Have you ever wondered what you would do without video games? Have you ever considered what it would be like to not have your own games console? Last month I wrote about the Indonesian video games industry and concluded that it is unlike anything in Europe or USA, and I can safely say that the same applies to Taiwan. Taiwan is a country full of juxtaposition. The most cutting edge technology is in abundance yet you can't drink the tap water. You can eat a huge cheesy pizza for a pittance but milk will cost you a small fortune. Added to this are the ideas of online social gaming and the lifeless banks of occupied computers found in Taipei's many Internet cafes. Although it is not uncommon for people to own computers in Taipei, almost every Internet cafe in the country is full of gamers tapping away at keyboards and guzzling soft drinks. World of Warcraft is number one here and the console market is similar to the West, with the Wii and 360 possessing a slightly larger market share than the PS3. However, console gaming is on a much smaller scale than in the US or UK. There are a number of console games shops scattered around Taiwan's cities but as I have already stated, the focus really is on online PC gaming.
My first impression of the Taiwan gaming scene was similar to what Lucas DeWoody discussed in his April editorial 'The Death and Rebirth of Social Gaming'. That is to say that I gathered that local multiplayer is almost non-existent. Although people are occupied in 'social gaming' with a cigarette and a Fanta at 1:30am, it just doesn't seem quite as social as a crate of beer, four N64 controllers and a copy of GoldenEye at 4:00 in the morning. Okay, so it's not actually that cool a thing to do in the real world, but as far as gaming goes it can be an absolute social joy. What's the point in advancing technologies like headsets and MMORPGs if we're only going to shout abuse over the Internet? We all know trash-talking an opponent is far better if they are in the same room. So my initial reaction to the Taiwan videogame sector was a rather sorry one.
Alas, after frequenting the Internet cafes on a more regular basis I began to notice behavior that would suggest there was more to this online gaming idea after all. Groups of teenagers huddled around individual monitors all helping and joking with the person playing. In another corner, two middle-aged men discussing the best tactics to approach the next dungeon (actually, I have no idea what they were discussing – it was in Chinese, but it looked something like that). By the entrance there were a trio of boys laughing at the death of a girl (well, the death of her WoW character). As you can tell, all of these occurrences were of a social nature. Once I'd noticed this, I seemed to find it everywhere. What at first I had thought was a series of lonely nerds escaping the popular kids turned out to be just regular people, coming together to tease, mock, compare, laugh and to generally enjoy gaming as a social activity. The Internet cafes act as the modern day equivalent of videogame arcades.
I'm still with Lucas in regard to the Western markets. There's no way playing Call of Duty 4 alone in a dimly-lit room until the wee hours with your online 'friends' is anywhere near as social (or as fun) as playing winner stays on in your best mate's bedroom on his new copy of Street Fighter II. But when we consider the gaming infrastructure in Taiwan and we dig a little deeper to find more than first meets the eye, the Taiwanese like to do exactly what Lucas complains we just don't do enough of anymore: helping or humiliating our friends and loved ones to their face, from the comfort of the same room.