Every June, China’s notoriously difficult college entrance examination, or gaokao, becomes a trending topic on the country’s social media platforms. During this time, national news media fills with commentators requesting that citizens reduce noise to help students concentrate, return lost test cards, and comply with orders from traffic police guarding the entrances to exam halls. Parents wait outside test halls praying for offers from their children’s first-choice colleges; celebrities wish their high school-age fans the best of luck.
Others take a more creative approach. “Orange Light Gaokao,” for example, is an annual online game jam — a gathering of programmers, game designers, artists, and writers in which each participant has 24 hours to design a new video game about the gaokao essay questions and release it to China’s half a billion gamers. The platform that hosts the jam — Orange Light — has a penchant for producing games popular among China’s avid readers of graphic novels.
According to official data, 1,020 games were submitted to the 2017 Orange Light Gaokao, which has been held annually since 2014. After the first gaokao game jam saw more than 200 submissions, about 1,000 games have been created every year since.
The vast majority of Orange Light games originate in fan culture and reference characters from popular culture — everyone from Harry Potter to Chinese and Korean pop stars like EXO and TFBOYS. These characters are popular for the concept of “boys’ love,” a variant of the Japanese culture of yaoi involving the construction of romantic or sexual narratives between fictional male characters to satisfy a mostly female audience. In the game “Fascination,” for example, gamers play as an avatar of Baekhyun, a singer and actor contracted by South Korean record label and talent agency S.M. Entertainment. The aim of the game is to develop a romance with other members of EXO, a South Korean-Chinese boy band.
But Orange Light’s gaokao-based games are different. Built around the essays that high school students write in the Chinese exam, the games usually focus on real social phenomena and provide young players with opportunities to think critically about society rather than merely intoxicating themselves with escapist flights of fancy.
Take “Attacking Mom” as an example. In this short game — voted one of the nine best games at the 2017 Orange Light Gaokao — players view the world from the first-person perspective of a boy whose mother receives complaints from her neighbors due to her habit of square dancing to loud music in public places.
The theme reflects a broader social debate about the provision of recreational land and outdoor activities for the middle-aged and elderly. On the one hand, many people of a certain age prefer to exercise in public, viewing it as an opportunity to entertain themselves and socialize with others. On the other hand, young people have complained that the thumping music violates local regulations against noise pollution. During “Attacking Mom,” players must negotiate with neighbors and help their fictional mother find a suitable place to prepare for her square dance competition.
Another award-winning game, “If There Were No Apps in the World,” challenges players to consider the influence of technology on their lives by presenting them with a chaotic world in which all mobile apps have disappeared. In one scene, the player finds that they have overslept on a workday because their alarm clock app has failed to wake them up. Other tasks reveal the frustration of asking directions or ordering takeout without the help of apps. Perhaps most ridiculously, some of the player’s colleagues even undergo plastic surgery after finding it impossible to beautify their photos using a digital makeup app.
The topic of the gaokao itself has also been taken into consideration. “How I View the Gaokao” has fueled a debate about the advantages and disadvantages of the college entrance exam, questioning whether it is necessary to take the gaokao given the growing importance of prior work experience in job interviews.
At the start of “Return to 2008,” meanwhile, the player — a female supermarket employee — is fired by her boss for not having a college diploma. After time-traveling back to her life before the 2008 gaokao, the game repeatedly presents her with two awful alternatives: Either she fails the test and commits to a life of mind-numbing drudgery, or she scores well enough to go to college — but only by stealing money to travel to the provincial capital and obtain her final enrollment letter. Her decision is so shameful to her mother that she kills herself. Despite the game’s morbid content, it functions as an effective critique of educational prejudice, material inequality, and parental sacrifice in today’s China.
Unlike most game developers, Orange Light Gaokao competition entrants have never learned formal coding, image and sound design, or game testing. This is partly due to the games’ origins in graphic novels, and partly due to the game development software Orange Light provides on its platform.
Graphic novels feature lots of static text and imagery. Often, they feature multiple possible plotlines and invite readers to curate their own stories from the material provided. When this format is applied to video games, it has a similar effect, empowering players to make choices at key points in the narrative to make the gameplay experience different each time. To be truly effective, such games must have a strong central story, as well as equally engaging subplots branching off it.
Orange Light’s game design software has proved a great help to amateur enthusiasts. It not only features a free database of audiovisual materials but also operates as a visual programming editor, allowing users to simply piece together each scene, copy in the dialogue, easily create forks in the narrative, and upload background music. It even has tutorial videos for its more technophobic users.
Orange Light has removed the technical barriers to game creation, widening participation among young gamers with stories to tell about their gaokao experiences. More importantly, though, gaokao games are driven not by a desire for profit, but by users merely seeking ways to express their own views on public issues. This is especially true of teenagers, who have often grown up with video games but who are rarely given a forum to discuss the direction society is heading.
Gaokao games lack the technical accomplishments of some of China’s most popular recent titles, most notably “King of Glory.” However, their importance lies in the fact that they challenge the popular image of games as mindless entertainment and of gamers as disengaged from the societies that produce them. Not only that, but it is refreshing to see how the gaokao — a cultural phenomenon long associated with reading piles of textbooks, rote-learning reams of facts, and sacrificing personal enrichment for the sake of a test — has, in this case, fueled amateur gamers’ creation of trailblazing new products with significant social impact.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A screenshot from the online video game ‘An Unscientific Gaokao Game’ on the Orange Light platform, which was published June 7, 2017.)