The extent of the Chinese government's partnership with online gaming companies to promote its nationalist agenda has been revealed by an Oxford University historian.
Dr Hongping Annie Nie of the Faculty of Oriental Studies and Faculty of History at Oxford University has shown how the Party-state has formed partnerships with private gaming companies to capitalise on the enormous popularity of online games in China.
While the bulk of academic research into the internet in China looks at government censorship and its democratising potential, most people use the internet for entertainment. Chinese Ministry of Culture statistics show 120 million people played online games in China in 2010.
In 2001 massively multiplayer online games broke through, attracting huge numbers of players and vast profits for gaming companies.
By 2003 imported games made up 68% of the Chinese market and the government worried that 'foreign ideas' were being spread to Chinese gamers, so its policy on computer games shifted from trying to control them to harnessing gaming’s popularity to its own ends.
Resistance War Online, released in 2007 to commemorate China's defeat of Japan in the War of Resistance, was developed by a company called PowerNet in close collaboration with the state – the Communist Youth League of China was the second largest stakeholder in the game.
Dr Nie said: 'The messages in Resistance War are clearly Party-state messages – the game largely embodies what the Chinese state wants people to remember about the Resistance War against Japan and defines China’s post-Cold War national identity.
'The Party-state has candidly integrated online game technology into its expanding propaganda domain and used it to propagate official ideology and sustain economic growth.'
But Dr Nie is keen to point out the picture is far from clear-cut. The initial popularity of nationalistic online games developed in the 1990s, a reaction to perceived rising militarism in Japan. 'This shows nationalism has not been a uniquely top-down phenomenon,' she said.
These attempts at indoctrination have not been entirely successful. 'Many posts in the game forums complain about the high price of buying equipment, with some references to it being a game for the rich – this exposes the economic divisions in Chinese society which does not follow the Party-state's talk of a ‘harmonious’ society,' Dr Nie said.
'Moreover, different factions and armies have grown up within the games' communities which concentrate on fighting each other rather than the Japanese. Ironically these internal feuds are actually closer to the historical reality than the notion of perfectly united resistance against the Japanese!'