Eastern Promises : The truth about Chinese black-market video games

Okay, there’s no getting around my opening statement.  Gaming can be a fucking expensive pursuit.  What’s more, unless you’re relying on used games through Ebay or you have the good fortune to be on friendly terms with an independent retailer there isn’t much that can be done about it.  The video game market isn’t the most competitive, price-wise, and outside of closing-down sales or steam promotions, you’re not going to be able to avoid paying full-price for the latest consoles and releases without going to some extraordinary lengths.  The idea of taking some hard-earned western monies on a quick trip to China has become rather popular in recent years.  And why not?  All electrical devices seem to go through China at some point, and we’ve all had the daydream fantasies of taking a couple of hundred dollars across the ocean, to be met with such a veritable smorgasbord of shady underground markets and smoke-filled Asian bazaars that we’d be forgiven for thinking we’d just dropped ourselves into a particularly-nerdy version of Blade Runner.  But the truth can’t be anything like the fantasy, can it?

After living there for a few years, my answer is, not surprisingly, yes and no. Since the year 2000, consoles and console games are illegal in China.  They corrupt the youth, and keep their developing minds from the essential studies that they should be focusing on.  As a grown man who remembers nothing of the laws of thermodynamics, but can recall with startling clarity all the boss patterns of Castlevania III, I quietly concede to the Chinese government.  PC games are, strangely, exempt from this law.  I can only assume that someone in the party has played World of Warcraft and concluded that nothing sets a child up for adult working life than a series of monotonous, grinding fetch-quests interspersed with shopping trips.  However, either because of this lack of legality or despite it, video games are everywhere in China.  It’s a monumentally huge market, and one that every decent (read: poor) gamer feels the desire to submerge themselves in from time to time.

One small point needs to be tackled before we continue, though, and that is the issue of piracy.  As can be expected from a country that looks upon copyright laws less favorably than a meat lovers’ pizza at a PETA meeting, China doesn’t seem to care much about piracy in any form that doesn’t carry an AK-47 and float around demanding that people cut their engines.  However, to most of the English-speaking world, piracy is a contentious issue which we’ll deal with in another article.

this guy: more of a problem than copyright infringement

this guy: more of a problem than copyright infringement

So, let’s just leave the ethical issues aside and answer with:  Yes.  Yes, you can get pirate copies of anything you want, anywhere you want, and for less than the price of a cup of coffee.  In fact, if the vendor is the changeable type who likes the look of you, or you happen to have enough points in ‘barter’, you can  probably get around four shiny game discs for the price of a latte.  If you want that large with syrup, you can get about six.  It’s a huge business out there, and without condoning or condemning the act of piracy itself, most semi-legit vendors will carry pirate copies, or know a guy who does.

Every so often, the authorities will make token ‘raids’ on some of these stores, and as a British national who is used to no more display of force from a police officer than a stern look, it’s always unsettling to see them walking around a shopping mall with enough firepower to bring down a helicopter.  Because of this, a few vendors will attempt to coax you into a lock-up to look over their less-than-legal wares, and though on occasion it brought to mind a few scenes from dodgy late-night kung-fu movies, I was never personally assaulted with anything more than a pirate copy of Final Fantasy XIII.  I still wake up screaming.

Not that ‘who you know’ is all that important a factor.  In fact, all you really need to know is ‘where’, and that’s hardly difficult in a land where subtlety is a dirty word to most businessmen.  Find any electronics market and wander around it until you find a 10-foot tall clue in the shape of a poorly-Photoshopped Solid Snake holding a wiimote, or a display featuring characters from Mario kart crudely cut into the pre-rendered mansion entrance from RE:make.  I’m being truthful here, but needlessly catty.  In ZhongGuanCun, a very well-known electronics center of Beijing, the E-Plaza basement level contains a large cardboard cut-out of a bright red Sonic the hedgehog which I coveted for months.  It’s kitsch, and it’s amusing and it’s all about ‘recognisability’.  If a vendor can make you stop and chuckle at a display for longer than three seconds, he can get in there and try and drag you into his shop.  Which he will, unless you happen to look Asian yourself.  To 100% of these store clerks, everyone else looks like an easily-led scarecrow stuffed with money.  This is probably one trip to avoid if you don’t like pushy salesmen.  In fact, it’s best not to venture into an electronics market at all if you don’t feel up to it, or have the mental wherewithal of Professor Layton at a murder mystery weekend, as it will likely be a million miles from the comfortable shopping experience you’re used to.

If, like me, your ideal shopping trip is more like a polite form of looting, where you dart in and grab what you need, throwing some money at someone on the way, you’ll have to steel yourself incredibly.  You’ll have to negotiate prices as though you were buying the first-born son of the clerk, and depending on what you buy, it could take a while.  If you want a new gaming rig or a console, be prepared to sit for upwards of two hours while the owner shows you the item in meticulous detail and harangues you over the price.  Against all logic, it’s best to deal with the non-English speakers if possible, outside of the larger cities.  They are more desperate for a sale, and many times I’ve been able to get items slightly cheaper by having a picture taken with the storekeeper.  It’s good business to deal with a westerner.  I was only disappointed that they didn’t ask for a soundbite from me, telling everyone that this was my favorite shop on the citadel.

absolutely indistinguishable from a real wii

absolutely indistinguishable from a real wii

Disappointingly though, if we’re talking legit games and consoles, the price difference alone isn’t enough to justify a trip.  Official games (often Japanese imports, so be careful with region-locked consoles) can range from 250-400 RMB (40-65 US Dollars at time of writing) depending on the store’s base price, and how much mark-up they slap onto it.  Don’t go dressed to impress.  You’ll look like a rich idiot foreigner on a business trip, and be gouged accordingly.  Console prices also vary, and due to the relative rarity that consoles enjoy, a 360 or PS3 will often cost a little more than you’d pay back home.  Unless you’re in it for the piracy, don’t expect to be bringing home a bag stuffed with the latest releases or a shiny new machine to play them on.  So, what’s the point?  One word:  Handhelds.

Due to the dubious legality of the whole issue, it takes a gargantuan effort to get home consoles or their games at reasonable prices, and it takes a decent rapport with a salesman, or a bulk order, to get them at half their retail price in the US.  Handhelds, however, like PC games, seem to be exempt from this.  A 3DS will set you back about 900 RMB (144 US Dollars) if you are a careful shopper, and the PSVita, on release, was available for 1400 RMB (224 US Dollars).  This may not seem like much of a reduction, but the real secret behind buying anything in mainland China is the extras.  For a little over the price of a unit in the western world, 360 consoles come modded as standard with an additional hard drive, an additional pad, with the nice addition of being able to play anything from any region.  If you’re interested, a JTAG is available for ten bucks.  A chinese-bought PS3 came with a 1TB hard drive full of games and applications, three controllers and a charging dock.  Most of the games and apps that I found were in English, too.  The PSVita came with a free 16gb card, which are FAR cheaper, but also a lot more prone to data corruption.

The biggest question on most people’s minds when they buy electronics from China is:  Will it catch fire?  Build quality is known to be a pretty big issue with a lot of the electronics sold in mainland China, though I am glad to say that video games consoles and computers don’t seem to suffer from the terrible build quality that some of the other devices do.  Where a knock-off vPad or Suny E-book reader can last upwards of seventeen minutes, the consoles and computer equipment has, on the whole, been of sturdy quality.  Accessories are a completely different matter entirely, however, and I’d trust a Chinese electronics market to build a set of a PC speakers that didn’t crap out as soon as I took them out of the box about as much as I’d trust them to be able to sing the contents of my winamp list to me with pitch-perfect clarity.  And I’ve got some Kate Bush on there, somewhere.  The consoles, handhelds and PCs that I have bought in China have generally lasted as long, if not longer than any bought in the western world.  Of course, it goes without saying that any buyer takes a risk at some of the seedier outlets.  The knockoffs are easy to spot, however, as long as you have more savvy than a parent in Gamestop asking for “that game with the cars”.  Any gamer with half a brain cell will be able to spot the difference between a real PS3 and a “PlaySi-on 3″, even without getting a demonstration of “super ma lio ” from an overly-excitable store clerk.  A note of caution for PC gamers who might be on the lookout for a new laptop, however.  Most Chinese copies of windows come loaded with more spyware than 007s tailor, so a complete wipe is highly recommended.

just one of many reasons to think about switching to linux

just one of many reasons to think about switching to linux

This led me to ask a few of my english-speaking Chinese compatriots how they viewed the situation of videogames in China, and the results were surprising.  Most of them made business buying and selling the units and games themselves, and were eager to offer me a cut-price DSiXL.  Like most of us, they have moved onto the hassle-free shopping of online auction sites like eBay or their very own TaoBao.  Personally though, where piracy is a non-issue, I was not surprised to hear that they get most of their own games for PC from sino-centric torrent clients like Thunder, or mainly expressed their love of gaming through one of the million free Chinese MMORPG games.

So, if you’re looking to take a trip to the orient to pick up some gaming goodies at rock-bottom prices, forget it.  Chances are that prices simply don’t vary enough from your home country, and unless you live there already, stashing a weighty console in your carry-on luggage is too much of a hassle to be worth the minimal saving.  If, however, you happen to be taking a trip anyway, you could do a lot worse that to peel away from the tour group and experience true Chinese culture in the middle of a boiling, shrieking electronics market, negotiating the sticker price of a PSVita over a cup (or eight) of Chai tea.  If you’re lucky, you’ll come away with not just a bargain, but a great experience.


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