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Book Reviews

SZABLEWICZ, Marcella. 2020. Mapping Digital Game Culture in China: From Internet Addicts to Esports Athletes. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ge Zhang
p. 80-81

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1As its title suggests, Mapping Digital Game Culture in China is an ambitious book that tells a story of Chinese gamers via “a situational analysis” (p. 14) of “social relations, imaginaries and discourses that flow through and around digital games, not about the games themselves” (p. 168). Although this topographical view reproduces perspectives and themes that are not too original in themselves, as other scholars have dealt with them, it does come with a distinctive personal trajectory, as the author did fieldwork in China throughout the last decade. The book is a sustained asymmetry of vignettes, anecdotes, interviews, participant observation of events and spaces, microhistories of spatial transformations, discourse/textual analyses of media coverage, online videos, memes, and so forth. The book by no means attempts to be a comprehensive history or historiography of digital games in China, nor should the reader expect that from it. Instead, the author’s disposition of artefacts, spaces, events, terminologies, categorisations, socialities, discourses, and most prominently affects “evoke” (p. 23) digital games as the medium “through which youth grapple with the challenges of contemporary life” (p. 23). Each of the aforementioned angles can be self-sufficient; together they produce an effective synergy, although overall clarity sometimes suffers due to the lack of a clear diachronic narrative that links all the artefacts, discourses, events, and spaces. The book takes a roundabout approach that circumvents discussing actual videogames and gameplay. However, this is not necessarily a drawback, because the project is much larger than digital games in themselves. Indeed, it tackles the “sideway mobility” (p. 115) in the intermediate zones between mainstream prejudices (e.g. among parents, for whom gaming must be justified) and subcultural prestige (e.g. hardcore gamers, for whom the whole discursive battleground of justifying games is not worth the trouble since they are already marginal). Below, I will introduce the body chapters and briefly discuss them.

2Chapter Two describes internet cafés or wangba (網吧) as a “liminal space” (p. 35) for their ambiguous status. The wangba is often recalled as a nostalgic space of great social atmosphere, but shunned by schools and parents, and generally stigmatised because it was considered “unclean” (p. 36) and “chaotic” (p. 42) in both hygiene and spirit – embodied by the “unproductive society youth” (p. 47) who “do nothing but dance and play on the Internet to fill the time” (p. 41). For the same reason, there was also a simultaneous perverse transgressive pleasure in being in this illicit space. As internet cafés are gentrifying and withering away from their former “glory” and stigma, the spatialised socio-economic differences that once culminated on wangba transferred to other urban spaces, but the memories lived on. As the author puts it, “internet cafés (…) for the young people who actually experienced them (…) are monuments to the pressures of maturing in contemporary Chinese society” (p. 47).

3The third chapter traverses almost the entirety of Chinese internet history to locate how the discourse of internet addiction as a moral panic came into being in the early 2000s, peaked in 2009, receded after 2010, and rose again in 2016, all of which corresponded to specific events that precipitated governmental responses. In particular, internet addiction was largely attributed to the widespread popularity of the so-called “internet games” and wangba. In analysing how internet addiction was visualised in the press, the author considers the discourse as “efforts to mould youth, the Internet and the market for digital products” (p. 53). Specifically, the analogy to opium was to counter the foreign cultural pollution of Chinese “spiritual civilisation”: for example, wangba were likened to the opium den as a lower-class space. The author shows that internet addiction was not simply a “government-engineered response but rather the result of a complex web of actors and overarching cultural/historical concerns” (p. 75).

4Following the earlier discussion on a societal level, anxiety about digital games, class mobility, and productivity (most evidently exhibited by parents), Chapter Four continues with the “dividing practices” (p. 11) that separate the wangluo (網絡, internet) games and danji (單機, single player) games. In stating that “wangluo games were considered addictive while danji games were understood to be athletic” (p. 89), the author accurately captures that the Chinese definition of “internet games” is in fact a socio-technical process of (re)producing both social stigma and a healthy “spiritual civilisation,” rather than a technological description or a genre of games. The “totalising” (p. 107) discourse juxtaposing a skilled or even “patriotic leisure” (p. 91) in single player/e-sports games versus an addictive and potentially decadent lifestyle in internet games is “a disingenuous rhetorical construction rife with inconsistency” (p. 102) as the two often overlap. But the discourse was nonetheless maintained, not out of confusion but in a concerted effort by both kinds of gamers to tactically justify their leisure for its skills and athleticism as well as to distinguish it from internet addiction.

5Chapter Five focuses on how a “spiritual homeland” of both a “social and a geographical reality” (p. 115) is carved out by Chinese players in MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) such as World of Warcraft (hereafter WoW), to put it concretely, against the other reality of the “unruly nest” (p. 113) of student dorms. In contrast to dominant narratives of stigmatisation stipulated in the previous chapter, online videos such as the series I am MT and War of Internet Addiction are “an important space in which gamers can vent their frustrations with the game or its regulation” (p. 117). The “affective register” (p. 120) of the sense of belonging in MMOGs depends on the virtual worlds being “both an escape from the Real World and an alternative means of achieving mobility within it” (ibid.): the friendships, camaraderie, and even marriages built through the guilds and raids. In response to the escapism and nostalgia in players’ narrative of WoW, the author coins the term “sideway mobility” – attainable through a MMOG where equality and meritocracy are warranted by quality game design (e.g. not “pay-to-win”).

  • 1 Short for “involuntary celibate.”

6Chapter Six furthers this discussion on escapism and nostalgia via the “affective chasm” (p. 131) of losing hope in good job and marriage prospects reflected in internet memes and slang such as diaosi (屌絲, loser) and jiyou (基友, gay/gamer friend). These terms subtly articulate young people’s “anxieties about their inability to cultivate prescribed heteronormative relationship” (p. 140). The “male loser trope” of diaosi is comparable to the “incel”1 identity in its crisis of masculinity; but instead of incels’ aggressive politics of male (and White) entitlement that has gained reactionary momentum, diaosi mostly centred around retreating to a modest politics of “affective deficit” as “they are, in essence, not allowed to grow up in the heteronormative sense of the word” (p. 158). The author does not pick a side in terms of being optimistic or pessimistic but insightfully acknowledges how the government and media organisations are already harnessing internet culture, and how these “collective affective identifications” are readily “co-opted and resold” (p. 173) by corporations.

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1 Short for “involuntary celibate.”

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Bibliographical reference

Ge Zhang, “SZABLEWICZ, Marcella. 2020. Mapping Digital Game Culture in China: From Internet Addicts to Esports Athletes. London: Palgrave Macmillan.”China Perspectives, 2021/2 | 2021, 80-81.

Electronic reference

Ge Zhang, “SZABLEWICZ, Marcella. 2020. Mapping Digital Game Culture in China: From Internet Addicts to Esports Athletes. London: Palgrave Macmillan.”China Perspectives [Online], 2021/2 | 2021, Online since 01 June 2021, connection on 25 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ge Zhang

Ge Zhang is a media anthropologist and a postdoctoral fellow at Zhejiang University, 866, Yuhangtang Road, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, P. R. China (

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