Playing @ Being Social: A Case Study of Social Media and Online Games in Shanghai, China

Larissa Hjorth (RMIT)
For anyone that has ever subscribed to a social networking site (SNS), it is impossible to deny the significance of online games. Last year thousands of non-game players on Facebook got caught up in the Mafia Wars phenomenon. This situation highlighted that the nature of online games, like games in general, was changing. As smartphones become more ubiquitous, so too does the deployment of social media and online gaming. This current situation has led Jesper Juul to argue that there has been a ‘casual revolution’ of games — particularly apparent in the all-pervasiveness of social media. Once the preoccupation of ‘hardcore’ gamers, MMOGs (massively multi-player online games) have now become casualised and part of the daily diet of many millions of SNS users. In each different place, the types of games played and social media deployed are reflective of the locality. A locality is a sum of various factors such as linguistic, socio-cultural, technological and the economic. One region demonstrating a variety of game play is the Asia-Pacific region. Locations such as Japan, South Korea and China are indicative of this diversity.
In China, we can see two very different but interrelated phenomena evolving around online gaming communities — one highly political, the other exceeding social. On the one hand, there has been such phenomenon such as in-game protesting that have highlighted the role of the internet as a form of public sphere for political agency (especially apparent in the blogging culture). On the other hand, the rise of simple, child-like games such as Happy Farm, played through SNS such as Renren and Kaixin, have seen millions of young and old participating in their attendant communities of practice.
This latter phenomenon, whilst highly social, also demonstrates changing attitudes to both the online and gaming. The main aim of Happy Farm uses a quasi-101 model of capitalism whereby the player acquires, raises, and sells produce, and one of the key — albeit subversive — factors of the game is to steal other people’s produce when they are offline. A slightly damning condemnation of the morals (or lack thereof) of capitalism, Happy Farm sees many having the game open on their desktop whilst doing other activities (such as work) to avoid being robbed. Some have been known to set their alarms for the dead of night so that they can go online when everyone is asleep in order to steal. Stealing is part of the gameplay. Those who are stolen from gain ‘pious’ points. The success of the game in China is very much to do with China’s own recent embrace of capitalism. With the backdrop of communism and the works of Karl Marx (vis-à-vis Mao) still part of core educational material, this game reflects a specifically mainland Chinese love for games, and a healthy understanding of the pitfalls of capitalism. Moreover, in locations such as Shanghai, where spiralling real-estate has meant that many cannot afford to purchase their own home, Happy Farm provides a place for nostalgia in which you can own your own farm and build capital through working hard (synonymous with the amount of time you spend online).
According to iResearch, a consulting group specialising in internet research, around 50 percent of the 26 million daily users of one of the main SNS,, play online games. These games generate around half of the website’s yearly income. ‘In terms of user groups, SNS games are totally different from traditional network games,’ says iResearch senior analyst Zhao Xufeng. Whilst the number of traditional network games (like MMOGs) has remained relatively constant at 50 million, SNS users have burgeoned from nothing to tens of millions in a few years. One of the key priorities for SNS users is communication, especially more novel and innovative ways of communicating — something that SNS games provide. Unlike their predecessors that were characterised as ‘hardcore’, SNS games are much more casual in their demands on engagement. However, behind this casualness is a play architecture that is often just as time-consuming — but just in the form of distracted, micro-engagement. Often users have the game sitting ambiently on their desktop behind other screens like word documents, email, IM etc.

Interestingly, the growing population of users migrating to these types of online games aren’t the obvious demographic — young students. Rather, it is their parents and even grandparents who are often being taught to use the internet by their children, who are living away from home for study or work. This cross-generational new media literacy emerging in China’s increasingly mobile population (i.e., migrating to cities like Shanghai for work or study) sees social media such as QQ (the largest and longest running SNS in China) and online games, helping to alleviate the negative effects of cross-generational class mobility by maintaining kinship relations.
In this blog entry I want to discuss this phenomenon in context of Shanghai, China in light of fieldwork conducted in June and July 2009 and 2010. Shanghai offers a unique model for analysing the burgeoning phenomenon of SNS game playing by older audiences to debunk the myth that online games are played by younger demographics. As SNS invade the lives of the young and old in developed and developing countries we see the transformation of online gaming communities from being the preoccupation of hardcore players to becoming an integral part of everyday SNS communication. In China, once home to a growing amount of hardcore MMOG players, has seen a shift occur. As players of traditional MMOGs remain constant, the rise of SNS gamers continues to escalate into tens of millions.
Within the context of social media, online games have rapidly transformed from once MMOG played by young ‘hardcore’ male players to being a casual and fun activity played between the generations. Many of the current generation of university students are the first to have grown up surrounded by the online. Once they have acquired these new media skills they have been quick to transfer their knowledge to their parents (and sometimes grandparents) in order to keep in constant contact. In this cross-generational literacy, it is the love of games that serves to bond and yet also differentiate the generations. In the next section I will discuss the findings from the fieldwork conducted in 2009 and again in 2010.
‘If I was a fish then QQ [social media] would be my water.’
(Bao, 25 year old, male postgraduate student)
Over the last ten years, cities such as Shanghai have not only seen the implementation of new technologies (i.e. internet and mobile phones) in educational and work settings but this has accompanied a trend of studying away from home by the ba ling hou generation. Born in the 1980s, this is the first generation to grow up with the internet and new media as part of everyday life. They are also a generation that has, thanks to the ubiquity of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) and its attendant technological and thus geographic mobility, been allowed to move physically to study — a concept unheard of for previous generations. Often from one-child families, these ba ling hou are incredibly close to their parents and although physical, geographic mobility for education is a given for this generation there is a need for continual contact with their friends and family back home. In studying away from home, the deployment of mobile media — especially for SNS like QQ and Renren — has been integral for this generation as they negotiate the home and away.
Through focus groups and one-to-one in-depth interviews with both students and their parents, I explored some of the ways in which these students traverse home and away through mobile and internet technologies. In Shanghai students often use mobile media to communicate with their parents — from voice calls to SNS such as QQ. In the face of various forms of mobility, it is social media games, played with both friends and family at home and also fellow students, helps to alleviate the loneliness experienced when absent from home. However, whilst these games help bond they also can operate to highlight different usage and etiquette, especially cross-generational. For example, some students note that their parent’s usage of online games is too much, often characterised by parents who have retired from work and embrace, albeit too passionately, the internet.
For one female respondent (female, aged 24) had a very atypical and adventurous attitude towards SNS, unlike her peers. She did not see a problem talking with strangers and also spending large amounts of time playing online games such as the popular Happy Farm. It is no surprise that her enormous appetite for social media lead her into studying IT. Another female respondent, aged 23, notes,
I think the internet is very important. I started to use QQ from middle school, at that time I used QQ to meet people I didn’t know. I talk with strangers… and then, after I enter university I started to use MSN and now I don’t use QQ so much because all my friends use MSN. I think for sending messages I use hotmail (email). I think Xiaonei [Renren] very frequently because I enjoy playing online games such as Happy Farm. I played Happy Farm so much that I even played it during my working time and so my boss punished me. So now I don’t play it at work now. I also download some mobile phone games. I like to change my statement a lot (status update).
For another female respondent aged 25, her high amount of playing online games, such as mahjong (online version of a traditional Chinese board game), was because her mother liked to play them with her. She said, ‘the more I play, the happier my mother is. I like to make her happy’. For others, playing online needed to be anonymous, and there was no interest to know the identity of the other players. In fact, such a question made many of the respondents appear very uncomfortable just at the thought. One female respondent aged 20 complained that she believed her father to be addicted to playing games. She said, ‘he has so much time on his hands, he just wastes it on gaming. Our generation don’t have time.’ Here we see an interesting role reversal in the stereotypes associated with age and media practice. Rather than it being the youth that are wasting their time with new media instead we see it is the parents.
As one female, aged 28, noted that her father loved playing games ever since he had retired. When asked whether he asked his daughter to play she said no as there was only one computer at home (she has a laptop) that was occupied by her father playing games. She noted that she did think he spent too much time playing games but that didn’t bother her as he only played games when he had finished all his other household chores. When asked whether she thought it funny that her father played games she said, ‘No, he gets a lot of pleasure from it. Sometimes he wins money. And if I ever ask him for help he stops playing it immediately to help me’.
One of the recurring themes within the parent and student interviews was that the students had a much more clearer idea of how the parents used new media such as SNS and online gaming, whilst the parents had less of an idea as to the students’ usage. For example, many parents thought their children used the internet mainly for information (i.e. study) rather than for socialising. This is undoubtedly reflective of the parents’ projection as well as the fact that the students were more adept and familiar with the technology in every facet of their lives. Having in most cases taught their parents to use the internet and SNS, students, having grown up using the internet, were also very mindful of the need to regulate and minimise the use of technologies. Parents, on the other hand, were not so aware of the addiction stories and saw technological as an integral part of the younger generations. Many of the parents noted that it was essential for their children to regularly engage with new media if they were to get a job.
For one female respondent aged 19, while her parents were still learning to play games and social media like QQ. As retirees, the student was trying to teach them new media skills, some of which they picked up while others they didn’t. As she said,
They have a lot of time to stay at home, so they will play the computer games and want to surf online. But my father and mother are not good at it yet, so I continue to teach them and with the help of QQ, I can contact them more often. For example, when I come back home, I find that my father’s mobile phone has something wrong — it always happens and he can’t receive my short message. I said he’s a little old for it. He has played games in QQ and also, Happy Farm. He liked stealing vegetables. But my uncle is more of social media user. Several years ago, we taught him how to use the internet, how to connect — how to talk with others, by QQ or something like that. And now he uses it all the time. He even makes friends with strangers. And so, every time I come back to my home and we can talk a lot about this QQ, and games. I don’t know if the technology is a very good thing for him. I don’t know, because I think maybe he has spent a lot of time on this new technology, maybe too much. But from my side, I have no doubt he has a very, very young heart from this technology side. And I think he is enjoying his life very much.
Here the respondent highlights that for her, and perhaps indicative of her generation, the importance of SNS games was to have fun and relax with offline friends. Whereas for her uncle, of the older generation, the connection between online and offline friends in SNS was not significant. In fact, the respondent noted with great surprise how willing her uncle seemed to play with strangers online. She viewed her uncle’s attitude as demonstrative of a type of youth or youthful attitude. Or what could be dubbed a type of kidults (adults adopting kid-type attitudes to lifestyle objects like new media).
In the various interviews with parents and students (conducted separately) there were many differences in use. In general, many parents didn’t use technology much — apart from the mobile phone — unless their profession demanded it or they were retired. All parents and students had used to oldest SNS, QQ. In the case of retired parents, they often quickly adopted the new media to do activities such as online shopping and playing games. Overall, many parents had little comprehension of how much the students used the internet for socialising — or which, SNS games were an essential part of this practice. In the burgeoning of SNS games it is indeed China that is leading the way with millions of everyday users. In this phenomenon it is interesting to note the role of cross-generational practice, something that is debunking the myth of online games being the preoccupation of young hardcore male players. Rather, it is both the young and old, male and female, urban and rural, players that are adopting SNS games to keep in constant contact and provide new ways to socialise in the face of increasing physical and geographic mobility amongst the generations.
The rise of SNS games have given birth to new forms of player practices. No longer about hardcore, subcultural practice, SNS games have been adopted in the mainstream as a way to playfully socialise. These shifts illustrate that new forms of labour (emotional, creative, affective and social) are being played out. This situation is particularly the case in China as discussed above.
Through the lens of SNS games, China and its social kinship cartographies can be mapped. SNS games are indicative of the internet becoming a more multifaceted form of media that reflects the changing mobility of China in the twenty-first century whereby mobility can take various modes — physical, economic and technological. SNS games are painting a particular picture of China’s shifting social landscape that is in need of framing.
Acknowledgements: This research is part of an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant with Michael Arnold exploring online communities in the Asia-Pacific region. This three-year study investigates six locations in the region. In addition, this research is part of a South China Grant with Jack Qiu, Baohua Zhou and Ding Wei exploring the migrant working class and ICTs. Special thanks to Yuewen Chu for her research assistance.
i. Juul, J. (2009) A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
ii. Chan, D. (2009) ‘Beyond the “Great Firewall”: The Case of In-game Protests in China’, in L. Hjorth and D. Chan (eds), Gaming Cultures and Place in Asia-Pacific, London/New York: Routledge, pp. 141-157.
iii. Cheng, Y. (2010). Millions fall in love with SNS games. China Daily. Retrieved 29 April 2010 from
iv. Ibid.
v. Ibid.
Dr. Larissa Hjorth is a Senior Lecturer in Digital Art, Games Programs, School of Creative Media and Computer Science at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Hjorth has been researching and publishing on gendered customizing of mobile communication, gaming and virtual communities in the Asia-Pacific. She is also a practicing artist.

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