve mentioned before, strange, nonsensical, award sexual innuendo that makes her appear unexpectedly ditsy, particular in contrast to her more respected role in Metal Gear Solid. I just find that these two identities don’t match at all.

As I also lightly discussed earlier on this blog, EVA has no hints of being Chinese. No accent, blonde hair and unmistakably western appearance. In one of the games she justifies this (I honestly can’t recall, nor find it) but the justification that an archetypal, western Bond Girl is actually of Chinese ethnicity is a terribly hard sell.

These three ultra subtle clues, suggest some minute, no doubt culturally ingrained influences that have naturally flowed into the development process of this game. I don’t raise these points to be in any way contentious, rather, they make an interesting example of the way in which culture naturally affects video game development, as it would anything else. That we should be conscious of these hints, because, while seemingly insignificant, they are very important in the grander message.

The Convenience of Chinese Ethnicity in Games?

November 22nd, 2008

I remember a few years ago I was watching an interview with Jackie Chan, and one of his comments struck a chord with me. He mentioned that in movies, particularly western movies, the Asian guy never kisses the girl. That’s quite interesting isn’t it? Interesting because he is dead-on in that cultural archetypes and shape media. No one really wants an Asian guy to pash the lovely American actress now do they? Well at least not in western films.

That’s one good example of how culture affects media in the most subtle of ways, beyond the posh British waiter and clichéd American hero. Here is another, much similar to the last. What do all of these female video game characters have in common?

chinese video game characters
Ada Wong (Resident Evil), Lian Xing (Syphon Filter), EVA (Metal Gear Solid) and Chun-Li (Street Fighter)

That’s right they are all Chinese, well the good bits.

Obviously many attributes have been toned down, while others have been toned up to fit the appropriate audiences. I mean, skin is nice and white, the orientation of the eyes are relaxed, bust is increased and clothes are not particularly Chinese in style (even by contemporary Chinese fashion). These women (excluding Chun-Li) all seem like American born Chinese instead of native Chinese.

A question to you readers, do you think that these characters quantify as culturally authentic and not characters retooled for the western audience? Judging by their appearance, accent, behaviour and so forth. Furthermore, is this perhaps a responsible thing to do and what are the implications of it?

I will share my ideas in another post..well still deciding to respond or to leave it as food for thought. (Yes, that’s right dolling them out in desperation).