Games theory

It has been more than 30 years since China began to open up to the rest of the world yet there are still glaringly off-limits areas where censorship and foreign involvement are taboo. Video games don’t usually make that list. That is why it is a big deal to more than just teens that the Chinese government is going to allow sales of Microsoft’s Xbox One video game consoles. Video games are a global force to be reckoned with in terms of dollars, worth up to $18 billion annually in China according to Bloomberg. Hardware is one thing, but the increasing cultural relevance of the games themselves are the story here.

Deeming wildly popular, and extremely violent, titles such as the Call of Duty series and recently released Destiny unfit for consumption, China continues to block their sale. Of course pirated copies of their predecessors abound, and these next releases will be no different. This makes the effort as much a political play as a practical stand against violent influence in a society where state coercion is a constant risk for dissidents and the press.

Given the strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China, both latent and obvious depending on the arena, it is a peculiar paradigm. (Japan’s Sony PlayStation 4 is not yet for sale in China.) As people around the world spend more and more hours playing the very same game titles through consoles or handhelds, connected or alone in the dark, they are becoming interlinked through common experiences. This sharing offers a connectedness, whether it is slinging squawking birds on an iPhone or storming a pretend bunker with a friend an ocean away. China is constantly weighing the benefits and the costs of its own connectedness as a nation.

Games such as Call of Duty and Destiny offer distinct views of future warfare that are only going to become more accessible, and quite likely more immersive, in the coming decades. These hyper-connected entertainment experiences are fundamentally shared ones that take away one party’s ability to dominate relationships, expectations and assumptions. Minecraft, now owned by Microsoft, offers a gore-free example.

Immersive entertainment will shape everything from training to tactics to narratives of loss and defeat on all sides in future conflicts. If Chinese and American forces square off in the Pacific some day they may have more in common than they realize. Some may have even played games together.