Gambling dens and gamer monks: Asia's offbeat videogame subcultures

Features
September 22, 2016 by Robert Rath

How arcades, game stores, and game-playing culture differ in Hong Kong, Japan, Cambodia, India, and elsewhere

Here’s how to find the arcade in Beijing’s Night Market: go down the alley glowing with red lanterns. Pass by the novelty snack stalls where impaled scorpions wriggle in their death throes and pencil-thin snakes coil, ready for the fryer. Slip through the crowd and delve down a side street where hawkers brandish idols and Mao-emblazoned watches. Follow the harsh neon.

The arcade itself is nothing special. Open-air doors let in the heat and smog. Dingy marks on the floor suggest the ghosts of removed game cabinets. The games are split between two halves -- the ticket-paying games on one side, and more traditional arcade games on the other.  The latter side’s mostly young people, behaving as young people do at an arcade: racing each other on stationary motorcycles or clustering around a Street Fighter machine, waiting for their turn like old men playing Xiangqi in the park.

However, the ticket-paying side features an unfamiliar sight -- middle-aged men clustered around a table cabinet, some smoking, while shooting nets at fish. This is the popular eight-player competitive fishing game Ocean King, a cabinet that rides the line between pachinko and video game. You feed money in to buy ammunition and take your payout in prize tickets or a points card. The game lends itself to being converted into a gambling machine, and rarely makes it to America as a result. The little world Ocean King creates, the social culture of old men hanging out at the arcade, therefore remains unique to the Asia-Pacific.

Ocean King Ocean King

And that’s why as I travel around Asia, I always try to stop at arcades, game markets, and shops. The games themselves are less interesting than the people who play them and the social structures they build around those games. These video game subcultures owe much to the national and religious culture that spawns them, and you can learn a lot about people from how they buy and play games. From the freewheeling markets of Hong Kong to the Buddhist monks sneaking a game of Candy Crush on their Samsung, games reveal the culture of the player.

I first realized this when I moved to Hong Kong three years ago, and suddenly had to re-learn how to buy games. There are no GameStops here, nor are there any big box stores whatsoever. While you’ll find a few games scattered in Toys R’ Us or local electronics chains, the titles are neither current or extensively stocked. Even the Sony Store doesn’t bother to sell its own games -- when I recently asked for No Man’s Sky, an employee said they weren’t bringing it in, and suggested I go to the game market.

There’s no competing with the markets here. While retail chains have a stranglehold on game sales in the west, in Hong Kong individual market vendors have pushed the big guys out. The biggest is the Oriental 188 game market in Wanchai, an indoor mall with four floors of game shops, each nestled into a bedroom-sized area with a roll-up door like a storage unit. As everywhere in Hong Kong, space efficiency is paramount.

The games here are cheap. New releases sell for around $45 to $50, rather than $60. You might assume that’s because they’re bootlegs, but you’d be wrong. Sure, you can find bootlegs there -- even buy them accidentally -- but the vast majority are legit. The DLC codes work. Rather, with no set price controls on games, businesses lower the cost to compete with pirated copies, and regularly undercut each other in order to attract customers. It’s just another outlet for the cutthroat capitalism and wheeling-and-dealing that made Hong Kong famous. If a vendor doesn’t have a game, he’ll tell you to wait as he disappears into the market, buys the game at another shop, then sells it to you at a markup. If the game’s been out long enough, you can even haggle. The retail ecosystem is different too. Besides the new-release sellers, you’ll also find used and classic game shops plying their trade. Some resemble private collections rather than stores.

An example of a small shop in the Oriental 188 Shopping Center in Hong Kong. An example of a small shop in the Oriental 188 Shopping Center in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s markets and arcades also carry a trace of grittiness from the ‘80s and ‘90s, when they were considered disreputable. Whereas American parents packed their kids off to the arcade as a sort of modern playground, Hong Kong parents saw them as a haven for gangs and crime. Oriental 188 has pornography shops as well as games, and some Hong Kong arcades secretly operate as gambling dens.

This hint of the underworld is linguistic as well as legal. In a 2006 Game Studies article, Professor Benjamin Wai-ming Ng points out that the city’s arcade patrons tended to be working class youths that couldn’t afford computers, and as a result, the language of Kowloon street culture seeped into the arcade slang. For example, beating a game is referred to as da-bau-kei, a course expression that translates to “exploding the machine.” Interestingly, it was also not unusual for players to walk into an arcade and challenge strangers to a match -- a behavior that mirrors the city’s history of rival Kung Fu schools challenging each other to bouts.

Such behavior would never be acceptable in Japan, where people tend to go to arcades as a group, keeping mostly to themselves and playing against their friends. In fact, Japanese arcades couldn’t be more different from their Mainland Chinese or Hong Kong counterparts. There, the pseudo-gambling machines and seedy corners are restricted to pachinko parlors, while the arcade machines tend to be larger, in greater variety, and leaning toward expensive simulations. Mech-simulator pods are present in Hong Kong, but limited floor space disallows arcades from deploying lines of them, ranked by the half-dozen like they do in Japan. And where Chinese gaming spaces trend toward the masculine -- with the porn shops and challenge culture -- Japanese arcades include features obviously meant to entice women.

One arcade I visited in Kyoto not only kept a wide range of vending machines selling anime toys and cute animals, but devoted half a floor to purikura, or photo booths. After staring at what appeared to be a cosplay shop nearby, I realized it was a rental station where women could hire costumes for glamor shoots or music videos -- the facility even kept on-site changing rooms. And rather than the dark, windowless rooms arcades usually feature, here the arcade floors were spotlessly white and lit with soft but powerful lamps. Two walls featured floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the street.

This architectural style embodied the simple, clean design aesthetic often associated with Japan -- a culture so obsessed with hygienic purity that even its creation myth involves gods springing into existence when Izanagi washed his body.

Yet you have to be careful drawing cultural conclusions. As an outsider you often have an incomplete understanding, and leaps of logic can draw you into error. When I went to India, everything I’d read led me to assume I had the broad strokes down: poorer country, last-gen tech, parents discourage video game playing. But as I flew in, Air India’s in-flight entertainment featured a tech show reviewing the recently released Xbox One. When I talked to Indian gamers, it turned out their parents liked video games, seeing them as a way to keep kids inside and out of street gangs. By the time I went home, I had more questions than answers.

And there are the near misses, as well, stories where I could’ve captured a major cultural event, but arrived at the wrong time. I spent three days hiking in Sokcho, South Korea two years ago, well before it became the only place in the country where Pokémon Go functions. The reasons for that are political. South Korea blocks Google Maps from charting the areas around its military bases, fearing the North could use it to plan attacks. The seaside resort and hiking town of Sokcho, however, lies far enough north that it escapes that security blanket. I could tell you about the town -- how residents have family across the border, how tourists go there for seafood and leisure, and how South Korean patrol boats ply the shores at night, looking for infiltrators -- but I learned about the Pokémon Go craze from newspapers like everyone else. That being said, I think the cheerful way Sokcho embraced the phenomenon says more about games in Korea than a thousand esports events. Korean tour companies set up “Pokémon packages.” Corner shops added charging stations. K-pop stars joined the hunt. The mayor began dressing as Professor Oak.

The mayor of Sokcho dressing up as Professor Oak to welcome Pokemon Go players The mayor of Sokcho dressing up as Professor Oak to welcome Pokemon Go players

The fact is that Sokcho’s Pokémon Go explosion was inevitable.  Hiking is already Korea’s national pastime, with an added element of social media glamor via designer sportswear and selfies. Marry that to an area famous for rugged mountain trails, and a walking game is sure to be a hit.

But hands-down the most revealing gaming culture I’ve encountered are Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia -- a group forbidden to play games, but who do so in secret.

I had not been in Thailand for a day before I spotted a monk taking a selfie. They were snapping them at the airport, in Tuk-Tuks, and at every temple in Thailand. It struck me as bizarre. Here were men seeking release from ego and attachment, yet glorifying themselves as blatantly as any Kardashian. It fascinated me.

The dissonance mounted until I asked a Thai-speaking friend about it. He pointed out that most Southeast Asian monks don’t join for life, but for a semi-mandatory two-year stint, like military service. Monkhood can cancel debts and open up opportunities for education and access to technology, so even the indifferently religious tend to join. These selfie monks might be middle-class kids serving their time, or boys from the rural provinces who’re getting to participate in online life for the first time.

A week later in Cambodia, I finally got to talk to one. A teenage monk and his friends approached my wife in front of the Palace and asked us where we were from. He was clearly flirting with her for the benefit of impressing his shy friends, but I didn’t care. I finally had an opening to ask what I’d been dying to know.

“Do you have a cell phone?” I asked.

“No, I borrow a computer at the monastery,” said the flirty monk, explaining that he was from a poor family and had signed up specifically to learn things like computers. He pointed to his friend. “He has a phone.”

“Do you play games on them? On your computer and phone?”

They shuffled their feet a bit, and explained that monks aren’t allowed to play games. Any games. It was against the rules. “Not even football,” one lamented.

“But c’mon. You still play games on your phone, right?”

They chuckled and shook their heads, blushing with guilt. Later, in my own research, I found that this restriction traces back to the Buddha himself, who believed games constituted a time-wasting distraction from seeking enlightenment. There’s even a list, known as the Buddha Games List, outlining games the Buddha wouldn’t play.

The Buddha Games List is fairly extensive for something written in the 5th to 6th century BC, and includes ancient board games, hopscotch, dice, ball games, pickup sticks, and toys. The prohibitions are apparently necessary -- Shaolin monks also hold this rule sacred -- and anecdotal evidence suggests underground gaming constitutes a real problem for monks, even in Tibet.

Given that, it’s best not to judge Cambodian monks harshly. After all, Khmer Buddhism is still reconstituting itself from the violent repressions of the Communist Khmer Rouge, and like any rule in Buddhism, the prohibition varies from sect to sect. Though the Dalai Lama has specifically condemned war games, the 17th Karmapa -- the (disputed) head of another major Tibetan Buddhist sect, plays FPSs as a way to safely discharge aggression.

Which is the ultimate example that -- even if you’re living a life of disattachment -- it’s impossible to play games without bringing your culture along.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp