Like Japan and Korea to the east, gaming is a cultural phenomenon in The People's Republic of China, however few realize that console-based videogames are actually illegal under Chinese law. The rather Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Culture first officially banned consoles in June 2000 as a response to concerns over the corrupting influence of videogames. The law clearly states that it is forbidden for any individual or business to manufacture for, or sell games and consoles to China, and while the vast majority of consoles and peripherals are still produced in China's factories, they are all exported for foreign markets. Blanket banning is typical of the government, which seems to prefer an all-or-nothing solution rather than going the trouble of setting up regulatory bodies, especially for something it sees as insignificant.
This grey market operates outside the law, comprised of a dedicated group of dealers and storeowners who distribute and sell imported games and consoles across the whole of Mainland China.
After consoles were made illegal, computer games, somehow spared the ban, exploded in popularity - particularly MMOs that have sadly been responsible for many of the same social problems the console ban was supposed to prevent. China now boasts what is quickly becoming the biggest market for online games in the world, but the ban on consoles is still yet to be overturned. Another side effect of this law has been rampant videogame piracy. With no legal market or regulation, it is much cheaper and usually easier for gamers to modify their systems and play widely available bootleg discs. While China's issues with endemic piracy are no secret, what is most surprising is that there also exists a robust grey market for legitimate, imported games. This grey market operates outside the law, comprised of a dedicated group of dealers and storeowners who distribute and sell imported games and consoles across the whole of Mainland China.
As a foreigner in China, and a consumer of these imports, I was mostly ignorant to how the games and consoles were making their way into the country, and I certainly had no idea of the struggles these businesses faced. However, over time I got to know the sellers and I began to understand the scale of the grey market. My curiosity was piqued - how could businesses like this operate so freely in a country as controlled as China? What I discovered was a classic story of supply meeting demand, and an exciting glimpse of the market potential for gaming in China.
Beijing's neighborhood of Gulou isn't the only place to buy games in the city, but it's certainly one of the most famous and iconic. Many of the shops are concentrated on Gulou East Street; a long strip surrounded by a dense network of historic houses and twisting alleyways, bookended by two ancient towers. That such a historic neighborhood is host to so many high-tech shops is one of the many enjoyable ironies you encounter in China. Still, these are not the franchised outlets of the West; stores here are small and often situated in converted residences. Some are general and carry products for all systems while others are specialized. Some of them have even set up their own competitive gaming leagues. The interiors are personal in decoration and often crowded with the owner's family or friends, eating and playing games while customers bustle in and out. One such store and the focus for our story, is Long Xiang Dian Wan.