Internet gaming is causing a cultural shift

Popular video games, Internet celebrities — we know what they are, but probably still hesitate to discuss them in polite society.

Hence my bewilderment upon finding that a lecture by Sun Jiashan, director of the Center of Contemporary Literary Criticism under the Institute of Marxist Literary Criticism, Chinese National Academy of Arts, began with a discussion of the popular video game “The King’s Glory.”

In this forum hosted by Guancha.cn, Sun used keywords to characterize our attitude toward cyber culture: video game addiction, little fresh meat (young hunks), Internet celebrity, fans and so on.

Ironically, there is growing likelihood that electronic game might be accepted as a game in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, given the steadily declining TV viewership, and the need to get young people interested.

No matter how you view it, Internet gaming has grown into big business.

If culture is deemed a pillar industry, as defined by its contribution to GDP, then video game is a pillar of cultural industry. For the first six months this year, the video game market in China was worth more than 100 billion yuan (US$15 billion). Some still view the Internet café as a sink of iniquity, almost a faux pas if mentioned at all, but as late as last year it was still worth 75 billion yuan, down from its height of 100 billion yuan some years ago.

Sun cited a paradigm shift in a culture permeated by the Internet. The concept about celebrity is changing. In the past, only the No. 1 in a field was meaningful. A traditional star was somewhat constrained and tied up with the grand narrative, as a symbol of perfection.

New standard for celebrity

But the Internet is setting a new standard for celebrity. The idols minted on social media or mobile platforms are often ordinary people from ordinary backgrounds, who need not be perfect. Their meteoric rise is often leveraged by the media as well as capital.

By helping create the buzz about their idol, the fans themselves become capable of contributing to the construction of the public discourse.

In his “The Disappearance of Childhood” Neil Postman suggests that childhood came into being as the new medium of print resulted in divisions between children and adults. But now these divisions are being eroded under the barrage of television, which turns the adult secrets of sex and violence into popular entertainment and presents both news and advertising at the intellectual level of10-year-olds.

But Sun observed it might be equally true to say that in the age of Internet, childhood has been infinitely prolonged. For instance in Japan, an octogenarian might join in the fun of cosplay together with teenagers. The culture of fans in cyber age clearly reflects the modern sense of loneliness.

From the perspective of demographics, it is easy to understand why mobile Internet platforms are rising in popularity.

The latest estimate in China put the number of Internet users at 750 million. A closer scrutiny would reveal that 90 percent of them have not received a college education, 90 percent of them earn less than 8,000 yuan a month, and 70 percent are under 40. Rural netizens already make up 25 percent, and are edging up to 30 percent. The profile of a typical patron of cyber celebrity, according to Sun, is a waiter/waitress splurging a third of their monthly wages of 2,000 tipping their idols.

This probably stems from the fact that Internet celebrity is very different from the tabloid-fodder fame of the older generation. Traditional celebrity is something we look up to, in a vertical structure, while Internet fame is conceived of a flat or parallel structure, and appears to be more intimate.

In the past, only a few people reached the status of celebrity. The workings of the Internet suggest that everyone can be a celebrity, given the right circumstances.

If the potentialities of these people are given fuller play, they might translate into incremental, but ultimately significant cultural change. This would lead to a very complicated cultural scene, for historically these people were as a rule not so articulate, and their desires and wants hardly noticed. Obviously, the Internet allows the masses to wrest control of fame from traditional media with the click of a mouse.

It is too early to give any predictions. But Sun says one thing is sure: We are confronting a singular cultural experience, and we still lack consensus as to how to assess it, not to say how to harness it.

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