Leveling-Up in China: A Look into Chinese Gaming Culture

As part of Pace University’s commitment to invest in and encourage scholarly work, many of our faculty at are conducting essential research alongside their usual instructing. Marcella Szablewicz, PhD, a Communications Studies professor at Pace’s NYC Campus, is one of them. Szablewicz has been studying a phenomenon since the early 2000s that may catch the attention of anyone who turns to the internet for relaxation or escapism. Her emphasis? The culture and stigma surrounding recreational internet usage in China.

“What would the internet mean for China, being an authoritarian country and one that represses a lot of personal freedoms? Many people speculated that the internet would be a democratizing force in China” she says, “However, there was also a lot of emphasis placed upon how people were going to use the internet to resist the government or engage in politics.” This generalized perspective about the Internet in China sparked Szablewicz’ interest as an undergraduate, motivating her to move away from western bias and dive deeper into how Chinese youth were actually using the internet in everyday life.

“I like it to American bar culture because it was illegal for these teenagers to be going into internet cafes, so they would have to use fake IDs. Once they got in, it was a social party with everyone playing digital games.”

As the creator of New Communication Technologies and Moral Panic, a communications course at Pace, Szablewicz is well-versed in the concerns that come with new forms of communication technology and the fact that these fears have been consistent throughout history. In this particular case, it’s the Chinese government’s strong concerns about digital gaming leading to internet addiction. Concerns that are strong enough for China’s government to implement heavy internet restrictions for teenagers. Concerned parents have even resorted to sending their children to internet addiction “bootcamps,” where young people participate in military style drills or electroshock treatment to cure their addiction.

Ever since her frequent travels to China for field work, Szablewicz has made insightful discoveries about the youths’ reaction to the fear and stigma surrounding gaming.

“A lot of teenagers were rebelling against the pressure of intense schoolwork and academics, so they would escape to internet cafes to play digital games as a kind of pastime. It was a really interesting phenomenon.” She laughs, “I like it to American bar culture because it was illegal for these teenagers to be going into internet cafes, so they would have to use fake IDs. Once they got in, it was a social party with everyone playing digital games.”

Though Szablewicz set out to observe trends in recreational internet use, she has also noticed a correlation with the simultaneous rise of esports, a professional competitive form of digital gameplay. Though this trend of elevating video gaming from a casual hobby to a competitive sport is worldwide. In fact, Pace just announced their own esports program, making these digital competitors part of Pace’s 15th varsity sport—China was actually one of the very first countries to deem esports a legitimate sport. What began as a form of escape for Chinese youth has now become a means of earning income. “Some teenagers were rising through the ranks of gaming to become competitive gamers and earning huge amounts of prize money from playing games,” she says. “Now there’s this tension between games as a source of rebellion and games as a potential career path.”

She also noticed that many young people had to maneuver their way around the “internet gaming” stigma: “A lot of the college students were going out of their way to distance themselves from being identified as an internet gamer because they’d be labeled as an addict, so instead they would align themselves closely with esports,” she recalls.

Throughout all her research, Szablewicz has discerned a societal significance to the stigmas and paradoxes surrounding gaming in China. “The thing that I find most significant is how ideas about what constitutes productive leisure tends to tell us a lot about a societies’ values ​​and where those values ​​are placed,” says Szablewicz.

“I’m really fascinated by the ways in which youth leisure choices are often controlled by those in power, who are often older generations who don’t necessarily understand the leisure choices of youth. The idea of ​​high culture is seen as worthwhile, but when it comes to popular culture among young people, it is denigrated and seen as useless or time wasting,” she says. “People who are in power are trying to keep young people from taking up their position in places of power and it’s kind of a repetitive pattern.”

However, Szablewicz’s research reveals that no matter what barriers are placed, younger generations tend to find a way to innovate. Whether it is through sneaking into internet cafes after school, or carving out their own career paths, the focus on gaming in China reveals the resilience of these young gamers.

Interested in learning more about China’s gaming culture? Check out Marcella Szablewicz’s new book Mapping Digital Game Culture in China.

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