Gaming notes

Over the last year I’ve been researching the growth of casual gaming in China. Last month I was able to spend time in Yunnan in the rural southwest. But the gaming I found wasn’t the gaming I had been reading about, likely because it’s hard for a guy like me to shoulder-surf a bunch of small screens. Hope these observations are still of interest though….

Most prevalent type of gaming I saw? Realworld social gaming. Streetside Mahjong, Rummy games using western cards or narrow domino cards, crowds kibitzing a Xiangqi chess game in the park. You can see this throughout China, but it seemed particularly striking this trip, perhaps because Yunnan is less economically developed than the coast. People getting together, enjoying each others’ company over a game. Massive, a part of daily life.

This was a big contrast with Internet Bars. I had seen these parlors in other cities, but got more of a chance to peer inside on this trip to Yunnan (still don’t have deep personal experience, though). These aren’t really “Internet” bars… seem more like gaming bars, with a side-course of personal video viewing. For every twenty active screens I saw, sixteen had fullscreen games, three had video, and perhaps one had text.

Dark, cocoon-like rooms… dozens or even scores of stations… frequently in neighborhoods of similar venues. I wandered to the top of a shopping mall in Kunming and saw half a dozen Internet Bars clustered together, holding hundreds of screens. Practically empty during the day, yet full at night. Each person at their own station. Isolated.

The contrast was profound. There’s a big social-gaming tradition already, and yet the new technology goes off into another direction, towards isolated experiences. I know I’m only seeing one small part of the picture, and that superficially, but it was one of the most striking impressions of this trip for me. People over 40 playing non-electronic games together in the sun, and people under 30 playing electronic games in the dark, in a crowd, but alone.

Something else unusual I saw this trip… arcades in transition. Some gaming parlors in Yunnan had 70s-style gaming consoles, big plywood affairs dedicated game to a single game. Amusement parks also held dusty older devices, mechanical games where you’d twist knobs and push levers to get something to happen. Small convenience stores still often have little Pachinko-like games. Some of the Internet Bars seemed to have particular computer games as their home screen, but this was the first time I saw the connection to the older mechanical games which preceded them. I don’t know if the same evolution appeared in urban coastal areas after the economy was opened up, but seeing the evidence of growth on the southwest frontier added new context for me.

Kids? Another surprise: yo-yos and hula-hoops. In other parts of China I’ve often seen the Diabolo, the “Chinese Yo-Yo”, a large set of twin hemispheres which could be disengaged from the string. But here it was straight Duncan sleeper work, with schoolboys doing Rock-The-Cradle and other standard tricks. Although Hula Hoops are sold in other cities, there were more in Yunnan storefronts, and I actually saw them in use too. I saw much less Tai Chi and Rope Dart and Staff, Spear or Sword, maybe because I didn’t hit the parks early-morning. But schoolkids in Yunnan were real big with Yo-Yo and Hula Hoop, very different from elsewhere. Maybe a legacy from The Fighting Tigers of World War II?

But the biggest gaming shock for me was a day-trip to Macau, a ferry ride away from Hong Kong. I last visited here five years ago, and since then it has surpassed Las Vegas as a gambling destination, opening the world’s largest casino, among dozens others. I knew all that, but wasn’t prepared for the collateral growth, the related buildings which have grown up among them. It’s like a whole new town suddenly popped up alongside the old one.

Easiest way to compare is to look at the former biggest gambling spot, the Casino Lisboa, next to its new big sister, the Grand Lisboa… that second Wikipedia link shows the two side-by-side. Directly across the street is the large Wynn Macau from 2006, while the even larger casinos are on reclaimed land in Cotai. Among these giant casinos has sprung up a whole network of smaller gambling houses and related businesses, running all the way out to the ferry landing, and then there’s the new Fisherman’s Wharf theme park to the south.

Growth hasn’t taken over the city… the backstreets of Macau are still as atmospheric as before. But this new landfill area… it just wasn’t there before. Macau has a long history of gambling, and is the easiest place to gamble from mainland China, but to see the massive changes in just five years… I was left, bug-eyed and slack-jawed, staring on the sidewalk in disbelief. Amazing.

So that’s what I’ve got. No insight into the private world of people using new computer games on handheld personal devices, but more insight into the tradition of people playing games, some concern about the Internet Bar scene and its lack of Vitamin D, and raw astonishment at the scale of the “house take” in organized gambling. No conclusions, just better context….