In moving to Beijing’s Haidian district, we swapped California’s Silicon Valley for China’s own Silicon Alley. We live right next to Zhōngguāncūn, the city’s technology hub, and can see Microsoft, Google and Sun Microsystem buildings from our apartment. Lenovo’s global HQ is just up the street while AMD and Intel have side-by-side campuses around the corner. In the midst of all this are five technology bazaars where a geek with some hardnosed bargaining skills can haggle for anything computer related.
But in the basement of these mall-sized computer markets are huge playgrounds for video game nerds where hundreds of HDTVs have Wiis, Xboxes and PS3 dangling from them. Meanwhile, internet cafes full of PCs rent access to virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and EverQuest by the hour.
The Saturday afternoon I was there was particularly intriguing as two professional video game teams battled it out in front of an audience complete with streaming video to huge-screen TVs, bleachers and even commentators. Run by GTV.com.cn, the two teams of five each battled old-school style, in the world of WarCraft III’s Azeroth (pictured here).
The popularity of arcades and huge gaming halls is, like so many things in China, in part driven by harsh government regulation. Console video game systems (Nintenos, Xboxes and Playstations) have been officially banned since 2000. Meanwhile, PC games have to be approved by the State Press and Publication Administration. Games like World of Warcraft have been repeatedly denied approval and need to have “offensive” material removed before entering the immense and growing Chinese market. The government has also cracked down on unlicensed internet cafes, closing an estimated 15,000 “shàngwăng bā” last year.
Of course, like any good prohibition, these bans have simply made the business of video games all the more lucrative for the enterprising individual. The gray and black markets for video games, both real and pirated, have been flourishing. Console video game sales soared to $4.7 billion last year, up from $3.2 billion in 2007, according to a report by China Software Industry Association. Meanwhile, online gaming posted record sales in 2008 of $2.75 billion in 2008, up 61% over 2007, according to the research firm Niko Partners.
But the PRC will not sit idly by while its youth are sucked into virtual worlds. The government has been setting up internet addict clinics for youth who spend hours blasting foes online. “Led by Tao Ran, a military researcher who built his career by treating heroin addicts, the clinic uses a tough-love approach that includes counseling, military discipline, drugs, hypnosis and mild electric shocks.”
These draconian methods have not deterred gamers, who number nearly 60 million. And the number is growing quicker here than nearly anywhere else in the world, likely surpassing the number of US gamers this year, to the notice of game makers. Giant billboards for World of Warcraft soar above busy Beijing streets while WoW has even earned a spot in my electronic Mandarin dictionary – 魔獸世界 or “Móshòushìjiè.”
However, since this past weekend, Chinese WoWers have been without their fix as the makers of the game are sloppily transitioning from one licensing company to another to host their Chinese operations. When the lights in Azeroth come back on at the end of the month we’ll see how many Chinese paladins return to smite the nonbelievers.