The winner of the Tudou Film Festival Award was announced today, it went to the Machinima Film 网隐战争 or War of Internet Addiction. It is a remarkable production, made entirely in the world of World of Warcraft, and took three months and 100 Chinese volunteer gamers to make. It features excellent production values and is smart and clever.
Bill Bishop, publisher of the Digicha blog was the first English blogger to mention it in the non-Chinese blogger world, and afterwards it was picked up by leading English-language publications, including the Wall Street Journal.
For reasons I am not able to fathom, no one has really explained the context and significance of this production. Many who follow the issue of China, the Chinese economy, and modern Chinese social studies should endeavor to understand what the “War of Internet Addiction” really reveals about modern Chinese society. The whole story is much like the Japanese film classic Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, which highlighted the Rashomon effect, or the view that viewers to an event only see what they want to see, and will deny the validity of alternative interpretations. This denying of alternative interpretations is not only valid in China, but as we will see, also in the west.
In order to underscore the difference of these interpretations, I will present their views in separate sections.
Chinese Government Official View
From the Chinese government’s point of view, many Chinese youth spend too much time at Internet cafes playing games. Among these games, World of Warcraft is the most addictive. This has given rise to a new illness “Internet addiction”, which the government officially believes to be an illness. A whole industry of treatment clinics has sprung up to treat this illness, using methods sometimes as severe as shock therapy.
Young people who spend their time playing WoW all the time should instead spend more of their time studying, or pursuing other more productive activities.
On the business side, World of Warcraft has become a major moneymaker for its China licensees, first The9, then NetEase. So important was regulation of the War of Warcraft franchise in China that a rare public turf war was fought between the Ministry of Culture and the General Administration of Press and Publication over regulation of NetEase, the China distributor. During this bureaucratic fight, the WoW servers’ service was partially suspended in China, causing much discomfort for WoW players in China.
China World of Warcraft Players
World of Warcraft has 73 different levels, and involves a wide variety of players with different roles and skills, working together to overcome obstacles. By working together and fighting together, these players bond and build strong trust, even though the players are playing in a virtual world. Unlike in the real world, where people are always competing against each other in a highly competitive education and social environment, and where there is little if any trust, the players build trust over time as they fight to higher levels. In this respect, World of Warcraft is a true meritocracy; one which does not exist in the real world of modern China. For this reason, most players look forward to meeting and playing with their fellow players on World of Warcraft on a regular basis.
“Why does the Chinese government want to interfere with what we are doing online by playing WoW? We are not advocating political change or violence. We just want to play WoW when we want to.”
The View of Many Western Observers
The fact that so many Chinese youth play WoW shows just how limited freedoms are for Chinese youth, and how intrusive government interference is in the lives of Chinese. This is yet another sign of how closed Chinese society is, even though on a material level, the Chinese government has provided well for the Chinese people.
The Tudou award was actually a three-fingered salute from WoW players and the online community to the official Chinese government view which cannot understand the culture of World of Warcraft from the view of its players. China is run by one highly centralized organization which is not given to understanding alternative interpretations of society which do not conform to its view of reality.
The view of the majority of mainstream western observers, who only see China in terms of freedom and democracy issues are just as blinkered as the official Chinese view, as they are unable and unwilling to understand anything which does not conform to their worldview that while China has delivered a huge number of its population from poverty, continues to deny political freedoms to its own population.
In fact, western society, with the US in particular, has the same problems as modern China, except on an even larger scale. If the whole issue is all only about freedom and democracy, then why does the US have the largest number of illicit drug consumers in the world? Are they so happy that they need to escape into the world of drugs?
Western and Chinese consumer society have satisfied many material needs, but most intelligent people understand that this does not equate to happiness. In China and the west, adults with poor parenting skills seek to assuage their own guilt by showering their kids with all kinds of goodies, then wonder why their own kids don’t like them as people? Parents, the Chinese government and western consumer society are uncomfortable with the idea that many of their children and citizens prefer to spend their time online, in the communities of Facebook, Twitter, Stocktwits and WoW than in their own real world.
For many of us, the virtual world of online is preferable to the real world we live in, and this is why so many spend so much time online. And that is a message many parents, governments and politicians are increasingly going to have to deal with.