Games and Social Responsibility — Perspectives from Shanghai

Shortly after the start of 2008, I traveled to Shanghai to attend the International Games and Learning Forum, an event organized by the MIT Education Arcade team in collaboration with Peking University and funded by the Hewlett Foundation. The gathering brought together some leading American thinkers (including Sasha Barab, Eric Klopfer, and Scot Osterweill) about the pedagogical potentials of games with their Chinese counterparts in education, government and industry. Special thanks to Alex Chisholm who organized the event.

This fascinating series of conversations started broadly with a consideration of the current context of digital games in China and ended with a concentration on the value of games as a resource for teaching foreign languages. Here I want to share with you some impressions about the current state of games in China which emerged from these exchanges.

The concept of the ‘social responsibility’ of games companies was a much more central concept to these conversations than in an American context. The western discussion of ‘serious games’ is framed by the assumption that pedagogy is an unrealized potential of the medium but without any expectations that games companies have an obligation to create games which might transform societies. Perhaps because of the ways that media industries in China seek to walk a line between some emerging capitalist impulses/opportunities and an overarching state economy, the industry representatives at this event sought to continually reassure participants that they were fully aware of their ethical and social responsibilities. These responsibilities operate at multiple levels — not simply a repressive notion of ethical responsibility (focused on what they exclude from games in order to protect impressionable young people) but also a generative notion (what they included in games in order to promote national culture or ethical self-consciousness). And it is this affirmative or generative notion of social responsibility which holds open the greatest promise in terms of promoting a serious games movement in China.

One attendee went so far as to link this focus on serious games to the United Nation’s statement on children’s rights which identified a ‘right to play’ as a fundamental expectation. (It’s hard to imagine such a U.N. resolution playing a central role in any American discussion of games given our national disdain at the moment for such international agreements, but one can imagine such a fit carrying greater weight in China at a time the country is courting global respectability through hosting the Olympic games.)

Game Addiction

Let me break this down a bit more. First, I was struck by how little of the conversation about the negative social impact of games centered around issues of media violence or even sex. I had noted a similar disinterest in games violence when I had visited China five years ago in the wake of a tragic fire in a cybercafe started by a high school student frustrated that he was not being allowed to access the internet or play games. My essay on this incident for Technology Review is reprinted in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. Basically, I argue that the Chinese had little interest in the argument that games violence causing real world violence. Rather, the incident was read in terms of concerns about the breakdown of traditional community life and the loss of the moral influence of the extended family in Chinese culture, both of which were seen as a consequence of rapid cultural, technological, and economic changes. The incident was also read partially in relation to a focus on ‘games and internet addiction.’

We need to be careful about taking this ‘addiction’ rhetoric at face value even though there are some highly publicized incidents where Asian youth played games to the point of physical collapse. For one thing, Chinese youth used cybercafes as their point of access to both games and the internet. To some degree, the Chinese government is using a rhetoric of addiction to rationalize their periodic crackdowns on young people’s digital access, knowing that concern about media effects is more likely to be accepted by western governments. In that sense, addiction rhetoric does some of the same work that the Firewall does in terms of restricting youth participation in the online world.

The addiction rhetoric, though, carries force within China where it is connected to a number of concerns which the Chinese have about their children’s culture. First, at a time when aspects of capitalism are reshaping Chinese society (especially in Shanghai), addiction rhetoric gives the Chinese a way to talk about the impact of leisure culture and consumer capitalism on their lives. Playing games is problematic precisely because it is unproductive (or seen as such). This focus on unproductive play rather than productive labor takes on particular significance when you recognize that time spent playing games was time “stolen” from exam preparation in a culture where one’s future (and that of your family) often rested on how well you perform on standardized testing. It is the high pressure nature of Chinese education which helps to account for the attractiveness of games as a cultural outlet.

Of course, this focus on play is not unique to Chinese youth, even if the forms that play takes breaks along generational lines. On most residential streets, you can see people squatting around a card game, Chess, or Mah Jong, the game providing a context for face to face interactions within the adults of the community. Many of the public parks we visited on this trip included plastic playground equiptment, not aimed at small children but rather targeted at senior citizens, who used them to exercise. Seniors are being encouraged to play but that play is organized around keeping young and improving their physical health (that is, play is redefined as enabling self improvement). Chinese youth, by contrast, are more likely to be interacting online (or within the closed space of the cybercafes) and often to be playing games with people they do not meet face to face.

This brings us to a second aspect of gaming from a Chinese perspective: government policies have promoted birth control and the single child family. Several folks in the Chinese games industry stressed the ways that online gaming reflected the loneliness and isolation of single children who were forced to reach out beyond their own families or even local communities in search of playmates. Whether understood literally or metaphorically, this link between the one child family and the debates about games addiction helps to explain the intensity of this concern.

Finally, the games addiction debate takes on a historically and geographically specific reference point. Several of the speakers talked about the addiction to western games as the modern equivalent of the opium wars, with games suspected as vehicles for inculcating western values or simply as distractions which insured that Chinese youth would under-perform in other aspects of their lives. Here, we can read the introduction of games consoles alongside ongoing debates in China about the appropriateness of recognizing Christmas, an alien holiday which never the less fit well with the gift giving focus of traditional Chinese culture (and in effect, extended the shopping season around Chinese new year.) Walking around Shanghai one saw strange overlaps between the decorations that still lingered from Christmas sales campaigns and the decorations which had already appeared in anticipation of New Years celebrations. I was amused by a sign I spotted in the Shanghai airport wishing visitors a “Merry Chris”. The rest of the world talks about putting the Christ back in Xmas, but here, it is the Mass which has dropped off altogether as Kris Kringle and not the Christ child becomes the icon for this merchant’s festival. Games, not surprisingly, are popular gift purchases during these holiday seasons but like Christmas, they were often understood in terms of unwelcomed western influences upon Chinese cultural traditions.

So, on one level, the social responsibilities of games companies were framed in terms of managing games addiction with the companies falling all over themselves to talk about devices and programs they have developed to limit the amount of time Chinese youth spent playing games. There are parential controls which allow adults to set and enforce fixed limits on how long their children can play. And games produced by Chinese companies are designed to provide stop points appropriate for the anticipated limits set on game play. One speaker at the conference even suggested a plan which linked access to game worlds and assets to performance on exams. Good test scores might translate into tokens which could be redeemed in games, thus providing gamers with a stronger incentive to spend time studying.

There was also a great deal of discussion about the need to develop games which encourage families to play together, insuring that gaming helps to reinforce strong family ties rather than representing one more factor of modernity which separated youth from the influence of their parents. (This is a society where a group sitting down to lunch is still given a single menu with the expectation that the patriarch will order for the entire group.) One Chinese games industry speaker described the ways that games focused on national culture might bridge generation gaps: young people could use games to help older players to master new technologies while adults could use game play to transmit traditional cultural values and practices.

Serious Games

On the other hand, many of the speakers defined the social obligations of games companies in a more generative sense — in terms of the introduction of elements into the game play which are seen in more positive terms by the adult society. Games in China, then, are seen as part of a national cultural policy aimed at restoring pride in Chinese history and cultural traditions, traditions which were severely disrupted by the Cultural Revolution and just now beginning to gain some traction in the society once again. Parents worry that their offspring are being drawn to alien cultural experiences –not only games but also anime and comics from other parts of the world — rather than embracing aspects of their own cultural tradition which adults want to see transmitted to the next generation. The computer here is seen as an important educational resource, one which prepares Chinese youth for a greater engagement with the world beyond their borders.

At the conference, several Chinese game designers proudly displayed games which included historically accurate and precisely realized recreations of historical villages and cities from pre-20th century China. They have filled these historical recreations with artifacts replicated from cultural museums or used them as settings to re-enact cultural rituals, such as wedding ceremonies. Many of the games were based on classical Chinese literature, especially Three Kingdoms.(For more on the relation of games to Chinese cultural policy, check out this earlier blog post.)

One participant noted that western games did much better in the cities but Chinese games rooted in traditional cultures were expected by more rural consumers. Such a distinction makes sense if we see games as part of the process of modernization, westernization, liberalization, and capitalization of China. Those young people who will have the most contact with western travelers or business men were being educated through their play to understand the world beyond while those who would have the least contact were more invested in protecting their national culture from outside influences.

Social responsibility was also being expressed in terms of promoting games which encouraged ethical reflection and thus transmitted the country’s philosophical traditions and in terms of the potential educational uses of games. Games companies had a much stronger commitment to the development of serious games, even though most of them were no closer towards developing a business model to support edutainment titles than their counterparts in the west.

One unfortunate downside of this emphasis on games as a means of transmitting national culture was a tendency to link the idea of educational games to a particular kind of content — to this idea of historical reconstructions — rather than to a pedagogical process. Several of us in the group of westerners attending the conference were struck by how little our Chinese counterparts spoke about game play as a learning process, saying very little about what you did in the games and much more about the worlds that players could observe. At a western conference on serious games, there is much more likely to be a schism between educators who have a curricular focus and game designers who insist that good game play is necessary for games to be able to motivate or facilitate learning. As a result of this conceptual gap, the two delegations spent a lot of time talking past each other rather than sharing insights about the challenges of designing educational games.

The western participants were more likely to embrace games in terms of a conception of enrichment activities — things we might learn which went beyond national standards and exams. The Chinese were, as a whole, much more likely to embrace drill and practice models of educational gaming with all education understood in relation to school policies and testing practices.

Piracy and the Chinese Games Industry

This discussion was also shaped by the particular character of the Chinese games industry which is being profoundly shaped by the culture of media piracy. All we had to do was to walk outside of our hotel and we could see a thriving business in the sell of illegal copies of western media content — games, software, films, television series, and music. I spotted several Hollywood films on dvd which had not reached the screens in the states at the time I had left for the trip. Walk anywhere in the city and you will get accousted by row after row of merchants asking you to “Lookie, Lookie” at their “Watches, DVDS, ipods, suitcases, pocket books, shoes”, all knock offs or copies of western produced goods.

I spoke with one college aged young woman here who offered a range of explanations: western copyrighted materials were priced too high for most people to afford; the government set limits on how many western media properties could be imported legally and there was aggressive censorship of anime and manga (with almost no Japanese content available legally here). The black market was the only place they could go to access such cultural goods, allowing them to work around both political and economic obstacles to access.

Yet, the presence of the black market also made it difficult to make a profit off the distribution of their games in this country and caused equal difficulties for local games producers. The game company folks explained that there was almost no legal market in China for platform or pc based single player titles since there was no way to stop the rapid distribution of such materials at low prices through the black market. The only kinds of games which could make money were multiplayer games, where companies could create incentives for buying legal copies. These games were funded on subscription models or on the basis of the sale of assets and services. This focus on multiplayer experiences, then, forced the Chinese companies to compete within a space where production costs and labor demands are highest and this made it very hard for commercial companies to embrace a serious games model, even in the face of the other strong policy incentives for them to do so.

Another factor pushing against the wide spread embrace of instructional games in China has to do with the technical infrastructure of their schools. A government official from the Education ministry described a 10 billion dollar national program to insure that every school in the country had at least one computer. While Urban Chinese youth enjoyed increased access to digital technologies at home, at school, and through the cybercafes (more on this next time), the rural youth still had little or no direct access to computers. So, a school which has only one computer would not be equipt to integrate computer games into its normal instructional practices as anything beyond the focus for teacher demonstrations. No wonder there is so little focus in their thinking about game play experiences: games may be seen much more as a simulation technology performed in front of the classroom than as anything that young people get to actually play themselves.