National Politics within Virtual Game Worlds: The Case of China

20060709_08.jpg Last month, what some are describing as "the largest political protest gathering in a virtual world game ever" occurred within the Chinese Massively Multiplayer Game, Fantasy Westward Journey (FWJ). Comparative Media Studies alum Zhan Li has been working with me over the past several weeks to piece together some sense of what occurred and what it means. Please keep in mind as you read this that the incident concerned the still heated relationship between Japan and China. Some of the language qouted from participants may be offensive but it is qouted to help readers understand more fully the issues at stake for participants in this debate.

NetEase and FWJ

FWJ is currently the most popular MMORPG in the People's Republic of China. The game is heavily influenced by classical Chinese literature and history. The name is a direct reference to Journey to the West or Westward Journey (perhaps best known for its famous central character, The Monkey King). FWJ has over 25mm registered player accounts and a peak concurrent user count of up to 1.3mm players during first quarter 2006 with an average concurrent user count of about 458,000 players. FWJ is operated by NetEase, one of the big three Chinese companies which represent 70% of the People's Republic of China market. NetEase founder, William Ding, is a billionaire and third wealthiest person in PRC. Of the major games companies in the country, NetEase has the strongest emphasis on developing original games with Chinese culture themes (such as FWJ) in contrast to the other big 2 companies (Shanda and The9) which are more dependent on licensing foreign - especially Korean - games. NetEase operates the two leading MMORPGs in China - FWJ and a Korean license (Westward Journey Online - similar themes to FWJ). NetEase also has the most significant in-house development capability.

The Incident

The incident started on July 4 when the game's administrators placed a high level player (level 144, only 11 levels away from maximum) with an anti-Japanese name ("Kill the little Japs") in an in-game virtual jail. They ask him to change his name as it is too politically sensitive and he refused. As he explained in a public statement:

I began playing this game two years ago. When I first applied to Netease, you did not say that my alias was unacceptable! But now you come and lock up my ID. This is obviously depriving me of my private assets. Over these two years, I have spent more than 30,000 RMB on game point cards, and I have also spent more than 10,000 RMB on equipment trading.

(10,000 RenMinBi equals US$1,250)

The following day, admins announced that the guild ("The Alliance To Resist Japan") founded by the player - with 700 members, one of the top 5 in the game - would be dissolved by July 10. Netease offered the following explanation of its actions:

Although the names of individuals, guilds, stalls, shops, pets and beasts may be chosen as you wish, Netease is running a healthy and green game. In order to maintain the purity and harmony in the game world, Netease will not permit any names that include (but this list is not restricted solely to) those that attack, insult or mislead with respect to race, nationality, national politics, national leaders, obscenity, vulgarity, libel, threat, religions and religious figures.... In changing the name of an individual player or handling the case of an individual guild, we do not want to cause any unhappiness to people. We do not want such an incident to affect the patriotism of everybody. But this is a game. When we operate this game, we follow the state's regulations on Internet administration and we are monitored by the National Internet Supervisory Bureau. People come here to experience joy, and we therefore emphasize health, relaxation and happiness and we should not bring in politically sensitive topics. The experience of history tells us that patriotism should be expressed rationally under the grand theme of protecting the interests of the nation and the people. Patriotism requires passion, but it requires rationality even more so. Passion and rationality form our correct way of expressing our patriotism.


The Rising Sun?

Rumors were circulating around this time (unclear whether they start before or after the jailing/guild banning announcement) that NetEase, which runs the game in question, is being taken over by a Japanese company who are making changes to the game e.g. Chinese lion statues (a historic patriotic symbol) in the game will be turned into pigs. According to the initial reports in the Beijing Evening News, many Chinese gamers were angered by a particular "Jianye city government office" represented in the game because of an icon on one of the walls which some felt bore too close a resemblance to the Japanese "rising sun" flag.


The Beijing Evening News cites some telling comments from local gamers angered by the icon:

"To raise a 'Rising Sun flag' in a Great Tang government office is obviously a challenge and an insult!" said local game player Mr. Zeng angrily. Another game player Ms. Lu could not conceal her disappointment: "Even although everything in the game is virtual, our feelings are still genuine. This incident has seriously hurt our feelings. We find this unacceptable." According to game player Mr. Gu, many game players contacted the customer service line after the incident broke upon, but the other side only repeated: "No comment." Mr. Guo said that the word among the game players is that the "Rising Sun flag" is present in a Tang dynasty government office because some of the stock shares in this online game have been purchased by a foreign company. This explanation has not been confirmed.

On this, Peking University Department of Sociology professor Xia Xueluan said that a national flag is not an ordinary commercial product because it is the symbol of a sovereign nation. Therefore, to hand the flag of one sovereign nation at the symbolic place for another sovereign nation is a form of public challenge. Professor Xia said that the game's planning and operation department should consider the social meaning of the game instead of the mere commercial value. While entertaining the public, they ought to educate and lead people to make the proper value judgments.


The game company later explained that the rising sun motif was based on a classic Chinese painting, "Sunrise in the East," and was intended to reflect aspects of traditional Chinese culture. Philips reproduces the original painting and notes that the icon on the wall in the game was significantly altered from both the Japanese and Chinese images of the rising sun, further adding confusion to the discussion.

NetEase has denied rumors that it is being bought by a Japanese company or that the game content included pro-Japanese propaganda. The company responded to suggestions that they had turned the Lions into pigs: "This is a cartoon-style game and some images may have exaggerated shapes; that don't mean their meaning has changed," the message said. They also seemed to blame The Alliance to Resist Japan for circulating these rumors and further enflaming the situation.


The Protest March

July 7 was the anniversary of the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge incident which is regarded by the Chinese as the beginning of Second Sino-Japanese War and also of the Second World War. It is a date long associated within China with anti-Japanese sentiments that still remain intense among some segments of the Chinese population. It is on this date that the mass protests begin within the game world with almost 10,000 player/protestors on the first day. The "Summer Palace" server group, where much of the protest occurred, was almost overwhelmed when 80,000 players joined the protest -- a huge increase over the 20,000 users the server normally accommodated.

The incident has been reported both in Chinese and Japanese games related blogs.

To place this incident in its proper context, it may be useful to take a few steps back and look at the current state of online gaming in China and its historic relationship to struggles over national culture.

Games in China

Some reports identify the PRC as not only having the world's largest video gaming population, but also its fastest growing. China is the fourth largest online games market in the world (U.S. is No.1) and the third largest in Asia following South Korea and Japan. (Taiwan is fourth). The PRC began to emerge as a significant games market around 2000 and has grown steadily ever since. Online games have been seen as major driver popularizing broadband internet in PRC, and they are currently the most profitable segment of the PRC internet market About 95% of Chinese (non-mobile phone) video gaming is online PC (compared with 4% console) - the most effective business model as it is relatively piracy-free (a big problem for offline PC games). The total market size (summation of operators' revenue) for PRC online games (both MMORPG and casual) is projected to grow as high as $1bn for 2006 from around $600mm in 2005. About half of this comes from MMORPGs.

Much of this gaming -- and indeed, most of Chinese digital culture more generally -- takes place in internet cafes. Recent estimates project the number of internet users in the PRC to rise from as many as 111mm in 2005 to 130mm in 2006. (Total PRC pop. estimate as of July 2006 is approx. 1,314mm). Of these internet users, as many as 33mm in 2005 were estimated to be online gamers (35mm in 2006). About 20-25mm play MMORPGs. Some estimates suggest that there are 5mm under 18 year olds who play online games.

There is also a growing market for mobile phone games, but Chinese gamers appear to have little appetite for game consoles (a recent attempt by Shanda, one of the big 3 Chinese game companies, to a launch a domestically designed and produced home entertainment system/IPTV/online/ game console platform (the "EZ" ) has been a major flop). Fantasy MMORPGs are still the most important genre, but online casual games are expected to take over in importance soon.

The Digital Generation in China

I visited China several years ago in the wake of a tragic incident where two teenagers who were refused entry to an illegal internet cafe had returned and purposefully set fire to the door of the establishment, resulting in the death of everyone inside. The illegal cafes would sell customers all night access and then lock them inside, a practice which contributed greatly to the horrors of this incident. In a column for Technology Review, I described both the government's response (using the incident as a pretext to shut down all internet cafes in the country for a prolonged period of review) and the public's response (which tended to emphasize the breakdown of traditional community life rather than media effects to explain the youth's behavior.) At the time, I read the response in contrast to the American discourse on the Columbine school shootings which had tended to push aside any focus on social causes and adopt a policy of blaming violent entertainment. Here's some of what I wrote at the time;

Most Western discussions of the Internet and China describe the rise of digital access and consumer culture as liberating forces that cultivate democratic aspirations behind the repressive government's back. MIT professor Jing Wang notes, however, that the expansion of consumerism has been actively promoted by the government throughout the last decade. Embracing a rhetoric of "one nation, two systems," the state has encouraged a shorter work week, recreational activities, entrepreneurship, and more material goods per citizen. The goal has been to facilitate economic and technological change without promoting political destabilization.

A society once characterized by limited choice now confronts a multitude of consumer options and aggressive advertising campaigns. The first billboard I saw in Beijing contained the word "dotcom." A few blocks away from Tiananmen Square, a mob of people stopped in the street and stared at a massive television screen broadcasting the World Cup punctuated by a host of consumer-electronics commercials. Red-tented Coca-Cola stands in the Forbidden City; traditional night markets flanking Starbucks-old economic and social systems are breaking down faster than new ones can emerge, resulting in a culture riddled with contradictions, a state policy characterized by mixed signals and a public charged by both anxiety and anticipation.

And China's urban youth have stood at the center of these changes. In fact, three quarters of all Internet users in China are under 30. Many urban teens don't remember a time without rampant consumerism. A few years in age between siblings translate into dramatic differences in cultural experiences. Fairly or unfairly, these urban youths embody their nation's hopes and fears about the future.

On the one hand, the government sees the high-tech sector as central to China's long term economic interests, especially since joining the World Trade Organization last year. For example, the Shanghai schools now require all nine-year-olds to learn basic Internet skills. On the other hand, anti-computer rhetoric proliferates.

In subsequent years, the Chinese government has both sought to regulate game-playing and to promote the use of computer games for cultural education -- in a sense seeing the growth of gaming in their country as both a social problem and a pedagogical opportunity.

Regulating Game Play

In mid-2005, the national government took a much more forceful stance on video game regulation, as part of a general tightening of entertainment media policy. The government's regulations included a "fatigue system" designed to limit the amount of continuous time that players could spend within game worlds. Initially, the regulations applied to all citizens but were later revised to apply only to players under the age of 16. Moreover, new Internet cafés were banned from 200m radius of schools and apartment buildings; registration of new internet cafes was suspended for time being; café curfews for under 18s introduced in July 2006

The government justified its video game regulations by citing concerns about youth addiction, corruption, and health issues related to games. Games, according to an official statement, "break the constitution, threaten national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity will be banned. Anything which threatens state security, damaging the nation's glory, disturbing social order and infringing on other's legitimate rights will also be banned." This formalized a stance that had already banned games for politically contentious content. An example of a problematic issue would be the representation of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet as independent nations

Those familiar with long-term Chinese regulation of internet access saw the policies also as a back door effort to restrict youth access and participation in cyberspace more generally. In the all night cybercafes described earlier, especially those which are not legally registered, youth would spend the night playing games, chatting with friends, reading porn, and consuming forbidden news sites. Setting limits on the amount of time that could be spent playing games would, in effect, limit these all night policies.

Players initially sought to get around such restrictions by adopting multiple accounts and using multiple aliases but the government responded in June 2006 by requiring that all online game accounts be registered with real names and ID card numbers.


Transforming Game Culture in China

At the same time, the PRC has sought to promote "healthy" gaming practices and culturally-appropriate games content.

-- The All China Sports Federation has recognized video games as an official competitive sport

- PRC Ministry of Culture has released lists of officially approved "healthy" selected online commercial games that are already in the market place (15 games selected in Aug 05; another 10 in Jan 06)

- Ministry of Science of Technology has included online gaming in national plan to support hi-tech projects

- The National Copyright Administration of China has established a "China domestic online game publishing project" which aims to develop 100 home grown games (investment of $120-$240mm) from 2005 to 2010

- National initiative to address shortage of game developers - professional game development college established in Hong Kong, with branches planned for 20 cities and partnerships with 10 universities to offer video game degrees

- Shanda, one of the big 3 PRC game companies, announced in 2005 that it would be developing 100 patriotic online games about historic Chinese heroes for schoolchildren over the next decade in cooperation with Chinese government regulators

While some western observers have suggested that government sponsored patriotic games would likely be boring, patriotic games can embrace the latest in video gameplay. In August 2005 reports that a Chinese game company, PowerNet Technology, was developing a new MMOPRG called "Anti-Japan War Online" in cooperation with the China Communist Youth League (the main youth organization of the PRC Communist Party). Estimates put the development costs at over $6mm (in comparison with the U.S. Army's official online game, America's Army, cost around $7.7mm for its initial development). The game depicts key battles during the Second Sino-Japanese war, whilst avoiding graphic depictions of combat. While they cannot play on the Japanese side (keep in mind that everyone plays on the U.S. side in America's Army), players can choose from 17 professions on the Chinese side such as peasant, student, factory worker or soldier. The game project manager at PowerNet Technology was reported to remark, "Our game designers hate Japan so they want to make the game very provocative," while at the same time he was quick to reassure readers that "the team leaders have tried to tone down the violence."

Like many other countries around the world, China sees games as a key growth sector within the digital economy -- especially with online gaming being identified as a particularly East Asian phenomenon. But China also is serious about the cultural and political impact of games, seeing the medium as key for winning the hearts and minds of a growing generation of young citizens. Games thus become the focus of censorship and regulation, economic development, and struggles over national culture.

Protest in Game Worlds

One can understand NetEase's development of a multiplayer game based on a classic of Chinese Literature as part of this larger push towards the use of games to promote national culture (as well as define the company brand against competition from Korean and Japanese licensed games). At the same time, the player's response also reflects the internalization of these same policies -- an effort to police games of content that might run counter to the patriotic spirit the government seeks to promote. One can understand why patriotism was such a central issue for people on both sides of this debate, though patriotism here is defined on rather different grounds, especially as it relates to attitudes towards Japan, the country's former military foe and current economic rival.

Around the world, multiplayer games are emerging as new public spheres where issues of national pride get played out. There has been strong backlash within the United States, for example, against the rising phenomenon of "gold farming," that is, the development and sell of in game assets for money, a practice closely associated in American discourse with China, where it is estimated that as many as 500,000 people make at least some of their living through playing computer games. (Of course, this debate about "gold farming" also plays itself out in a context of a national debate about immigration policy and a renewed nationalism following September 11.) At the same time, there have been a variety of political gatherings within multiplayer game worlds, mostly protesting various corporate policies, and in the wake of what some saw as homophobic policies in the World of Warcraft, in support of gay rights. One could argue, though, that even the gay rights march centered as much around issues of consumer rights as around any larger political agenda. There has been a fair amount of discussion of game worlds as sites for economic and political experiments but in the west, there has not been this kind of spillover between ingame and real world politics. And there certainly has been nothing on the scale of what happened in FWJ.

Zhan Li, my former student who did a Masters Thesis on whether we could consider the U.S. government-sponsored military game, America's Army to be a public sphere for political debate, explains,

As far as I know, and can tell from my searching around on the web and on

news databases, there have been no mass-scale "real world" political protests of this kind on US MMORPGs. There have been small scale protests about in-game policies (this happens on Chinese MMORPGs too of course -

there was a in-game "mass suicide" protest against the government fatigue system on World of Warcraft for instance) such as the tax revolt on Second Life and in-game identities (LBGT rights etc. ) . As far as I can tell, the

largest incident about real-world politics within a MMORPG / virtual world was a 2003 dispute about Iraq involving an influx of WWII Online gamers onto Second Life (attracted by an IGN article about a small group of establish

WWII gamers on SL, not by intent to protest) , which perhaps involving "nearly 130" WWII Online gamers (a figure which Wired called "large") and perhaps a couple of hundred regular Second Lifers. And in that dispute, Iraq

seems to have been secondary - a backdrop which players referred to when working through their primary concerns about the WWII gamers wanting to see if they could conquer and own a piece of territory through violence, and that the new WWII gamers rivalled the largest established clan in size.

Arguably, the Chinese government's efforts to regulate game playing -- and to promote games as part of the national culture -- have transformed what might have been a mere passtime into a more politically charged environment. What's striking about the protest march in FWJ and the company's response to the protest is the degree to which all involved saw issues of national honor and patriotism as at stake in this dispute. This wasn't a struggle over an in-game asset: it was a struggle about how the game fit within larger debates about Chinese nationalism and about the country's relations to Japan.