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This is not by me. I wish it was but it isn't. Written by Jimmy Lee of TK-Nation: a thought-provoking piece on China's stance on internet addiction, unspoken battles and for me, it's possibly the best article never Boing-Boinged.

Cassandra Khaw, Blogger

December 13, 2010

27 Min Read

Crossposted from TK-Nation. TK-Nation's a South-East Asian gaming site that plays home to news about quality underdogs from the gaming world, indie cosplay and video game collectibles. 

Again, this article is NOT by me. It's by one of the writers at TK-Nation, someone who simply does not give his thought-provoking stance on the world enough value. I'm posting it here because he doesn't have a Gamasutra account and because I'd like people to know a) what things are like and b) we have awesome bohemian people on the site too.  Those interested in hiring Jimmy Lee can catch him at aqouli [at] gmail [dot] com



It must have went something like this.

A dimly lit hall filled with the flickering glow of monitors. Light dabs at the cheeks of grown men and teenagers alike. It makes mirrors of their eyes. This is a wang ba - a Chinese Internet cafe. Ashtrays share elbow room with polystyrene food containers, and there is a low, constant hum of chatter, amidst virtual gunshots and pixelated fireballs. Internet cafes in China are social places, each one with their own community and cultural ecology. Almost everyone appears to be playing a game, online or offline, massively or not-so-massively. There's the constant, nagging threat of the authorities barging in and apprehending anyone below the age of 18, but even that pales in the face of the temptations and opportunities blinking in gaudy hues before their very eyes. There is loot to be found. Other players to hunt. Glory to be won.

Masked by contrails of blue cigarette smoke and deafened by cacophonous deathmatches, a small phenomenon takes place. It passes quickly, virally, through instant messengers and forums, and even through word of mouth right there in that wang ba. It's a machinima film hosted on Tudou, China's answer to Youtube, and it mushrooms on other video-sharing sites like Youko and Sina. (Youko and Sina would ban the video two days later.) Some might recognize the film's creators from their earlier works, famous for lampooning China's flawed government, local controversies and major events, using Blizzard's own Azeroth as the setting for their lengthy satires.

A scene from the film "War Of Internet Addiction"

It launches right into a pitch-perfect sendup of Cameron's Terminator 2, and in its opening moments, mashes references to western pop culture and Chinese slice-of-life in breathless unison, mining newspaper headlines, colloquial Chinese humor and other World of Warcraft machinima for punchlines. First impressions lead most viewers to expect more jokes, more sarcastic takes on the doings of corrupt officials. They certainly do not expect an agit-prop disembowelment of China's Internet censorship policies and howling anger at the exploitation of a nation's paranoia towards excessive Internet use.

  They expected satire. What they got instead, was a manifesto.

China's modern warfare

Oil Tiger Machinima Team's "War Of Internet Addiction" was released on January 21st 2010. Since then the political satire slash World of Warcraft (WoW) machinima has gone on to accumulate several million views across several video-sharing sites, and win the Tudou Video Film award for best film, on April 17th. Some fans have called the film "more important than Avatar".

Mostly ignored in the West, it struck chords amongst young urban Chinese, who are stigmatized by their elders and stymied by a government keen on stressing the importance of 'harmony' within China's society. Catering directly to the frustrations faced by a new generation of Chinese, War Of Internet Addiction is ripe with memetic humor and throwaway gags that camouflage its darker themes. Its satirical style is almost a necessity, a means of escaping censorship and prosecution by criticizing via a medium, as opposed to direct confrontation with politicians and policymakers.

Northrend (top) remains off-limits - the labels beneath it read "violence", "evil"

On the surface, War Of Internet Addiction is the continued story of the average Chinese WoW player and their frustrations with the Chinese operators of WoW, as well as their mounting dissatisfaction with the continued delay of 2008's Wrath of the Lich King. As of August 31st of this year, China will finally experience Blizzard's most recent WoW expansion and venture to Northrend, after two years marked with desperation; one player have half-jokingly swam from the northern shores of WoW's existing continents in order to reach Northrend, fighting against the game's 'fatigue'meter which prevents players from breaching the boundaries of Blizzard's fantastic landscapes.

Other players have resorted to playing on foreign servers, where they battle both lag and derision; in the west, they are branded as gold farmers. When WoW ceased operations in April 2009, players emigrated en-masse to the Taiwanese version of the game, where Wrath of the Lich King is readily available. Taiwanese players had a name for this exodus, perhaps inspired by WoW itself; they called it 'the plague'.

Corndog accepting the Tudou Video Film award for best film

But what War Of Internet Addiction truly addresses are problems on a scale far greater than WoW itself. That alone is enough to catapult the film into the consciousness of Chinese who have never touched the game, going beyond its own borders into the periphery of western news media; itearned notice on American public radio, and the film's director and writer Corndog (pictured) was approached by several media outlets, both within and without China, and interviewed by the likes of the Wall Street Journal. In the meantime, China's own "war" with its netizens continues, and much of the film's touchstones remain relevant today, months after its release. What follows is a discussion of the issues that the film continually brings up - the same issues that elevate it from humble machinima to pointed social commentary, one that has people calling it the first great Chinese film of 2010.

In retrospect, Yang Yongxin - Uncle Yang, to most Chinese youth - makes the perfect villain. In War Of Internet Addiction, he is portrayed as a literal dwarf, roaming the halls of his Internet addiction clinic, attempting to coax secrets out of protagonist Kan Ni Mei. They end up facing off at the film's climax, trading lightning strikes and barrages of arcane spells amidst long speeches and rhetoric that echo the drawn-out clashes within Japanese shounen anime.

Yang Yongxin and his digital equivalent

In reality, he isn't so much the ultimate evil as he is a symbol. Yang Yongxin's appearance marks a turning point within China's continued stigmatization of its youth; he is not the first man to have founded a Internet addiction clinic (that honor belongs to Tao Ran, formerly a colonel in the People's Liberation Army). But he is one of the first to have turned it into an industry. For a while, Yang Yongxin was the iconic face of the Internet addiction scare, appearing to parents as a savior to their wayward children. His clinic is one amongst hundreds that have sprung out across the country in the later half of the past decade, capitalizing on the fears of an older generation, afraid of losing their children to a nationwide epidemic.

This epidemic lends its name to the film itself. Internet addiction regularly makes headlines on national television. Horror stories are frequent, from stories of online game addicts dropping dead, stalking other players in real life and even killing their own parents. The true scares are more domestic; grades slip, class attendance wanes, and discipline atrophies like an unused muscle, lessening whatever chance of success a child might have in life. The need for action is understandable.

But excessive Internet usage is treated like a disease in China, cured not by parenting and regulation of Internet use, but by handing them over to experts in Internet addiction camps that charge an excess in monthly fees. Yang Yongxin's own clinic charges in excess of 800 US dollars per month at the height of its operations. (The average monthly wage in China amounts to 400 US dollars.) A new breed of specialists was born, most without psychotherapy certification, heralding cures for children afflicted by this so-called disease. These cures involved a cocktail of drugs, traditional Chinese medicine, physical exertion, and - in the infamous Yang Yongxin's case - electroshock therapy.

In the film, Yang's dwarven doppelganger sends a defiant youth to Room 13, briefly alluding to what lays within, and reminding the guards to put a block in the youth's mouth so that he doesn't bite his tongue off. The real Room 13 contains Yang's infamous electroshock equipment, deemed illegal by national certification. Yang himself is an uncertified psychotherapist - when queried by reporters, Yang claimed that he was unaware of a certification exam for his occupation. Shocks are threatened whenever a patient breaks one of the many rules within the clinic, rules as arbitrary as laughing during the process of treatment or simply 'being moody'. (The full list of rules can be seen here.)

A scene at one of Yang Yongxin's clinics

The culture of fear that pervades these clinics is recreated in the film; when Yang heads a therapy session, the patients bleat for 'Uncle Yang' to save them, an act that Kan Ni Mei ascribes to the fear of punishment. The image of frightened patients saying anything to escape the clinic's dangerous treatments is not an exaggeration. In the film, Yang's form floats upwards, ascending into the air as though he were a deity. The real victims of Yang's clinics kneel and praise the good 'doctor' for helping them; the film's literal deification of its villain is a mere stone's throw from the truth.

Meanwhile, a string of eerily familiar incidents swept over China's Internet addiction clinics. A boy jumps out of a Beijing clinic, committing suicide. Physical exertion causes a boy in Xinjiang to literally drop dead. The most high profile of these cases happened in Nanning where a 16 year-old boy, Deng Senshan, was beaten to death on his first and only night at a rural Internet addiction recovery camp, in August of 2009. Wired Magazine recounts the tale in grisly, tragic detail. A month before this incident, China's government banned the use of electroshock therapy, following the outcries of former patients who had undergone the procedure, and in November 2009, it drafted together guidelines for these boot camps that called for humane treatment of its patients. Whether such guidelines have any effect remains to be seen.

Deng Senshan next to his sister (middle) and father (left) in happier days

But the Chinese government also plays a part in the proliferation of such clinics. The camp where Deng Senshan was beaten to death was advertised openly on government-run TV stations, and was built on subsidized property meant for schools. In response to Deng Senshan's death, the government treated it as they did with any other controversy within China's borders - they clamped down on any source of information about the incident that they could find.

China's hysterics over Internet usage continues to fuel the industry that Uncle Yang has spearheaded. Earlier this year in June, 14 patients attempted to escape from a boot camp in the Jiangsu province, only to be captured and sent back by both authorities and unsympathetic parents. A quarter of China's population uses the Internet, totalling at 338 million users, yet this distrust of the digital persists, amplified by near-constant fear-mongering within mainstream media. It will take a complete generational shift before the Internet stops being demonized as the source of all ills within Chinese youth - by then, there may be several more stories like Deng Senshan's, and countless more teenagers and young adults irreversibly marked by the brutality and psychological abuse that run rampant in these clinics.

The Terminator spoof that bookends War Of Internet Addiction is a rough summary of the drama that has plagued Activision-Blizzard's efforts to bring WoW and its expansions to China, and it's easily followed, and made palatable by the occasional joke or two. It recalls the corporate bickering between former WoW operator the9 and the current WoW operator, NetEase, as well as the constant power struggle between China's Ministry of Culture (MoC) and the General Administration of Press & Publication (GAPP).

NetEase and the9 representatives duel for WoW operator rights in "War Of Internet Addiction"

It's a tale best recounted elsewhere; Greg Pilarowski's Escapist articles on the issue do plenty to illuminate the troubles faced by all parties involved, in concise and coherent detail. The gist of it goes like this; the9, frustrated by the loss of their WoW operating license (and therefore their greatest source of revenue) sues NetEase repeatedly out of spite. Doing so means that NetEase is barred from its operations while lawsuits remain unsettled, allowing the9 and several other Chinese massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) operators to fill in the vacuum left by WoW. An analysis company reported that NetEase lost an estimated 15% of its userbase this way. Certain industry figures also figure the government into the equation, claiming that the scuffle isnothing more than a trade war between China's local MMOG developers and Activision-Blizzard's 500 pound gorilla.

Then there's the convoluted, interdepartmental power struggle between GAPP and the MoC, each claiming jurisdiction over the approval of MMOGs in China. While the MoC approved WoW shortly after NetEase's submission in late July 2009, the GAPP's investigations stalled, while NetEase continued to lose money for each day that WoW remained in stasis. NetEase, spurred on by the blessing of the MoC, as well as clarifications on the MoC and GAPP's roles by the State Commision Office for Public Sector Reform (SCOPSR), relaunched WoW in early September. The launch was short-lived, and the GAPP rapidly shifted the goalposts in its favor, claiming that NetEase acted against regulations and operated without their express approval.

The GAPP, represented as a Night Elf (left) in the film

The game finally returned in February, when the Burning Crusade was approved - this after a downtime of nearly seven months, a small eternity in MMOG circles. Six months later, Wrath of the Lich King has followed suit. While the MoC and GAPP's arguments have not been in the news as of late, the upcoming Cataclysm expansion means that it's only a matter of time before tensions flare up again. War Of Internet Addiction has a different take on their relationship; at the film's conclusion, the two ministries, represented as similarly-dressed elves, agree to put aside their problems, and team up against NetEase founder and CEO Ding Lei in what appears to be an attempt to wring more money out of him.

The MoC, represented as a Blood Elf (left), giving advice to NetEase founder and CEO Ding Lei

Greg Pilarowski is keen to highlight the sheer challenges in getting foreign media into China, attributing Activision-Blizzard's constant troubles one simple fact: they're not Chinese. The Chinese have a word for this, of course; they call it guanxi, which translates to 'connections'. It is a delicate dance, entirely dependent on who you know and what favors you can barter, and asScott Jennings explains, it is why foreign companies are incapable of operating in China, and "why virtually every investment in China is operated as a joint venture - because someone locally has to open the doors".

The concept of guanxi itself explains the situation that NetEase found itself in, caught in the midst of the MoC and GAPP's squabbles; in its haste to throw open the gates to Azeroth, it failed to appease the GAPP. One thing is for certain; NetEase found out a little too late that the GAPP's punishments are meted out a whole lot quicker than its approvals.

There's also China's appeal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) late last year, which claimed that foreign materials needed to be routed through local distributors in order to "protect public morals". That appeal was denied by the WTO, on the grounds that China was using censorship to justify illegal trade barriers. China has since acquiesced to WTO's demands, opening its entertainment goods market in March 2011.

The WTO's blunt observation is key to the issue. Much of the foreign media that enters China rarely survives the government's 'harmonization' process, and this is before the restrictions that the government places on them, such as allowing only 20 foreign films to be shown in the country each year. It's a standard that allows local creative media industries the lion's share of the market. In the case of MMOGs, the stakes are even higher, as WoW has proved to be one of the few western success stories within China, appropriating a large fanbase and achieving near universal acclaim.

Not that it was ever difficult. Near the halfway point of War Of Internet Addiction, the film takes a brief segue, allowing an individual to rant about the state of Chinese MMOGs. His tirade exposes the typical monetization schemes that make Zynga's constant attempts to obtain your credit card information seem downright neighborly. Whereas western MMOGs attempt to maintain a semblance of fairness, Chinese MMOGs are designed in favor of the player with the most cash on his hands, effectively turning them into feudal societies, where the richest player lords over her vassals.

Screenshot of ZT Online

This is especially true of games like ZT Online, which reduces the act of obtaining better equipment to mere gambling, allowing players to buy keys in order to open chests which may contain rare and valuable equipment, but are more likely to contain little more than a trickling boost of experience points. The hypercompetitive and cutthroat nature of such games echoes the likes of EVE Online, developed by Icelandic developers CCP, but not even EVE allows such a wealth-based hierarchy to form.

WoW's appeal is obvious. It's fair. It merits patience and tenacity, instead of wealth and influence. It also has production values; when put next to the likes of ZT Online's isometric 2D graphics, WoW's open environments and 3D graphics look nothing short of futuristic. And because of a ban on video game consoles in 2000, it may as well be. But more than that, it's a literal escape; a minor character speaks of WoW as a way to "release the pain that is too real in life". For a game which has the word 'war' in its name, it is strikingly utopian in design.

And in between its emphasis on cooperation instead of competition, the emphasis on the player as hero as opposed to unwilling serf, right down to the ability to look around one's self from all angles, there's a trait to WoW that its competitors have found hard to reproduce; the illusion of freedom. Therein lies a hint as to China's motivations behind its appeal to the WTO; foreign media inevitably echoes lessons that run counter to the harmonious society that China's government idealizes, a society that values complacency, obedience and silence.

The watershed moment in War Of Internet Addiction is protagonist Kan Ni Mei's speech, during the final confrontation with Yang Yongxin. It is the moment that elevates the film from throwaway geek humor to political commentary, shadowing the likes of satirist filmmaker Hu Ge's own films and becoming something else entirely. Kan Ni Mei's delivery isn't so much charismatic as it is outraged, to the point where the voice actor nearly lapses into an incoherent rage, of such intensity, ranting to the point of daunting their modest recording equipment.

Kan Ni Mei lets it all out

Its effect is aided by the fact that few viewers expect such commentary out of amateur filmmakers better known for comic mischief, let alone one shot entirely within a videogame. It works to their advantage. But more critically, the fact that Kan Ni Mei's speech exists to be heard at all is a small phenomenon in itself - one notable enough that even the west has taken notice.

In the film, Yang Yongxin is a tool sent by the forces of the Green Dam - the film's version of Terminators SkyNet, the self-aware artificial intelligence that becomes the film's main antagonist. Short for the Green Dam Youth Escort, it is censorship and content-control software commissioned by the Chinese government, intended for mandatory use on all Windows-based personal computers sold within China. Officially, the Green Dam's purpose is to filter out pornography with the (somewhat predictable) intent of protecting China's youth; unofficially, it is also capable of collecting user information as well as blocking out entire swathes of the Internet.

The Green Dam is a terrifying prospect, had it actually succeeded.  Its wildly inconsistent behavior worked in its favor, leaving users confused; the OpenNet Initiative's evaluation of the software reveals a program that doesn't resemble filtering software so much as it resembles an especially malignant computer virus, closing windows at a whim, and exposing the user's computer to attack, allowing sites to steal private data, send spam and even conscript the user's computer into a botnet, most typically used in denial-of-service attacks that can shut down entire websites.

 One of the many pictures unwittingly censored by the Green Dam software
It was also an unintentionally funny bit of software. Its image processing software fails to account for darker skin, meaning that Chinese negrophiliacs got off scot-free. In other cases, the software censors out otherwise innocuous photographs of pigs, and its algorithms treat posters of the 'Garfield: A Tail Of Two Kitties' movie as hardcore pornography. US company Solid Oak Software filed a lawsuit claiming that the Green Dam plagiarized more than 5000 lines of code from their Cybersitter software. Marred by bugs, lawsuits and pronounced outcries from the Chinese public, the Green Dam would eventually earn the fate it deserved, and a lack of funding from the government lead many to believe that it had been taken out to the back of the bureaucratic barn and shot. It's easy to see this as a victory for opponents of Internet censorship, except other systems remain in place. Small armies of paid government censors monitor forums and blogs, deleting errant comments and threatening bloggers with repercussions. The  Golden Shield Project, otherwise known as The Great Firewall of China, is still operational, blocking Chinese netizens from accessing websites on its constantly updated blacklist, and preventing searches of words such as "Tibet" and "democracy". It is, however, easily circumvented by use of a virtual private network (VPN), or a proxy server.
But as James Fallows notes, the Golden Shield Project doesn't need to be effective;  it merely needs to be enough of a deterrent to the average Chinese netizen. In a report on the Golden Shield Project, a team of computer scientists stressed an important factor: "The presence of censorship, even if easy to evade, promotes self-censorship." In law, this is known as the Chilling Effect. The Great Firewall of China's primary purpose isn't to keep foreign influence from coming in; it's to keep the Chinese netizen from getting to that information in the first place.
When Google pulled out of China earlier this year, it was in response to a cyber attack originating from China, attempting to procure information on human rights activists within the country. The rest of the world sawit as a step forward for the cause of the open Internet and net neutrality,only for Google to partner with Verizon and take two steps backward.
China, in the meantime, shrugged. Google is far from being the dominant search engine within China - that trophy belongs to Baidu, with nearly  63 percent of the market share within the country, a number that only grew with Google's departure. China's relationship with Baidu and Google is representative of its citizen's attitudes towards the outside world - so much of its information and entertainment is readily available within the Great Firewall of China, that there isn't any demand for anything beyond its walls. It isn't that China dislikes the outside world, it's simply a matter of convenience.
So long as the Golden Shield Project exists, China's netizens are sufficiently discouraged from looking for information that the government doesn't want them to access, using the tools of punishment (effective) and inconvenience (even more so). It encourages silence. The protagonist Kan Ni Mei addresses Chinese WoW players towards the end of the film, littered across the virtual world of Azeroth, and calls upon their latent powers with a mixture of  Martin Niemoeller andPeter Pan in an attempt to defeat Yang Yongxin once and for all. If you believe, raise your hands; don't let WoW die.
Raise Our Hands For Azeroth, by Athena-Erocith
It almost doesn't work. Yang Yongxin taunts Kan Ni Mei as he is rebuffed by silence, then attempts to finish him off. A bell interrupts him. Slowly, Azeroth raises its hands, sending orbs of light soaring towards the sky and racing towards Kan Ni Mei. We are used to silence, the voiceless players mouth, but silence does not mean obedience. The light forms into a great ball, which Kan Ni Mei launches at Yang Yongxin, obliterating him. Yet Uncle Yang continues his taunting; even in death, he claims that the forces of the Green Dam and the forces of harmony are undefeatable, invincible, and as he passes into the hereafter, his laughter echoes across the world. To date, his words have not been proven wrong.    TO NORTHREND
In late August of this year, an announcement rippled across the Internet, heralding what feels like a small miracle to Chinese WoW players. It's been a long wait. Nearly 22 months after its release in the USA, Europe, and Taiwan, China will finally land on Northrend's shores in WoW's most recent expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. While players swarm NetEase's servers in the millions, it's important to note that there was a time when Wrath was seen as nearly impossible to bring to China. The MoC and the GAPP had a problem with it.   Several.
Wrath's approval required skeletons to be changed to corpses
For one, there are a lot of those skeletons lying around. Skeletal imagery is a major taboo in Chinese society, in which ancestors are worshipped and a single missing bone is cause for major alarm. Zhang Yunfan, CEO of China's 178 Games, disclosed in an interview that  the censoring of skeletons was actually demanded by the9 instead of the government as was originally thought - perhaps one of many reasons that annoyed Blizzard enough to have switched to NetEase as an operator. There's the raid on the Undercity, home of the sentient undead known as the Forsaken. Then there's the death knight, a new class introduced in Wrath that is dependent on (what else) death, and capable of raising the dead to do their bidding.
Details remain scarce on how much has been changed in the upcoming expansion, but that it was approved at all points to good things. It's obviously good news for NetEase, having made it out of the maze of politics that had mired WoW for so long. It suggests that the MoC and the GAPP have finally settled their disputes over their respective responsibilities in MMOG approval. And naturally, players finally have their chance to play the expansion that the rest of the world has experienced for the better part of two years, albeit with several changes - amongst them,  several graphical modifications. As for Cataclysm, the upcoming WoW expansion due later this year, the GAPP has stated that they have not received an application for its publication, and given Wrath's recent release, it may be a while before anyone in China gets their hands on it.
For now, the dust has settled. Millions of Chinese players are currently wandering across Northrend, gaining levels and seeing all there is to see. The woes that have plagued them over the course of the past two years seem distant, even as China's Internet addiction treatment industry continues to thrive, and their government remains as steadfast as ever in their efforts to silence dissent and unfavorable controversy. Those things belong in a different place, one far removed from Blizzard's fantasy world, with troubles of its own - troubles China's players can actually do something about. And right now, they have a war to win. War Of Internet Addiction was recently selected as an exhibit in the Machinima section at Sao Paolo's FILE Festival.
Yang Yongxin's electroshock devices have been removed as per government regulations. He still operates his Internet addiction prevention clinics today. the9 recently reported  a smaller second quarter loss, but a massive drop in revenue as a result of losing the WoW operator rights. Their self-developed 2D MMOG Joyful Journey West has been set to cease operations this October.
NetEase released Wrath of the Lich King as planned on August 31st. Players found out upon logging in that several words could not be used as character names, such as "freedom" and "sexy". Corndog, whose Chinese moniker is literally translated as 'sexy corn', has since said that he will not log in until the game allows him to use his Internet handle as a character name.
Watch all of War Of Internet Addiction on YouTube


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