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China's forgotten gamers

James Egan

Frank Yu over at Gamasutra wrote a piece recently that didn't exactly slip through the cracks, but was certainly overshadowed by more pressing concerns that affected online gaming in Asia. Yu's 'China's Forgotten Gamers' -- from his China Angle column -- is a look at the invisible population of gamers in the country that industry demographics simply cannot account for. In North America and Europe, subscriptions, registered downloads and box sales provide an accurate picture of who's playing a given title; China is a different story altogether. Credit cards are nowhere near as prevalent among the Chinese as they are abroad; box sales have largely been a failure due to piracy. Added to the mix is the fact that not everyone can afford to play games legitimately, and so some Chinese gamers find ways to play outside of the system.

Although the reported numbers of gamers playing the various titles in China are large, Yu says, "In China, we track game players by subscriber or registration numbers, or by the amount of money they spend giving companies revenue. If they don't register or pay money, they are somewhat invisible to the industry or, from the business viewpoint, irrelevant."

These 'black holes of gaming' fit into a few broad categories. LAN gamers, for instance, are the hardcore gamers that congregate in net cafés, schools and offices after hours. The games they play are hosted and administered locally, making them free and keeping their usage untracked since no outside internet connection is required. LAN gamers favor titles like Counter-Strike, Starcraft, Age of Empires and DOTA (Defense of the Ancients). When you see a packed internet café, and there are certainly a lot of them in China, the assumption people make is that all of those people are playing MMO's, or are at least online. This is not the case at all, Yu said.

Women gamers reportedly make up 35 percent or more of China's gaming population, according to Yu. At least, this is the estimate 'based on MMORPG and casual game portal data.' Yu believes that the truth remains hidden, and that women actually comprise 60 percent or more of the gaming population. He bases this on the prevalence of single player casual and puzzler games, popular on mobile phones and PC's throughout the country.

Young children are another group which is often ignored, but they are the next generation of gamers. Although their gateway to the wider world of gaming is limited to educational PC and 'learning handheld' titles, they're well aware of the more exciting games that the older kids are playing; they're just not allowed to try them yet. Many parents in China are conditioned by what Yu describes as, "negative press that the government releases on the danger of out of control gamers dying in net cafés or stealing from their parents to buy virtual items."

While such incidents have certainly happened, they are few and far between. This group of young gamers is closely monitored by their parents, but they're often allowed to sport a Nintendo DS or Game Boy Advance, the only handhelds which can legally be sold in China. (Not that the 'illegal' PSP's are hard to come by either.) These kids become acquainted with electronic gaming at a very young age and are biding their time until they're allowed enough freedom to take their gaming online... or to a LAN, where they will continue to remain invisible to the industry.

Frank Yu stresses that those ever-increasing statistics we read about China's online gamers are only the trackable players. The true number of gamers out there may not have a great deal of relevance to the gaming industry at present, but it is meaningful to understand the cultural mindset towards games in China. Yu says, "China has always had the world's largest gaming population not in the millions but in the hundreds of millions." He suggests that perhaps the gaming industry can find a way to connect with China's forgotten gamers as they 'emerge from the dark'. Already, some of the smarter casual gaming companies are finding these forgotten gamers and trying to turn them into customers.

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