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The Soapbox: Meeting the 'Asian gamer' stereotype on common ground


I originally thought I would craft this Soapbox to discuss the differences between Western and Eastern gamers. But in my research, I ended up noticing the differences and the similarities between the two gaming cultures -- in fact, the similarities were more prominent. Yes, there are gamers who game in stereotypical ways; there are gamers from China, Korea, and Japan who are stereotypically "Asian."

But Westerners can behave as stereotypes as well. The good news is that we're all blending together.

Gamer Teamhouse in Korea
So what defines the stereotypical "Eastern" or "Asian" gamer? What do Westerners wrongly believe about their compatriots on the other side of the world? They believe that the typical Asian gamer hangs out in PC rental cafes, smokes heavily while grinding out level after level, and might be employed part-time by a gold-seller. This person likely makes very little money but spends it on more game time. He assuredly has no issue running several accounts at once and has been known to hack to get ahead. Favorite titles include Lineage II and StarCraft. This person often neglects family in order to play video games. High-fantasy takes a back seat to low-quality grinders, and this typical Asian gamer has the capacity to game for ungodly number of hours, giving him an unfair advantage against gamers in the West, specifically the US.

That's the gist of the claim, anyway. I'm sure there are some readers who would add to this over-the-top list of stereotypes. The difficulty in shooting down these conventional beliefs is that the media and the industry itself frequently highlight players who appear to exemplify, not defy, the "Asian gamer" stereotype.

A news outlet's recreation of a gamer cafe
For example, there's the disturbing story about a Taiwanese man who died in an internet cafe after playing for a 23 hours (this link is not for the fainthearted; also note that I myself just played 24 hours straight for charity). The man was discovered dead at the keyboard, his hands frozen in a ghastly, familiar gamer pose. The article goes on to examine the potentially dangerous lifestyle of the internet cafe gamer and looks into the potentially dangerous pattern of playing games for hours at a time.

Next there's the 2010 example of the Korean couple who allowed their baby to starve to death because they were too busy playing Prius Online.

"Players who are growing up on the internet right now are slowly becoming more used to the games that are more frequently selling powerful items in cash shops. Look at Wizard101, Free Realms, and non-MMO games like Magic: The Gathering."

Then we have this astonishing panel from GDC: Europe 2012, in which the speaker, a former gold-farmer turned developer, essentially explains how to make a successful browser game based on Chinese games that sell power and fade out after a few weeks. He offers startling figures about how much money some individuals can spend on a single title (hundreds of thousands) and how selling power is a standard in China. I have said for a while that selling power and browser gaming will become the norm here in the West. Players who are growing up on the internet right now are slowly becoming more used to the games that are more and more frequently selling powerful items in cash shops. Look at Wizard101, Free Realms, and non-MMO games like Magic: The Gathering. The fact is that the number of people who worry about "selling power" and "buy-to-win" is shrinking every year.

But those are all sensationalist stories that imply extremes are the norm and that a few corner cases in Asia represent a whole continental demographic. What about everyone else -- the "normal" Eastern gamer?

This brings me to Jesse McBride, a pro gamer from South Korea who agreed to give me an insider's perspective on gaming in his country. According to him, Korean gamers tend to use PC "bangs" (cafes) as the go-to source for digital entertainment. His words backed up my suspicions: that cooperative gaming, and yes, even grind, is a social outing for many Eastern gamers. They are in the room together, there is no lag in their voices, and they'll put up with mindless grind as an activity because they're busy chatting and having a good time.

Jesse lived in a gamer house, an apartment rented or bought to bring pros together to train up for competition. He lived there with several other players, and a maid would come two or three times a week to cook meals and clean. Jesse told me that this social connection is why arcades are still popular in his country; most people who want to play games don't have "two or three" home PCs (implying he believes that we in the West do have more PCs and devices, which is true for me -- how about you?). His point was that most gamers in his area use the easy-access PC bang instead of playing at home. Jesse goes on to list the most popular multiplayer games in Korea, claiming that a variety of games, like Minecraft, League of Legends, and Kart Rider, are at least as popular as World of Warcraft.

So what about the other side -- what defines the stereotypical Western gamer? No doubt he is overweight, plays games for almost as many hours as he works, prefers the subscription model to free-to-play, values high-fantasy over Anime fluff, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get the best piece of loot. Heck, just fill in examples of what we have heard about gamers from non-gamers, and you get the picture. Of course, we roll our eyes at this stereotype because we know the scene here and know just how varied and open gaming can be.

Still, Western games media also focus on the crazy things gamers do in the West, contributing to these negative impressions held by non-gamers and gamers outside Western borders. In EVE Online alone, there's the player who scammed another player for loot worth $45,000, another rip-off of a trillion ISK, as well the infamous story of an influential EVE Online council rep who urged his minions to heckle a suicidal player. A RuneScape player in Massachusetts attempted to rob a fellow gamer of his gold at gunpoint. These are all examples of poor gamer behavior in the West, and there are too many to list.

Dungeons and Dragons Chick Publication
For some extra sensationalism, I could mention the gaming "connection" to shootings and suicides or bring it old-school with the Dungeons and Dragons scare of the late '70s and mid-'80s. None of us would say that these things are common in the West or that gaming is truly to blame. We can only hope that Eastern players aren't led to believe Western gamers are busily killing each other in real life!

Researching for this article convinced me that gamers from all over the world -- yes, all over -- are pretty much the same. Gaming cultures are becoming closer and closer together, not further apart, no matter what hyperbolic mass media might suggest. Jesse's Facebook timeline has pictures of his PC setup and updates from a RIFT session. MOBAs like League of Legends are storming East and West alike. E-sports, once the domain of East Asia, are not on the rise in the West. We like to play a lot, and the games we play are converging.

We share in the bad side of gaming, too. Western gamers love to put in a ton of hours. Many of us resemble the much-maligned gold-farmer, some even looking into botting or multiboxing just to get ahead. Many of us grind our butts off, and not all of us are socializing in a Korean cyber cafe while we do so. We can be very snooty in America, as though our form of grinding or intense play is somehow different from gameplay in the East. The reality is that we're all meeting in the middle, and thanks to the internet, we all share one massive, varied, wacky gamer culture.

I originally thought I would show that Western gamers spend way too much time tweaking character stats and repetitively executing strategies in the same dungeons every week, activities just as boring and soulless as the grinding that the Eastern gamer is often accused of. What I found is that there are shades of gray in both audiences, despite the stereotypes that grab media attention.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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