Cao Cao, where art thou?

Chinese gaming: A new dynasty in the making?

Published June 14, 2006 7:27PM (EDT)

Watching my 8-year-old son whack a polar bear into stunned submission the other day by twiddling his thumbs on an XBox game controller, I had the opportunity to ponder once again the difference between his experience of the digital environment and mine. I was part of the very first generation to play computer games, and I consider myself reasonably adept in the medium. But to my son, electronic gaming is as natural a part of the world as the air he breathes. I will never know what it is like to grow up in an era where gaming is an integral part of the entertainment cosmos, instead of a brave new world in which I was one of the first pioneers. And I can't even begin to imagine what the mature members of his generation will create to entertain themselves, and their children.

I sure would like the chance to play a state-of-the-art, made-in-China "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" role-playing game, though. And I'll bet I live long enough to see one, even if my son routinely kicks my ass in it should we ever bear arms against each other.

"Romance of the Three Kingdoms" is one of the great classic Chinese novels, set in the waning days of the Han Dynasty, and featuring more intrigue, battlefield excitement, and dynastic Sturm und Drang than a dozen "Lord of the Rings" trilogies. But alas, as I learned from the current issue of the Escapist, since present-day Chinese computer games "basically suck," there are no great "Three Kingdom" games available. Yet.

The Escapist is a fine weekly journal covering gaming; the current issue, pointed out to me by regular How the World Works reader Pyrian, is devoted to China. As I've mentioned before, it is easy to forget that even as millions of Chinese toil away for pennies working in the textile mills and electronic assembly lines that stock the Wal-Marts of the world, millions more Chinese are fully equipped members of advanced capitalism's leisure class, which means, when they've got spare time to kill, they're installing new ringtones on their cellphones, watching DVDs, and playing games. By last count, there are around 25 million to 30 million regular Chinese gamers, which may be a small slice of China's 1.4 billion total population, but is still more than enough to make a pretty penny off of -- $900 million in 2005 alone.

But the Escapist doesn't mince words. An entertaining article by game developer Allen Varney reviews the current state of Chinese gaming and is not very complimentary. This may be because, unlike game developers in the West, Chinese game designers didn't grow up playing Dungeons & Dragons. Or it may be because the industry only got going five years ago. Or perhaps it's the shortage of dwarves, elves and hobbits in Chinese mythology. Whatever the reasons, Western game developers don't need to worry, just yet, that their jobs are headed to China.

But that's short-term thinking! Fifteen years ago, Japanese anime was a cult affectation in the United States; now it suffuses pop culture wholesale. My son's cultural idiom is currently made in Japan, but how long is it going to be before China pop takes over? By the time he's my age, or maybe a lot sooner, Chinese cultural flash points will be everywhere.

From time to time, I like to startle my friends by saying the Chinese equivalent of "speak of the devil" when someone whom I've just been talking about suddenly appears on the scene. The phrase is "Shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao jiu dao!" and it refers to the great general Cao Cao (also written as Tsao Tsao), a major, and controversial, character in "Romance of the Three Kingdoms." If a Mandarin-speaking person is in the room, the moment of cultural contact is immediate. But everyone else looks blank, or a little alarmed. Some day, that's going to change, and it may well be because a new generation is addicted to Chinese games.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gaming Globalization How The World Works