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MIT professor on social responsibility in China's gaming culture

CNET Blog Network contributor Graham Webster highlights Henry Jenkins' thoughts on video games, freedom, and addiction.

Henry Jenkins, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who is perhaps academia's leading fanboy, spent part of January in Shanghai and has been posting observations on his blog. I want to highlight one of his better contributions: on social responsibility in Chinese video game culture.

Video games, "freedom," and "addiction"

Jenkins was attending the International Games and Learning Forum, organized by MIT and Beijing University. There, the focus was on "serious games," those that might potentially be used to promote learning. His most frequently repeated observation was that, while U.S. experts on game learning tend to focus on pedagogy in game play, the Chinese experts he heard from focused mostly on creating historically accurate spaces for games to take place in.

Jenkins writes that some people were concerned that Chinese gamers would miss some measure of socialization in Chinese history when exposed to foreign-designed gaming spaces, and he contrasts the online gaming experience mostly concentrated in Internet cafes where there is minimal face-to-face contact between players with the commonplace sight of usually older Chinese playing chess, mahjong, and card games in the street or in homes. The older games happen face-to-face and often come with a small crowd of spectators remarking on strategy and shooting the breeze. Online games include a large amount of interaction through chat, but most of the non-text interaction is absent.

He also writes of concerns that game addiction, or hype about addiction, should require game designers to tread with caution, lest they be marked as unwelcome cultural influences. Jenkins is not a longtime student of China, but his observation is interesting, if not particularly well-supported by data. (He doesn't claim hard evidence.) He writes:

The addiction rhetoric, though, carries force within China where it is connected to a number of concerns which the Chinese have about their children's culture. First, at a time when aspects of capitalism are reshaping Chinese society (especially in Shanghai), addiction rhetoric gives the Chinese a way to talk about the impact of leisure culture and consumer capitalism on their lives. Playing games is problematic precisely because it is unproductive (or seen as such).

If corporate social responsibility were extended to the point of asking corporations not to contribute to unproductive activities, otherwise known as recreation or entertainment, I suspect corporate heads would fall nationwide. I'm also skeptical that this concern goes much beyond the realm of the rhetorical. Far more consequential to social change in China, in my view, are two factors: (1) the proliferation of direct and near-anonymous interaction online, including in gaming environments, among some Chinese youth; and (2) the divide between those Chinese with access to this sort of high-intensity Internet use and those with little or no online time.

Jenkins notes the latter concern as a challenge to using games as an educational tool: If you're not frequently in front of a computer, it's difficult to engage in learning with one. Research on the "digital divide" in China is at an early stage, but I suspect it will be of growing importance as times passes.