Do you ever wonder if we have too much choice?

We hear tired clichés all the time about competition being good for the consumer, and I’m in full agreement when it comes to buying fruit and vegetables at the market, but looking across the sprawling techno-vista of available computer and videogaming opportunities, I find myself staring into a particularly noisy abyss.

Right now, I’m quite keen to buy a new game system, and like the obedient consumer I am, I find myself asking a question previously uploaded into the decision matrix of my brain by the Gibson-esque industry: “PlayStation, Xbox or that new Nintendo thing whose name we do not speak?”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not going off into my usual “retro gaming” rant. These three systems demand serious investigation, yet it quickly becomes obvious that our apparent overabundance of choices all lead back to the same two or three sources: products cleverly designed to complement each other at every turn and drown the market in an astronomically expensive advertising competition, keeping the smaller players from joining the elitist videogame suppliers club.

While visiting China Town in Manchester, England, I saw a Java sticker on the door of a Chinese newsagents/VCD/magazine shop with the word “games” written underneath it. Inside were two girls, three lads and the shop assistant, all standing around or leaning on the counter thumbing away at their mobile phones. After a few minutes of pretending to look at the magazines (one of which should have been on the top shelf – oops) and trying to catch a peripheral glance at their phone screens, I decided to ask about the “Java games” ad on the door.

The assistant told me – without looking up from his phone – that they sold mobile games. He was far too busy to elaborate on this, so I enquired of the other customers if that’s what they were playing.

I know a basic, broken smattering of Chinese and was able to decipher that they recently arrived from Wuhan, and were indeed playing a new game which was tearing up the mobile gaming charts back in the motherland (the translation of its name was beyond my limited understanding of Mandarin, however). The shop assistant curtly asked if I wanted it, and being the old campaigner that I am, I decided it would be valuable research for a forthcoming The Escapist article I had planned. For the benefit of you, the reader, I set about getting this game onto my mobile phone.

For the price of two and a half pounds, he hit the internet for a few minutes, then handed me a scrap of paper with eight letters and a number written on it – I was to text the letters to the number (the SMS was a further £1.50), and then I’d receive my game. In truth, I was losing my bottle, as everyone’s heard horror stories about bottomless money pits when it comes to “texting for ringtones,” but you are dear to me, reader, so I persevered.

To my immense delight (and equally immense relief), it turned out to be an Easternized version of Metal Slug! My round-eyed excitement was not shared among the shop’s other residents, but I really didn’t care; this game rules! An hour later, the bell above the door announced a new customer, and I awoke from my phone related reverie, realizing I’d suddenly become one of the shop’s virtual Terracotta Warriors of the Mobile Gaming Army. I wished them all a breezy zaijian (goodbye), and headed off to the train station. I almost missed my stop, which is the only stop I might add, from staring intently into the mobile phone screen I’d never before given a second thought.

Could it be that I actually found a new game platform in the midst of those magnificent seventh generation consoles waving their triple processor, 3-D extreme temptations under my nose while a dazzling entourage of handheld beauties danced a seductive, overpriced advertising campaign on the shelves next to them? Surely, my Chinese experience was not a unique one.

I dug a little deeper into the distended landfill of available Chinese software and came to realize there are contemporary gaming platforms out there, which, despite being driven by the consumer, are prolific enough to rival the big boys who can afford those multi-billion dollar advertising budgets and massively expensive retail shelf space. China, it seems, is a haven for the perplexed, jaded gamer.

With traditional market leaders unable to find a finger hold in such a prolific, yet low-profit industry, the particularly discerning Eastern gamer is in a position to dictate to the manufacturer what they want to play; inversely proportional to the way our computer and videogame shelves are filled by gigantic corporations who tell us, the lowly Western gamer, what we will and won’t enjoy.

The Chinese player – who for the most part is unable to afford (and is therefore unsupported by) the big name consoles and game developers – has found an entertainment outlet that provides real choice. It doesn’t take a large team of programmers, artists and musicians millions of dollars to create a new game for a mobile phone, and buying the latest titles is a simple matter of having them sent to your handset at any time of day, the storefront being nothing more than a couple of bars of signal strength.

Despite an estimated 40-50% of the world’s PCs (and a significant portion of individual PC components) being manufactured in China, the majority of the population is in no position to own their own computer. In the same way that a lack of affordable gaming systems has influenced the massive proliferation of mobile games, the lack of a PC has lead to an unprecedented growth in WAP and wireless internet access. Not only does this allow an aspect of the internet’s communication tools to become available to an otherwise disconnected populace, it also provides the main source of new games, even when those titles are paid for in person at a retail store, as I discovered in Manchester.

Clearly one of the major contenders for the much anticipated boom in Chinese videogames, mobile gaming highlights another more personal divergence from the way we in the West play our games. While we sit on our sofas and in our bedrooms for hours on end as we indulge our computer entertainment addictions, the Chinese are (as the platform’s name suggests) going mobile with their playing experience.

When the console/computer is always in your pocket, there is no restriction as to where the games are bought or played. Mobile gaming is becoming something of a social experience for the Chinese; gathering together to play the latest craze, or thumbing away at a game while out on the train or shopping, like my collective of Java junkies in China Town. Granted, there may not be much eye contact and these groups of mesmerized mobile fondlers might not be replete with poignant conversation, but they are at least congregating with other, tangible gamers while playing. Perhaps, it’s not the ideal way to spend your formative years, but young people across the world have known considerably more personally and socially destructive pastimes than tapping away at a phone keypad. With such a monumental number of players, it’s never hard to find other like-minded people to get together with and play, and as popularity grows, so does the subscription to more advanced network services.

China Mobile, the largest mobile phone service provider in China, has reported an average of five million new subscribers a month, and although it is struggling to keep up with the network load, it’s also pouring millions into upgrading the services to meet expectations of the game- playing youth; desperately trying to predict the next technological gaming sensation. The Java and WAP games being developed in China, Korea and Japan (with Europe and the U.S. now getting in on the action) are becoming more detailed and in-depth playing experiences, and with over 400 million mobile phone subscribers in China alone, a great deal of investment is going into ways of using this immense wireless network for multiplayer gaming.

This trend for a more social gaming scene has also led to a totally unprecedented number of online gamers who go to internet cafes to access their MMOGs. Just as with mobile gaming, this practice, perhaps, isn’t as socially interactive as playing sports, for instance, or ballroom dancing, but there has to be some benefit from at least playing in public with other dedicated participants. I must confess to finding a particular attraction to this side of communal game-related gatherings, as they garner a reputation for being seedy, back alley, digital dens of iniquity; harboring an intensely addicted gaming fraternity similar in nature to the sordid, grief-hole town center arcades of my own misspent youth.

These MMOG access cafes are so popular, the Chinese government has felt it necessary to curb online playing time with a virtual curfew of around five hours, though it doesn’t stop the players switching to a different roleplaying game once their time is up. Reports of people lining up for hours on end to get online, while others remain at their screens for 24 hours and more, are not in the least bit uncommon. In one particularly unpleasant case, a severely addicted roleplayer murdered a fellow gamer for selling a valuable weapon lent to him, after the police said it was not within the law to protect a person’s virtual property.

Mobile phone technology in China is still a ways behind the U.S. and Europe, who have been making considerable investment into the wireless communication infrastructure for a lot longer, and even the West has yet to establish decent mobile access to the virtual world of the MMOG. The potential for crossover between the two technologies holds a monumental appeal, however, and has already begun in some small way for the more adventurous Chinese gamer.

Companies are appearing that provide information and statistics about various persistent worlds, quests or messages to players via their mobile phones, allowing them to keep a watchful eye on their alternate realities while away from the internet cafes. This first step in linking China’s two major gaming avenues is an important one, and is key to the consumer-driven-investment communication revolution that is sweeping through the country.

If only they’d start charging the kind of extortionate prices I’m used to seeing for PSP and DS games, maybe it would curb my new addiction and let me get back to work, but in the meantime, I’m just going to have to get used to squinting at my fantastic new game platform for 18 hours a day. I don’t remember the last phone call I made, but for the first time since I owned a ZX Spectrum in the mid- ’80s, I can at least say that I have an abundance of choice when it comes to deciding which game I’ll play next.

But this wonderful gaming platform offers more than just choice; it finally allows players to enjoy a liberty that handheld systems have been striving to realize since electronic games were first conceived. My very introduction to the world of mobile games demonstrates the potential for communal gaming anywhere there is a surplus of mobile phone users, not just in China. We’ve had worldwide gaming communities for some time now, and mobile phones are offering us the chance to rediscover a wealth of local game playing unity; the chance to once again come face to face with other players.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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