At any point in a young adult’s life, ‘escape’ probably crosses their mind after a rough day at the office (or a rough one in the kitchen, as work tends to elude recent college grads). The pull for adventure is strong, especially when a glance at your Facebook wall features some long-lost acquaintance posting pictures of their recent trip to Amsterdam or wherever they were sent for their graduation gift — lucky bastards.
Leaving everything you know behind for something unimaginably different is a daunting thought, but it was also the best decision I ever made, and it only cost me a massive video game collection to do it. Years of hoarding finally paid off (which is a funny way of looking at it, if you consider the actual return on investment). I sold around 800 games to a wholesaler for a cool five grand and bought my ticket out of Oregon and into to the exciting (and occasionally insane) world of teaching English internationally. It’s been a wild ride for the past few years, but even after being screwed out of pay, having a knife pulled on me outside of a nightclub in Pattaya, and having my passport held hostage by a vengeful ex-employer, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
I’ve been an English teacher in five different countries. My training was in Cambodia, but my first job was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam while I waited for my visa paperwork to process before starting my next job in Japan. At every turn Japan was a dream-crushing experience, and I assure you any fantasies you’ve had about living there need to be reigned in, so I left that job pretty quickly. Outside of a summer job/vacation in Thailand, my main experience has been teaching in China, which in my estimation is the best combination of pay, ease of work, benefits, and quality of life for an English teacher in Asia. Of course, you’ll need something to do when you’re not working and that means videogames!
Gaming here falls into two camps: PC and Mobile. Cell phone games feature a lot of free-to-play, micro-transaction based clickers that all tend to have their roots in the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms or some other Wushu-based fiction. China is dominated by F2P games — it’s a videogame CEO’s wet dream, and they take advantage of it, and if you think the economics of microtransactions in the west are unfair, the level of gouging found in games here is downright shocking. Needless to say, I don’t spend a lot of time with these titles.
The gaming related conversations you’re more likely to have will feature PC games like DOTA 2, League Of Legends, CS: GO, Starcraft, World of Warcraft, or Hearthstone. If you’re noticing the trend of popular but lower-spec games, consider this: The average wage in China is around 3,000RMB a month, or about $450. Not a lot of normal people are rocking liquid cooled rigs with GTX1080’s. The most system-intensive game you’ll find played on a regular basis is probably Overwatch, and even that may be too restrictive for most people. This PC dominated space does lead to the surprising popularity of unusual games, as I’ve been consistently told by Chinese players how Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy is one of their favorite titles.
Steam has a huge presence in China, but it exists as a pseudo ‘gray market’ without an official Chinese business partner, so games tend to release on the same day as the international launch. If you live in China and have an official address and phone number, you can switch your account to a mainland account and still have access to your games while taking advantage of the lower prices. Games on the Chinese store are significantly cheaper than they are in other regions for the most part, but AAA titles and anything Japanese tends to be the same price, if not slightly more expensive. Shadow of the Tomb Raider, for example, launched at 398RMB, which equates currently to $58 USD. Still slightly cheaper, but not by much. The real savings can be found with Indie releases, where there are some screaming deals. When The Messenger launched on Steam in the summer for $19.99, the Chinese store had it for 70RMB, or $10.21.
The more difficult issue is actually paying for these games as a foreigner. China has embraced digital currency like no other country, so linking your Chinese bank account to Paypal-style services like Alipay and Wechat Pay makes paying for goods and services here as easy as scanning a QR code. This is also true for Steam, but with one exception: any purchases made on Steam have to be made with an Alipay account registered to a Chinese citizen, probably to keep international users from taking advantage of the crazy prices. However, like all other technological hurdles in China, there’s an easy workaround like buying pre-paid Steam cards or, if you’re like me, sending the money to a Chinese friend along with the QR code, and then having them buy it.
Of course, if you want to take advantage of this, you’ll need the proper hardware. Everything is cheaper in China except for international goods, and when buying tech, doubly so. If you live in southeast China (Say, Shenzhen, where I lived previously), your best bet would be to make it down to Hong Kong for electronic upgrades — it may be the best city in the world to go shopping for computer hardware. If you need a new rig or a new card, head to the famous Golden Arcade Shopping Center and hook yourself up. The staff will speak good English, and the hardware will have International Windows.
That last bit is extremely important, as any computer purchased in China will have the only country-exclusive Windows on the planet. Mainland Chinese Windows is also the only version that only has one language option, and making it display English is next-to-impossible — a “nice surprise” when I bought my Xiaomi gaming laptop. Again we need a workaround, and frankly the only legal option here is to buy a Windows 10 key officially, put it on a USB boot drive, and install it cleanly onto your Chinese hardware, which is what I did. Luckily, a digital Windows license can transfer from one computer to another easily, so I won’t have this problem again. Even with the extra $100 I spent to acquire the Windows license, I’m still quite happy with my Purchase. Xiaomi is one of the biggest electronic brands in China and actually makes great hardware. One of the most fascinating things about being a tech-head in China is learning and trying out all these new brands with billions of dollars of revenue that you’ve never heard of.
So PC gaming here is both easy and cost-effective, but what about console gaming? You’ll find no shortage of enthusiasts, but consoles have zero presence here. I don’t have a single Chinese friend who owns a PS4 or Xbox One. One guy I know has a modded 360, but that’s the only thing I’ve seen firsthand. Most people in China have never heard of consoles, and the ones that have see them as toys for rich kids. Most of my students and friends know who Mario is, but have never actually played a Mario game. Microsoft and Sony have presences here, but the consoles are region locked and the small amount of AAA games that get Chinese Mainland versions printed to disc are scarce, occasionally censored, and have only Chinese language options. Zombies are frequently replaced by robots due to a cultural stigma surrounding the concept of the living dead, and don’t expect the same level of splatter you’re accustomed to. For these reasons, you’ll want a console and discs from overseas.
Depending on your location, this may be problematic. If you’re in a first-tier city like Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen, there are specialty shops that will have international versions of systems, games, and accessories for you, but expect a hefty pricehike. But let’s say that you, like myself, currently live in a much smaller city where the local KFC is the closest thing to ‘international cuisine’. In that case, your best bet would be to try the largest shopping website on the planet: Taobao. Think Amazon.com for China, only bigger. November 11th is essentially Chinese Black Friday, and this year marked the largest movement of currency in an online marketplace during a 24-hour span in the history of Earth. It’s massive, and you can buy damn near whatever you want on it, including anything gaming-related.
Of course, you’ll need some knowledge of Chinese (or a patient Chinese friend) to set up an account and link your debit card, but the whole outside world opens up after that. Sellers will usually stock the Japanese or Hong Kong versions of games, so check to see if a specific title has English before you buy, but Hong Kong versions have English 95% of the time. American copies of games are always the most expensive, but with these consoles being region free (except the 3DS, and there is a significant mark-up when it comes to US 3DS units and games) as long as you don’t care about some funny writing on the box, you’ll be fine. With that said, be prepared to wait a little while to get your goods, as you’ll most likely have it shipped from Hong Kong. Anything coming from there to the Mainland goes through an extensive customs treatment, but after they spend a week making sure it isn’t a bible or capitalist propaganda, it’ll be on the way.
However, if you’re willing to make the all-digital plunge, the easiest and best way to buy any game you want in China is to buy pre-paid store credit codes on Taobao. No matter your region, sellers on Taobao have codes for the PSN, Microsoft store, Nintendo e-Shop, Steam, and even for Battle.net and Amazon — this is how I also buy books for my Kindle. A quick purchase is followed by a near-immediate text message with your code, and you’re good to go. The craziest thing about this is that this can actually be cheaper than buying games at home. I can currently buy a $50 PSN code from my seller for 298RMB, which equates to $43.41. How these guys make money doing this, I truly have no idea.
Another good route to supply yourself with games would be to keep in touch with other foreigners around your area. There’s bound to be some gamers in town, and they’ll likely be up for trading with you or buying what you have for sale due to convenience. When I wanted to upgrade to a PS4 Pro, my old PS4 was snapped up by another expat in about 10 minutes, making for a relatively cheap upgrade. Maybe somebody in your city’s foreigner Wechat group (essentially Facebook for China) knows a great computer store where you can get parts for a rig or find a good deal on a laptop with International Windows on it? I currently belong to a wechat group with over 150 expat gamers trading and selling games. If you’re looking for something specific, odds are you’re only a friend away from it in China.
So gaming in China is a little more complicated than it was in the other Asian cities I’ve lived, but with a few extra steps, you’ll find that it’s not that hard to get your fix here — and oftentimes it’ll be cheaper than back home. From the outside, China may seem scary, but once you’re here you’ll find the warmest people on the planet and a beautiful country to explore. Gaming became a secondary part of my life once I moved away, and while it’s never going to be as all-consuming as it once was, being able to stay in the zeitgeist from 7,000 miles away is a nice way to relax after a long day of teaching English.