Despatch from Beijing International

A soft power push, one game at a time

Visitors at the annual Tencent Games Carnival in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in December 2017.

Visitors at the annual Tencent Games Carnival in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in December 2017.   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

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China’s hunt for a silver bullet to extend its soft power worldwide may be finally terminating in cyberspace. The breakthrough is coming through its hyperactive gaming industry, which is raking in billions of dollars for its publishers.

Spearheading China’s soft power push is the Shenzhen-based Tencent Games — an off-spring of Chinese conglomerate Tencent. Founded in 2003, it is the largest video game company on the planet. Tencent’s dominance can partly be attributed to its acquisitions across the globe.

In 2015, the firm took over Riot Games, the publisher of the sensational ‘League of Legends’ video game. A year later, it acquired Supercell through an $8.6 billion deal. Millions of eyeballs and cash in buckets have followed since despite regulatory criticism from Chinese authorities citing adverse impact on health of minors, and allegations of historical revisionism.

Tencent’s soft power push climbed several notches with its stunning ‘Honour of Kings’ or ‘King of Glory’ offering. The game drew heavily from Chinese historical characters, breaking with a tradition rooted in the West.

Break from tradition

An article in state-run China Daily pointed out that Chinese players in the past had to deal with subtexts based on Western legends or history. For instance, the mega-hit ‘Defence of the Ancients’ featured Zeus and Medusa, both Greek mythological characters. The first hero in ‘Warcraft’, another video game, is called Arthas, a name of European origin. “While playing these games, we learned the stories behind them without realising why, which is a kind of soft power of the West, because it prompts people to learn about Western legends and history,” the article said. It added: “King of Glory, on the other hand, attracts large numbers of Westerners to play, and inspires them to learn about Chinese history and legends.”

Shenzhen-based Tencent Games, which has found a global reach through acquisitions and partnerships, is exporting Chinese history and legends through games seeped in local culture

‘King of Glory’ has attracted 200 million users in China since its launch in 2015. It has also broken the traditional gender barrier, with women accounting for 54% of its subscribers.

Unsurprisingly, the game expanded its footprint to South Korea and Southeast Asia. Last year, Nintendo, the Japanese gaming giant, announced a tie-up with Tencent to bring the game to Nintendo Switch, its video game console. The game’s international version, titled ‘Arena of Valor’ was released last year but with significantly modified content.

This year, Tencent has bonded with Japanese game company Square Enix. The two have agreed to develop original games — possibly as a signal of intent to project indigenous themes for domestic and foreign players.

China’s soft power is also expanding exponentially through its web novel industry. Wuxiaworld.com has emerged as a major web platform hosting translation of novels. Most of its stories are published as serials that go on for years. The company, formed at the tail end of 2014, rides on more than three million views each day. The site’s reading list bears imaginative names: “A Record of a Mortal’s Journey to Immortality”; “A Will Eternal”; and “Absolute Choice”.

Online novelist Li Ruibin, widely known by her pen name Qinlyu, points out that Chinese soft power has reached the tipping point from where it can begin to make a dent abroad. “We felt curious when Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were first introduced to China. Similarly, foreign audiences are interested in the Chinese culture and history in our novels,” she was quoted as saying by the China Daily newspaper.

Atul Aneja works for The Hindu and is based in Beijing.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2019 12:52:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/a-soft-power-push-one-game-at-a-time/article24903281.ece

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