China Brain, China Game

In every gamer’s brain, billions of neurons dance a massive, cognitive ballet. Inputs balance outputs, while mental associations and categorizations are formed. Through this structure of brainy bits, consciousness emerges. Some have claimed that the brain itself is irrelevant, and that consciousness is something that develops when anything, be it billions of neurons or billions of people, organizes and channels information. This theory, called “functionalism,” has engendered much debate, notably in a thought-experiment by NYU philosopher Ned Block. The experiment runs as follows:

Get a whole lot of Chinese people organized, each with a cell phone. Have them all call and interact with one another, following an input-output structure isomorphic to that of a human brain. Would that group of people, collectively, become conscious in some way?

Although some philosophers claim this group of people, or the “China Brain,” is conscious, there’s a disconnect between the parts of that system not present in an actual brain. Since each element is conscious in its own right, the emergent whole simply cannot form. There is no way for the China Brain to become self-aware. Something will emerge, sure, but it won’t be a functionalist consciousness.

I currently work for Gameloft; sister-company of Ubisoft, international cell phone game developer and proud creators of Paris Hilton’s Diamond Quest. Each of Gameloft’s studios function independently, but oftentimes a particular project will be touched by hands from across the planet. Each person plays his part in the vast company structure, working together as a gestalt.

One of the branches we work with most is in China. A lot of the time, testers in Montreal will work with Chinese developers, identifying and fixing bugs together. Same company, same game project. How disconnected can we really be? The time zone difference isn’t a big deal. Just switch a.m. to p.m. Simple enough. Language barrier? Since the people at my studio are predominantly French- speaking, and those in Chinese studios speak Mandarin, everyone finds common ground in the world’s new lingua franca, English! Never have emoticons been so instrumental toward a company’s success.

Of course, there’s more. Both branches work different hours per week, for different salaries, with different tools. The games themselves are made for completely different markets. While many people in North America still can’t understand why anyone would pay for a cell phone game, the mobile and casual gaming industries are thriving in China. Additionally, only a fraction of the country’s games arrive in North America, and not necessarily the most popular, specifically for cultural reasons.

With such an industry divide on so many levels, inter-studio work becomes that much more perplexing.

It could be, though, that human or cultural disconnect doesn’t really get in the way of the final product after all. A programmer in China might be equally distant from the project’s creative core as the tester in Montreal. Less creative tasks are analogous to the company that makes paint, crafts easels, or produces canvas for an artist. Maybe even the game artists themselves are playing a certain kind of assembly role, and only the designer can be likened to a “painter” commissioned by his marketing patrons.

As the industry grows, inter-studio work will likely expand to mirror market diversity. China has the world’s fastest growing economy. Combined with its booming online gaming market, the effects of its buying power will most assuredly be felt here. But just as one consciousness emerges from communication between two communicating brain hemispheres, perhaps there is hope for subsidiaries of global game companies on opposite ends of the planet to keep a sense of themselves.

Simon Abramovitch is a philosophy graduate and freelance writer, and currently maintains a blog about the purpose of humankind at

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