How Chinese Studios Are Gamifying Late Capitalism
In 2001, the computer game “Survive in Beijing” swept across China, becoming a thorn in the side of IT staff in primary and secondary schools nationwide. Developed by Guo Xianghao and based on his experience as a migrant, the game puts players in the shoes of a recent arrival to China’s capital. Starting with 2,000 yuan (then about $240) borrowed from a loan shark, players must guide their avatars through a series of real-life challenges — renting apartments, making money, and staying one step ahead of debt collectors.
“Survive in Beijing” marked the starting point of one of China’s most popular game genres: the “realistic” survival simulator. For all their struggles producing graphics-intensive blockbusters, Chinese game developers have shown a real knack for narrative-based games grounded in everyday life. Highlights of the genre include 2018’s “Chinese Parents,” in which players are tasked with pushing their virtual kids through the country’s test-centric education system, the “996” workplace simulator “Working Animals… with ESOP,” and the upcoming dystopian working class life simulator “Nobody: The Turnaround.” Although commercial considerations have kept newer games from matching Guo’s commitment to depicting the randomized cruelty of life in the underclass, all three engage with the same core themes as “Survive in Beijing.”
A key factor in the success of Chinese realistic games is the existence of a shared set of experiences from which to draw on. For example, China’s intensely competitive education system leaves many people with painful memories of childhood and adolescence, which “Chinese Parents” capitalizes on. The game’s ending — finding out which university your fictional child gets into — is immediately relatable to players.
However, a closer look at the design of “Chinese Parents” suggests the developers weren’t quite willing to go all-in on the winner-take-all aspects of Chinese education. In contrast to “Survival in Beijing,” in which the protagonist is always one bad break away from being beaten or even killed over unpaid debts, “Chinese Parents” takes a more cartoonish approach to both its style and narrative, and despite the familiarity of many in-game events, the plot ultimately tends toward archetypes. “Wrong” decisions can also be undone, as the game’s developers made a conscious choice to let players explore the “best path” to completing the game.
Of course, real life doesn’t have a “try again” button. It may fit into the realistic survival sim genre, but “Chinese Parents” is at heart a feel-good fantasy. The secret to its popularity lies in the fact that it lets players feel like they can control reality; the downside is that it blunts the game’s social critique. Despite selling 2 million copies on Steam, the game has failed to spark much real discussion about educational or institutional reform.
That’s what makes “Nobody: The Turnaround,” which released a demo version earlier this year, so intriguing. The game, which puts players in the place of a person who moves to Shenzhen to pay off his father’s gambling debts, is unwilling to give players the fantasy of control. Like “Survival: Beijing,” it draws heavily from real life in its depiction of the bottom rungs of Shenzhen society, forcing players to make money by doing whatever odd jobs they can find: construction, passing out flyers, and working security, while sleeping in cheap hostels and saving as much as possible. Already, some players have complained that “Nobody” is perhaps too realistic for its own good. How willing are gamers, who spend all day doing stressful tasks at work, going to be to spend their off-hours doing the same in a game?
So far, the developers don’t seem to care. After noticing some players were using modified versions of the game that boost their base income and allow them to spend more time roaming the map rather than working, the development team introduced a feature that automatically logs players out whenever changes to the game data are detected. It’s clear the developers of “Nobody” have strong opinions about how the game should be experienced and are willing to do what it takes to make the characters’ suffering feel more realistic, even if that makes the game less fun for some players.
Perhaps the bleakest part of the worldview in “Nobody” is lost in translation. The game’s Chinese title, “Daduoshu,” which literally means “The Majority,” is a reminder that the harsh life of its protagonist remains the default for most people. While the neon lights of consumerism have burned bright in China over the past 40 years, most Chinese continue to struggle to make a living in the shadows. This is reinforced by the game’s art style, reminiscent of the bleak county seats and country towns featured in the films of director Jia Zhangke.
That’s not to say that “Nobody” is a perfect re-creation of working class life. The developers themselves are white-collar urbanites, as are the majority of their intended audience, and early reviews suggest the game struggles to connect across class lines. One player called out a scene in which the protagonist gains 10 “depression points” after eating a bowl of cheap noodles as indicative of a broader misreading of working-class Shenzhen culture.
The controversy over “Nobody” highlights a common dilemma in domestically produced survival simulators. On the one hand, focusing on and engaging with harsh truths inevitably alienates players looking to escape reality, and thereby limits the game’s commercial appeal. On the other hand, those developers who try anyway are often criticized for their games not being real enough, or for producing games where players can gawk at the lower class. I think that the developers of “Nobody” genuinely care about the lives they depict and that the right to make works about class shouldn’t be tied to one’s identity. But unconscious biases and the tendency to patronize the working class are challenges that anyone who makes art must face, and game developers shouldn’t be exempt from criticism.
Interestingly, the year’s most hotly discussed mobile game, “Working Animals… with ESOP” — sometimes translated as “A Blessing for the Herd” — has largely managed to sidestep this debate. Set in the tech industry, the world it depicts is well known to both its development team and target audience.
Yet, like “Nobody,” the game stumbles when it conflates the frustrations and interests of white-collar workers with those of all workers. Liu Xiaoyu, the lead developer of “Working Animals… with ESOP” and CEO of the popular online gaming platform Chengguang, has said he hopes the game can become a modern-day “Rickshaw Boy,” a reference to the classic 1937 Lao She novel of Beijing working-class life. But today’s tech workers and gamers are not the rickshaw drivers of 100 years ago. Their educations and incomes give them the privilege of treating these simulated struggles as a kind of escapism. And if things get too bleak, there’s always an off switch.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from Steam, TapTap, and VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)