- [Though developers and publishers like Blizzard are reporting record numbers of online players in China, in a new China Angle column, Frank Yu says the actual number of game players is drastically under-reported, and investigates the populations going unaccounted for.]

Blizzard recently reported that its World of Warcraft reached one million concurrent users in China. Every month we see data from China showing the growing population of game players that continue to go online to play games. We see Chinese game companies reporting rising revenue and plans for expansion both in and out of China.

However, as I tell friends and colleagues outside China, the true number of game players in China are actually underreported. Only a small number of the actual game players in China ever get mentioned in a report. How is that possible, you ask? The numbers are already large.

In China, we track game players by subscriber or registration numbers, or by the amount of money they spend giving companies revenue.

If they don’t register or pay money, they are somewhat invisible to the industry or, from the business viewpoint, irrelevant. I have listed some of these black holes of gaming that are quite large but have yet to be tracked in an accurate manner.

Game Play LANs

These are games played by the many of the hardcore gamers in net cafes, schools and offices after hours. They are essentially free and are hosted and administered locally, so no data or tracking goes back to the developers. In fact, only a local LAN is needed, with no actual outside internet connection needed.

I have seen many of these Gaming LANS which exist to play games like Counter-Strike, Starcraft, and Age of Empires only on the LAN. One of the most popular LAN game is DOTA (Defense of the Ancients) which is a mod-based alteration of WarCraft 3 into a Hero based action game.

I would guess that LAN games in China comprise a big chunk of actual net café use but few people outside of China realize that many players in Net Cafes are playing LAN Games and are not actually online – and also do not require an authorization key for each copy since it’s a LAN.

Speaking of which, in the past and perhaps in the present, Shanda’s Haofeng game portal, which is one of the most popular game matching services in China basically allows online players to log onto the service as if they were on a LAN. No authorization key needed either since the game thinks its on a LAN as well.

Game Play Women

Women gamers on the record comprise perhaps up to 35 percent or more of China’s gaming population, based on MMORPGs and Casual Game portal data. However, I suspect that female video gamers may comprise 60 percent or more of actual game players at any particular time.

These women don’t play MMORPGs or Counterstrike, they play Solitaire, Minesweeper, Tetris or the thousands of single player games available on the net, their mobile phones or on their PCs.

Go to shops in China and you will find Solitaire on computer screens, waiting to be attended to as soon as you have left the store. Some female favorites in China like Lian Lian Kan or Bubble Bobble clones do not require internet, just a lot of time to kill.

Game Play Young Children

Yes, young children play games too. However, many Chinese parents are quite wary of having their middle school or younger children go online alone. Aside from the usual dangers and stuff like porn exposure of going online on the wild and crazy internet, parents fear internet game addiction at an early age for their kids

This is due to all the negative press that the government releases on the danger of out of control gamers dying in a net cafés or stealing from their parents to buy virtual items.

Yes, young children do have access to PCs but usually their parents get them loads of awful edutainment products to get them started right. Anyway, many children at least of middle class families in top tier cities have their own Nintendo DS or Game Boy Advance to play with.

No one knows just how many of these very popular handhelds are in China, (I doubt Nintendo knows either) but they are the ONLY legal game console that can be sold in China right now (as far as I know) due to a JV relationship between Nintendo and a local game distributor.

Many of these young children are just waiting to be able to go to a net café (net cafes are supposed to have age limits) or get their own laptop so they can join the online gaming masses as soon as they can ditch the family PC (and parental eyes).

Game Play Old People

Yes, old people play games here. In fact, old people are more socially active in China than in the U.S. They love to play games such as hacky sack, but kicking around a feathered weight as opposed to a small beanbag. What kind of games do the seniors play? They play cards on the streets, homes, tea houses, in the park and just about anywhere they gather which means if its mostly offline.

Doudizhu (fight the landlord) is supposedly the number one card game in China, or at least in Chengdu, but few non-Chinese know this. The game does not have an exact match in the U.S. but it pits 2 players (the workers) versus the evil capitalist land owning landlord.

MahJong is a national favorite as well as Chinese Chess and Chinese Checkers (here called The Jumping Game). In China, the rules vary according to region and even by city, so it’s a matter of home pride to play by your home rules and speak in the local dialect.

With retirement and a role of babysitter for young children, many old people are being dragged into the video gaming world by their adult children, grandchildren and Wii Sports. Since many grandparents live with their children and grand children, they find that gaming, both computer and offline, as a good way to connect with the younger generation on something both can be passionate about.

Game Play Offline

Young Chinese people love playing online games because there is already a culture of game playing in Chinese culture to begin with. The concept of single player games is a bit of an anomaly that came about with card games like solitaire and early video games.

However, with online and mobile gaming, games are once again becoming the multiplayer social devices that they have always been for centuries. Whether it is something to do with old friends, ways to interact with new friends or a sly method of meeting girls (or boys), games have always been a rich part of Chinese culture from the emperors to the peasants from the educated to the farmer.

Go into most bars or KTVs in China and you will see all forms of games being played on tables and in rooms. The movie Pirates of the Caribbean actually highlighted one of the most popular games in Asia played by most young adults. Although new to many Americans, Liar’s Dice is played almost everywhere where alcohol is served.

What is strange is that China has seemed to have skipped having their own board game industry due not only to the popularity of the classics, but the sudden transition of video game technology hitting the mainland just as China began to open up.

The next time you hear about how large China’s online game population is, take note that represents only the number of people that can be tracked. China has always had the world’s largest gaming population not in the millions but in the hundreds of millions. Now they are just emerging out of the dark and going online and some of the smarter casual gaming companies are learning how to make them into customers.

[Frank Yu is a director of strategy at eCitySky Beijing. Prior to his current position, Frank started and led the first China game team for Microsoft Casual Games. He has also served as the first Regional Business Manager in Asia for the Xbox and Home Entertainment Division. He can be reached by email at capital@gmail.com.]