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World: Analysis From Washington--Virtual History Comes To China

Prague, 28 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Chinese government is developing its own video games to promote patriotism among the young and to counter what it calls a flood of politically incorrect video games coming into the country from abroad.

Beijing's official Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday that researchers at Qinghua University had found that foreign video games now account for 98 percent of the Chinese market. Of these, the agency said, 70 percent advocate "violence, terrorism or greed," and some five percent advance "Nazism and militarism."

The news agency also repeats earlier Chinese complaints about Japanese video games that Beijing has said glorify Japan's conquest of China in the 1930s. At the end of 1996, the Chinese authorities even fined one Japanese company for exporting such games to China.

Now, China has taken an additional step to counter such messages. On an investment of $240,000, Qinghua University has developed several pro-Chinese games that will go on sale in China this year. Among the first of the new games is "Opium War," in which Chinese young people can battle British forces bent on subjugating China and seizing Hong Kong in the nineteenth century.

Another new game features the story of the Chinese communist "Long March" in 1934-36 to escape the Japanese and Chinese Nationalist forces. And still a third, "August 1 Fighting Eagle," features the exploits of Chinese pilot Wang Hei and others who supposedly shot down more than 300 American fighter planes during the Korean War.

The Chinese expect these games to have a great impact on the ideas of young people. As one Beijing educator put it, "it is impossible to prevent students from playing video games; the best we can do is provide them with good games."

But shifting history into the realm of virtual reality can have some drawbacks.

First of all, the requirement that the games be exciting enough to attract the young people often means that they are anything but accurate.

Thus, as even the Xinhua news agency acknowledged, the "Opium War" game may send some very strange messages. "Though China lost the war in history," the news agency acknowledged, those playing this game may draw a very different conclusion.

And Beijing's claim that Chinese pilots shot down over 300 American planes in Korea are almost certainly inflated, but the game itself does not indicate that it has distorted the historical record.

But Xinhua said that the conclusions game players will reach can nonetheless be useful if they "inspire patriotism" in China today.

Second, as is obvious from the titles, these games promote many of the same values of nationalism, militarism, and hostility to foreigners that the Chinese say they are trying to combat. Any Chinese youth playing "Opium War" against the English army, for example, is likely to develop very real hostility to Britain's longtime control of Hong Kong.

Similarly, any player of the Korean War game is likely to draw conclusions about the United States and the United Nations that are anything but friendly and peaceful.

And third, the introduction of these games may very well lead some Chinese young people to demand ever more vivid and violent games. These are even more likely to preventthe development of a genuine understanding of the historical record.

That has been the experience of other countries where the use of video games is now widespread. Many psychologists have even suggested that young people who become too involved with virtual reality tend to lose touch with real reality.

But the Chinese effort, albeit more centrally planned than in most other countries, is hardly new or unique. In many countries, both those who develop games of all kinds and those who market them often have exploited popular attitudes to promote their products.

Nearly 20 years ago, for example, one American firm developed a board game entitled "The Russian Civil War." In at least one chain of stores during the Cold War, this game was sold under a sign reading "In this game, the Whites can win."

In the American case, virtual reality did not triumph over its cousin; but in the new China, the contest between the two may be closer.