Henry Jenkins' westward journey

More fun with fantasy gaming and the history of Sino-Japanese hostility

Published August 24, 2006 3:46PM (EDT)

Remember that mass riot in China in July in which thousands of outraged citizens protested the desecration of a Chinese government office with Japan's Rising Sun iconography? Maybe not, if you don't care about games, because that's where the riot occurred, in an online multiplayer game called "Fantasy Westward Journey."

How the World Works marveled over the cyber Sino-Japanese uproar at the time, but we missed MIT professor Henry Jenkins' fabulous investigation of the online fracas, published on his blog on Aug. 2. If you want the definitive take, so far, on this bizarre mixture of national politics and fantasy gaming, head on over. Henry Jenkins is the preeminent philosopher, analyst and sociological anthropologist of modern gaming. No one else even comes close.

Aside from being engrossed by the sheer level of detail, two tangential considerations struck me after reading his account (compiled with the help of his former student, Zhan Li). Jenkins notes that China boasts the fourth largest online gaming market in the world. But it is only the third largest such market in East Asia, behind both Japan and South Korea (and Taiwan is not too far behind all of them). So what it is it, exactly, about nation-states that share a common Confucian culture that makes their citizens such avid gamers?

Jenkins also observes that no other nation has witnessed an online political protest on anything close to the scale of the "Westward Journey" mobilization. This reminded me of a conversation with a venture capitalist last summer who noted to me that he and his ilk were paying close attention to China's gaming industry, because the sheer questions of scale involved with running online operations in that country meant that gaming companies would have to come up with unprecedented technological solutions and new business models. I guess we can also add to that, new techniques of political repression, suitable for emerging virtual societies.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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