No doubt, “gaming” is a global sensation. In China, PC gaming is taken to a whole new level, with 517 million gamers, surpassing the number of U.S citizens. I wanted to explore this phenomenon further, so I went to a gamers paradise: a “PC Bang.” I interviewed three gamers who live in Shanghai, China and one gamer who currently lives in the United states to find out what these PC sanctuaries are like.
As a non-gamer, I went in not knowing much about the gaming world. I had heard of PC bangs existing by reading articles about their popularity in places like Korea and China, but I had never been inside one, seeing as these cafes are not so common in the U.S. The lack of PC bangs in the states is largely due to the fact that it is hard for them to get off the ground and become successful, seeing as most U.S gamers play from home or own their own consoles.
A PC bang or “internet cafe” can be compared to a gaming hookah lounge. It is a room full of about 80 or so computers laid out side by side with bar snacks and meals available. You can eat, smoke and sometimes drink here, as you play. Gamers can pay hourly to play here in groups or individually at any hour of the night because these internet cafes are open 24/7. PC bang’s are widespread, in China, similarly to spotting a Starbucks on every corner in the States, it’s not very hard to spot a PC bang while walking down the street. While walking in Pudong Shanghai, we walked into the first one we spotted, Wang Yu Cafe.
As the elevator door opened we were immediately met by a snack bar situated behind a large glass bar counter, rows and rows of computers, and pictures of sexily dressed women plastered all over the walls. The afternoon customers consisted of all men ranging in age, and one female working behind the counter.
I sat down with Da Yi first. Da Yi is a male in his 30’s who grew up in Shanghai. He comes to the internet Café to play “World of Warcraft.” He tells me he first started playing video games when he was 6, saying it was “man’s nature” that got him interested in playing video games so young. He tells me why he believes “gaming culture” is so prevalent in Chinese pop culture. “In the 90’s Chinese people weren’t used to games. In America when you guys were little in the 70’s and 80’s you had gaming consoles, China did not get gaming consoles until the 90’s. So the 90’s were the first time Chinese people actually got to play computer games, so it was a shock to everyone. Kind of like a cultural shock because PC games are from the West. So people were surprised, we thought ‘this is so unusual.’ We were used to playing physical games like soccer or Chinese traditional games, not like PC games that are visually shocking.”
Da Yi is not a regular. He comes to the video game café about once or twice a month. “I don’t really have time to do a lot of games. Because I have to work, I’m not really prepared for games like World of Warcraft, since you have to play for so many hours. But whenever I do, I don’t play at home, I come here to play. The environment here is usually pretty hyper. People play computer games, they’re just so into the game that it seems like they can’t control themselves. Or the video games can put you into a zombie-like state, where you don’t care about anything that’s happening around you just the game.”
After speaking with Dayi we made our way into what looked like a secluded lounge room. The room was filled with smoke and the sound of rapid mouse-clicking. We conducted our interview as our interviewees were mid-card game. As they blew smoke out the sides of their mouths and slammed cards downs. We sat in the room surrounded by guys in their early 20’s some with blonde hair, some dropping into the conversation and answering questions as they played their video games. David Wei is amongst them. David comes to the internet café 20 hours a week, 10 hours a day. “ I come here to play League of Legends. This is a nicer café compared to other ones. I don’t really go to other ones. I only come here.The culture here is like a family.”
“What makes it interesting is we’re friends with the owner, so it feels like family. There are competitions here for league of legends. Do you see the pictures of hot girls out there? These are hot girls that the owners bring in to organize events. They recruit gamers to the club to join their teams. One girl can recruit 4 members. They’re captains or leaders of their teams and they play against other girl’s teams.” The group of guys chuckle to themselves and smack down another set of cards. My translator, Danqi, interjected, “I think this is a really smart business move for the owner. Because you don’t usually see a lot of women in gaming cafes , so this is a way to get them to meet them.”David says a misconception people have about gaming culture is the “nerd stigma”, that everyone who goes to these cafes don’t have a life outside of the internet. But In reality, gaming in a cafe is actually a very social activity. The things they do regularly are playing online video games, not just games, but also playing cards and interacting with people.
His friend, who had been quietly playing an online RPG game at his desktop, chimes in and gives his thoughts on the PC gaming world. “I feel like online video games are a trap. If you want to get into online video games you have to pay more and more and there are no limits to it. Like PS4 is all console games, you don’t have to pay for it. But online video games sucks you in and becomes very addictive. We know it’s a waste of money but we’re willing to pay for it because it’s so addictive.”
My translator, Danqi then tells me about another false stigma associated with PC Bangs, that has thankfully now disappeared with their increased popularity. “Gaming bars used to be a dangerous place. When I was little my mom told me, ‘Don’t go to gaming bars there’s a lot of bad people there.’ Back then we think of gaming bars we used to think of guys walking around shirtless and smoking. When I was little I just got the impression that gaming bars are for people who do bad in school. People who don’t have anything serious, they don’t go to school or go to work. They just play around. I think that gaming now is more of a cultural thing now instead of a dangerous thing. Gaming cafes used to be thought about in the same way shitty night clubs were, bad music horrible lighting, also a lot of dangerous people. People used to think it was specific for bad students-if you go to a gaming café you’re a bad students. It used to be very shady. The decorations weren’t like how this place is, it used to be just a few computers and really dim lighting. I think it changed around 2008. If you want to go to a regular gaming café now, you have to show your ID to get in if you’re under 18. If you’re under 18 years old you can only stay for 2 or 3 hours. They’re more regulated now and more common as a hang out spot. Now gaming is huge in China because video games have become one of the top time-killing activity. If you’re bored you usually go hang out with friends at KTV, but now video games are an alternative to it. It’s just a custom. Gaming bars have become a part of the culture.”
Next, We made our way to the outside balcony, where we met Jake Zhu stretched out on a chair and smoking a cigarette. Jake works in human resources at ADP (Automatic Data Processing). He comes to the café once or twice a week and plays for 2 or 3 hours per day. “Each cafe has a certain style to it. This one is very well decorated so it’s comfortable for gamers. But if you go to a more rural one. There will be people just eating instant noodles and playing games 24/7. If you come here in a group it may have a family vibe to it, but if you come individually you can just dive into your own world. It’s really interesting to see guys trying to pick up girls here. There’s not a lot of girl gamers so when there are girls here many guys will try to pick them up. I go both in a group and by myself. When I come by myself I can do whatever I want, like browse the internet or finish work. Not always necessarily playing games but sometimes it’s relaxing or therapeutic to come here by myself and unwind.”
Jake also backed up David’s earlier claims that going to PC bangs are actually social activities. “It’s like being on a sports team.When you play video games you kinda want other people around you, sort of like a sport, we’re a team. It’ just boring if you play by yourself. Another reason why people come here is because a lot of people don’t have computers at home or their computers don’t support games like League of Legend.”
Jake usually plays sporting games such as basketball and soccer video games, like Freestyle. Since I don’t have time to play actual basketball or soccer, I just go to the game bar and play to get a feeling of it. It helps compensate. “Some of the people in real life that might just be a normal everyday person, when they come here and play a video game they can be a very powerful person. This is like a space for them to imagine themselves being whatever they want in life, using RPG and role playing games.It’s really satisfying.”
I wanted to find out the difference between gaming in the states versus in China. So, I spoke with Jinshuo Zhang, and NYU student who grew up in Qinhuangdao, Hebei, China but now lives in the states, over email.“The No.1 game in China is most definitely League of Legends. 90% of the people in the internet cafe play it. Recently a new game called Overwatch is gaining its popularity in the internet cafe. Most Chinese players are more toxic than US players. Toxic is a word used by League of Legends players to describe players who are unsportsmanlike. There’s also an American gamer name “Tyler1,” he is known as the most toxic player in North America, he has a youtube channel, you can check him out. Swearing is very common in an internet cafe. But the skills level of Chinese players are usually higher than US players.”
Like many of the other gamers we spoke to in the cafe, Jinshuo started gaming early. “I play all kinds of games, mainly PC games and PS4 games. I first started playing when I was in elementary school. My cousin had a PC and we used to play Warcraft 3 on it. My first ever online game was Stone Age. The competitiveness is what got me into playing them.”
He has noticeably cut down his gaming habits since coming to NYU. “Not a lot now, maybe just a few hours a week. But I used to spend a few hours a day playing games before college. Before college I never went to an internet cafe because I have always owned PCs at home. But now I have a Mac, which doesn’t support many games I play, and my old PCs are outdated in terms of hardware. I go to a internet cafe when I want to play games.”
He describes the environment of the gaming bars as “Not so pleasing. There is always a strong scent of smoke in internet cafes. Many of the people who go to internet cafe smoke. And smoking is allowed in most internet cafes, at least in my city. And the people in the internet cafes are mainly college students, around the age of 20. In China, only people who are 18 and over can go to internet cafes. Usually,the cafe is pretty noisy, especially when you have a group of friends together playing a team-based game such as League of Legends. They would communicate, and during team fights things might get heated and they might shout out strategies or swear if they get killed. Above all, Jinshuo says to never break the unspoken rule of the cafe which is “Don’t try to coach the person next to you on how to play a game.”
“Gaming culture in China is all about the competitiveness. The fun part of the game only comes after you destroy everyone else.”