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    In China, a Mother and Daughter Find Connection Through Gaming

    For most parents, video games are a source of tension with their children. But a mother and daughter in Sichuan province have discovered that the opposite can also be true.
    Feb 12, 2024#gaming#family

    SICHUAN, Southwest China — Lying comfortably on a gray sofa, Yang Xiurong stares intently at her smartphone, watching every movement as small, colorful characters whizz around her screen. It’s late, almost midnight, and while many 52-year-old working mothers might consider going to sleep, Yang is excitedly screaming at her teammates while playing the hit mobile game “Honor of Kings.”

    Like most of the 4.8 million livestreamers in China who broadcast their gameplay, Yang plays virtually nonstop. The anxiety she feels when losing is matched only when she sees her viewing numbers dip.

    Beyond being an above-average amateur, Yang has carved out a niche among the legion of esports livestreamers — not only is she one of the oldest “Honor of Kings” gamers, she also regularly livestreams with her 29-year-old daughter, Wu Sijia. They call themselves “the most powerful mother-daughter duo” in livestreaming.

    China is home to around 720 million gamers, 52% of whom are men, according to Niko Partners, a market analysis firm focusing on gaming in Asia and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Chinese market researcher CNG estimates just 4.6% are aged 55 or over, although this figure is gradually increasing.

    As a standout, Yang’s proficiency in the game has earned her no small amount of recognition. In 2022, she triumphed in a regional “Honor of Kings” esports tournament, clinching the Most Valuable Player title. Her performance set social media ablaze.“Whether it’s playing ‘Honor of Kings,’ becoming a livestreamer, or playing in a nationally recognized competition, gender and age is never an issue as long as you have a dream,” she said at the official awards ceremony.

    Yang, who comes from the southwestern Sichuan province, is a longtime gaming enthusiast. Before the emergence of mobile gaming, she played a wide range of desktop games and was often obsessed with improving her ranking. Ten years ago, when the multiplayer farm simulation game “Happy Farm” was popular, she found that adding new contacts on QQ, the Chinese instant messaging software, allowed her to advance more quickly. “I added as many strangers as I could, but not to chat,” she says. “It just meant I could steal their vegetables.”

    When her daughter first recommended she play “Honor of Kings” in 2016, Yang immediately downloaded the game and found herself engrossed in its complex mechanics, which fit with her tenacious personality. “Casual games are too easy and boring for me,” she tells Sixth Tone.

    “Honor of Kings” falls into the multiplayer online battle arena category, a subgenre of strategy games, which requires nimble fingers to accurately control the characters and swift reactions to situational changes in combat. After initially struggling with the pace of the game, Yang began to improve her skills by watching others play online, and she gradually developed her abilities in playing characters with supporting roles on the battlefield. “The best part of this game is that it takes into consideration players of different gender and age,” she says. “As players, we can always find a character that fits our personality.”

    Wu credits her mother’s enthusiasm and heavy time investment for the speed in which she grasped the game’s controls and characters. At times, she would find her mother still playing online around 3 o’clock in the morning. However, rather than advise her to head to bed, Wu would instead join her.

    By this point, Wu had already quit her job in a state-owned enterprise to become a livestreamer in 2020. Yang, confident she could beat most other amateurs, decided to join her in 2022. They were surprised by the almost immediate surge in traffic to their stream, with the average viewership tripling whenever the mother and daughter played together.

    “Many viewers tell me that they want their parents to play the game with them. They admire my daughter,” Yang says, adding that she feels the livestream highlights their close relationship. “Winning the game is not the goal; having fun together is.”

    Not all the feedback online has been friendly, however. “Some have said I am setting a bad example as a parent,” she says with a wry smile. Others have mocked her for her age.

    Yang also says that, in gaming chat groups, she constantly hears of conflicts between her young fans and their parents. To alleviate the tension, she suggests they try playing games together, or watch her livestream, but most are reluctant to take her advice.

    She feels the root of the argument is that parents often fail to do enough to learn about their child’s life and interests, and therefore don’t build constructive communication. “Instead of simply telling them not to play, they could ask them what the game is about, or distract them from the game by offering to do other things together,” Yang suggests.

    When Yang took part in the tournament in 2022, it was merely intended as a gift she asked from her daughter, who agreed to join her. But with the increased attention following her victory, Yang has found herself engaging in different kinds of activities, from taking part in professional training and playing exhibition matches against esports stars to accepting media interviews. “She knows she’s a bit famous now,” Wu says.

    Regardless of the attention and the recent life-changing experiences, the 52-year-old mother tells Sixth Tone that what she treasures most of all is the time she spends every day with Wu. “She means everything to me. All my energy goes on her,” Yang says.

    Since Wu was born, Yang has tried a wide range of businesses to help her family stay afloat, from operating a street food stall to running a tea shop. “At our poorest, we couldn’t even afford to buy a roll of toilet paper,” she says.

    When Wu was old enough to start middle school, Yang left town to seek better-paying employment opportunities in other provinces. “I did what many male workers did at that time,” she says, explaining that she worked about nine hours a day carrying rebar at construction sites.

    On top of the economic hardship came an emotional divide with her husband, who Yang felt lacked both the passion and capabilities to improve the family’s living conditions. “I guess she was disappointed because my father was not a person she could rely on, and he had no intention to improve himself,” Wu says, recalling that her parents argued a lot when she was a child.

    Wu is the person Yang talks to when she feels tired or unhappy. “Instead of mother and daughter, we’re more like friends,” Yang says. The pair talked every day when she was working on the construction sites.

    Wu says that Yang enjoys learning everything about her life and her hobbies. The habit used to upset Wu, but later she found it understandable after putting herself in Yang’s shoes. “She never truly interferes with your life, she only wants to know what you’re doing,” she says.

    In Wu’s eyes, Yang is an open-minded mother. When she quit her company job and decided to become a livestreamer — a “rebellious act,” according to many relatives — Yang supported the decision without hesitation. “My mom says that, as youngsters, your life is meaningless if it’s too stable.”

    Since Wu’s career change, Yang has taken care of her both inside and outside of the livestreaming world. In the beginning, she monitored the livestreaming account as an assistant, and later streamed live with Wu or took care of her grandchild while Wu played online alone. However, Wu often worries about Yang’s health, as she usually insists on joining her late-night livestreams. “My biggest hope is that one day the game will return to being just a hobby for her,” she says.

    She is happy to see that her mother has become more outgoing and independent, since becoming a champion has exposed her to a larger world. Last year, Yang created a team of older gamers and flew to Nanjing, in the eastern Jiangsu province, to play an exhibition match with a professional esports team.

    In the arena, Yang fondly remembers her and her teammates being cheered on by the audience. To mark the occasion, she took home a commemorative plate from the event and placed it on her balcony. “It reads: ‘Keep Playing.’ It speaks to my heart,” she says.

    Contribution: Huang Yang.

    (Header image: A screenshot shows Yang Xiurong and Wu Sijia playing during a livestream.)