Gamers still eager to try their hands at Legal Minefields

Updated: 2014-01-17 09:31

By Eric Jou, Yang Yang and Yang Wanli in Beijing (China Daily)

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Gamers still eager to try their hands at Legal Minefields

Video game stalls on the sixth floor of Soshow shopping mall in Beijing. Wang Jing / China Daily

The national console sales ban fails to extinguish a passion from childhood, report Eric Jou, Yang Yang and Yang Wanli in Beijing.

Song Lin runs a small video games stall on the sixth floor of the So-show shopping mall in Beijing.

However, the 30-year-old former game programmer doesn't sell regular run-of-the-mill video games. Instead, he sells relics, games that became part of the childhoods of Chinese game players, despite an official ban on the sale of consoles, which, unlike computers, are designed solely for playing video games.

Song's tiny stall contains games and consoles spanning more than 30 years, many of which were illegal or at least legally unobtainable in China.

In 2000, the State Council and the Ministry of Culture banned the sale of video game consoles. However, the ban didn't cover the manufacture of consoles, and the platforms made in China were for the export market only.

Gamers still eager to try their hands at Legal Minefields

The ban limited the availability of console-specific game titles because without the platform there was no real way to play the games. In addition, without passing through the proper regulatory channels, the games didn't conform to domestic rules.

Paradoxically, although it was illegal to sell consoles in China, it wasn't actually illegal to own one, and gamers such as Song were able to buy video games in regular stores.

Song has fond memories of playing video games during his childhood. His earliest memory of doing so dates back to when he was about 5 years old. "My father traveled overseas a lot for work," he said. "When he returned after one trip, he brought back a Famicom."

'Red and white machines'

The Famicom, an abridged version of the full name, Nintendo Family Computer, known in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System, is one of the most iconic video-game consoles in the world. In China, it's known colloquially as "the red and white machine" because of the distinctive color scheme.

Like Song, many Chinese gamers were entranced from the moment they laid their then-tiny hands on the rectangular controller and peered at the unsophisticated, blocky 8-bit graphics.

Ma Tianyu, 27, also runs a video game shop in Soshow mall, but unlike Song, he sells contemporary games and hardware, such as the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii U.

"What we sell isn't exactly legal, but it's not exactly disallowed either," said Ma. "There are people who sell legitimate hardware and software, but there are also some who sell pirated copies of games."

Despite the restrictions, game consoles are readily available nationwide via the "gray market" and a quick search on the e-commerce giant Taobao shows a wide range of consoles for sale online.

The term "gray market" refers to goods bought overseas and then smuggled into the country with the express purpose of resale. The most popular items include smartphones and tablet computers, plus a large number of electronic items that are not commercially available within China or, if they are, are too expensive for regular consumers.

China suspends ban on foreign video game console sales 
"I started to play video games when I was about 2 or 3. My friends and contemporaries were among the first generation of gamers in China," said Ma. "I can still remember playing on the original red and white machines."

Ma was introduced to video games when his grandfather brought back a Nintendo Famicom after a trip to Japan. Ma's memories of the time he spent playing games with his schoolmates are some of the happiest of his childhood.

"I'd share my console with my classmates," he recalled. "Think about it: four kids holding controllers and playing the same games all day long - it's a happy memory."

Later, Ma studied art and animation with a view to creating his own game. That ambition may now be attainable after an announcement in early January that the ban on the sale of consoles will probably be lifted. However, therein lies the rub, as some experts say the announcement equates not so much to abandonment of the restriction, but an amendment. So far, though, there's been no word as to whether any new regulations will come into effect.

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