Travel and Videogames: Missing Play in Beijing

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I often get cheap dinners in Beijing. I can get a plate of green peppers with chicken in a spicy sauce with rice for less than $2. Beijing is fun, but it’s not the easiest place to live in. There’s the long gray streets, the dust (from construction and sand blown in from Mongolia), and the air pollution, a silent danger to everyone.

On the subway to work, it’s crammed with people and the smell of sweat in the evenings. In China you’ll spot rural migrants with great bundles on their backs mixing with wealthy ladies in the most elegant of coats. On the subway, they’ll be crushed together in the same, tight space.

The smell of Beijing is often acrid with exhaust fumes, and loud honks from taxi cabs ring out, creating stress. The bars are no less full-on, filled as they are with cigarette smoke, cheap beer and the great potential for sex.

I grew up in Hastings, a small, run-down seaside town in England. Seagulls would try to steal your fish and chips, and the smell and sound of the sea is always near. It’s the kind of town where you either stay the rest of your life, or you escape to something bigger.

I often did escape, although perhaps that’s not the right word. After school, my attention focused on the gradual mastery of a videogame. My favorites were either extreme sports games with precise controls or adventure games in which you’re a secret operative, a gangster or a fantasy character carrying around a sword.

I loved my consoles, first an SNES, then a Playstation. I’m afraid Sony ensnared me pretty tightly (they always had great propaganda), and the PS3, although never really taking off like its previous kin, burned slow with incomparable experiences offered by the likes of Metal Gear Solid 4 and The Last of Us.

My PS3 is in England now, unused, my character languishing somewhere deep within Skyrim. I didn’t bring it with me to Beijing—I don’t have a TV anyway—and I miss it sorely. I miss it more than most things in fact. I think about it, and how much I miss playing games, more than I think about family, friends and other markers of home.

I think I can understand this. When I was young, my mum often said that I shouldn’t be playing so much on my console, that I should be studying or doing something more wholesome. I knew that I should be having adventures and experiences for real, too. For myself, rather than through a virtual character. That I should get to know “reality”.

When I was 18, I decided to go abroad. I lived in a small town thousands of miles away from home. I learnt a lot about relationships, what I want and how to get it, all that stuff. I felt temporary joys and the sadness of departures, the elation of love, crushing loneliness and hard-won knowledge.

I’ve felt some of those things while invested in the imaginary worlds of videogames too, but when you’re abroad and alone for the first time, the reality of experience is magnified so much that every moment becomes an opportunity to mature.

I started university when I was 20. I kept up the videogame habit. I played online properly for the first time, refining my reflexes shooting shit up. There were the late night duels and drunken multiplayer. They were fun, sure. And then in my final year, I brought my PS3 with me to my university town (other times I played on friends’ consoles), and I learnt about mood, texture and narrative playing Heavy Rain and Bioshock.

I played Portal the whole way through in one sitting on a German roommate’s Macbook. That perfect little game, which lasted less than three hours, lingers in the memory. Thanks, German guy. On the other hand my trip to Cyprus, much longer in duration, and occurring around the same period in my life, I hardly think about. But I wouldn’t say Portal was more important, as an experience. That would be perverse.

Tom Bissell, author and journalist, has argued that the act of playing videogames is a valid endeavor: “What have games given me?”, he asks in an essay on his attachment to Grand Theft Auto IV. “Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories”. It’s a sentiment that underlines what many people who grew up on games know and understand, that certain games and their moments unfolded as proper emotional touchstones in our youth.

In China, those experiences are vastly different. Here, the main way people play videogames is on a mobile phone or tablet, whiling away their time on puzzlers or Candy Crush, simple side-scrollers (“endless runner” games), and Chinese variations featuring dragons and lions and Chinese artwork. Otherwise it’s boys at internet cafes playing MMORPGs, with games drawing influences from well-known Chinese legends.

Consoles are banned in China, but in big cities at least they are actually not that hard to find. In Beijing, there is an area where there are a sizable number of small, independent shops selling PS4s, Xbox Ones, 3DS’ and games. They are often Japanese region-specific and there are significant mark ups in terms of price. PS Vitas are quite popular here, and the previous Sony handheld—the PSP—was even more so.

I tend to prefer games with well-made worlds, environments you can get drawn into. A console like the 3DS seems perfect for that right now. The innovative handheld, with charming, absorbing titles like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is a transporting little device.

But I don’t have one. The ones sold here only play Japanese games and I can’t understand Japanese. It’s frustrating. The sense of achievement, exploration and play is something I hunger for. In Beijing I wake up in my tiny rented bedroom, commute to work and sometimes walk around spaced out that I live in a city so alien not just to “home”, but to what my sense of a world should be.

So why do I miss playing videogames so much? When I traveled to Thailand or Taiwan or around China, my game-playing desire waned a little. Traveling wasn’t just life but a game itself, an adventure where I was the only constant while the scenery, characters and the soundtrack changed all around me.

But living in Beijing, at age 25, not making huge amounts of money seems too real to be dramatic, too unusual to be mundane. I like living here, I made that choice and I like what I’ve done since I’ve moved here. Is it nostalgia then, a feeling of loss as I drift farther from childhood?

I am not sentimental. Rather I think it’s a need for joy, to be unsprung, to be lost in the flow, unworried about past and futures, which so many of us try to control. It’s a craving for comfort and play; to be enthralled by the notion that reality, wherever it may be, maybe replaced by a game—if only temporarily.

Lu-Hai Liang is a British-Chinese writer based in Beijing. He has written for IGN, The Guardian, New Statesman & The Atlantic among others.