Gejun Huang | Keywords in Play, Episode 26

“Keywords in Play” is an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.

This episode marks the beginning of a special 6-episode Season of Keywords in Play, exploring intersections and exchanges between Chinese and Australian game studies scholarship. This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

This episode we speak with Dr. Gejun Huang. Gejun is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. He was a Lecturer in the School of Communication at Soochow University and earned his Ph.D. and MA in Media Studies from the Radio-Television-Film Department of the University of Texas at Austin. His academic interests mainly touch on the digital game industry, media entrepreneurship, cultural policy, as well as digital inequalities and digital privacy. He has published in peer-reviewed journals including Big Data & Society, Cultural Trends, International Journal of Communication, Chinese Journal of Communication, American Behavioral Scientists, and Information, Communication & Society.

The podcast series is part of Engaging Influencers initiative. This initiative is curated by the Australia Council for the Arts and funded by the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations

As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.

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Interviewer: Hugh Davies

Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Emilie Reed, Zoyander Street

Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart

Double Bass: Aaron Stewart

Special Thanks: Mahli-Ann Butt, Chloe Yan Li

Transcription: Safya Devautour


Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Hugh: Welcome to Keywords in Play. Gejun, can I ask you to introduce yourself and your research in your own words?

Gejun: Yeah, of course! I’m Dr Gejun Huang, currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. This is a Sino-UK joint venture located in Suzhou, China, and I obtained my doctorate degree in media studies from the University of Texas at Austin. So, trained in a multidisciplinary environment, my research focuses on the intersection of media industry studies, entrepreneurship studies and then media sociology. One major strand of my work focuses on the Chinese digital games industry and its entrepreneurial activities. I am particularly interested in how gaming entrepreneurs in China build and grow their ventures with regard to the overarching dynamics of the industry as well as the country. Another major strand focuses on the phenomena of digital inequalities across different social contexts. Right now, I’m really looking into the unequal distribution of digital privacy literacy among Chinese netizens. While these two strands may seem disconnected on the surface, I believe they are inherently linked in the game industry context. Because gamers’ digital trace, like your game account info, are shared and transacted by game companies whereas most gamers are not even aware of that. So, in those cases, the asymmetric power relation between corporate actors and the gamers’ game data privacy is worth, definitely worth, further examination from this inequality perspective.

Hugh: Gejun, you’ve done a fair bit of work in the area, I guess, of game production studies in China and specifically in Shanghai. I’d like to discuss your 2021 paper “Social Capital and Venture Creation: Identifying Entrepreneurial Opportunities in the Chinese Digital Game Industry”. Can you introduce the paper and how it came about?

Gejun: Yeah, of course, I would love to. This paper is part of my doctoral dissertation that explores the fast-growing scenario of gaming entrepreneurship in Shanghai, particularly, before the pandemic. So, it’s a pre-pandemic research. In this article, I focus on how entrepreneurs in the Chinese digital game industry initiate their venture creation by investigating the relationship between their social capital and the key aspects of identifying entrepreneur opportunities in the pre-market entry stage. So, the two aspects I’m really interested in, they are opportunity recognition and opportunity evaluation.

Drawing on semi-structured interviews with a total of thirty-three gaming entrepreneurs in Shanghai, I found that, their social capital played a minor role in their recognition of opportunities. These entrepreneurs adopt various approaches to accessing and mobilising their social capital based on their situated industry sectors. Those who focus on commercial games or related services would prioritise specific members of professional networks they already have. However, those in indie and fledgling gaming products or related services whether rely more on diverse industry contacts. This kind of difference in networking practice is subject to the industrial overall performance and the country’s or I say, I mean, the state’s policy intervention. I have two major drivers behind this paper.

First, I have been passionate about studying games since the early days in graduate school, and I am always wondering about stories on the production end, like how Metal Gear Solid, Zelda, Diablo and other worldwide famous game franchises are brainstormed at the ideation stage, and how the ideas are enacted visually through streamlined production procedures. Although I have never worked in the gaming industry, learning what has happened beyond the consumer understanding always makes me appreciate the games more for the production efforts that undergird such amazing gaming experience. Also, ideally speaking, I could have built some personal relationships with game industry professionals. As a gamer, who would reject the opportunity to meet people behind your favourite game titles, right? Second, I think examining gaming entrepreneurs can fill a critical gap in research on the Chinese game industry. Previous work in this field, by and large, either impacts the top-down influences of the Chinese government’s cultural policy, or the domestic tycoons’ business operations like Shenzhen global investment with respect to their globalisation of the Chinese internet, in general.

However, other industrial actors have been largely overlooked in scholarly discourses. If you look inside the Chinese digital game industry you will not be surprised to find that numerous small to medium-sized companies, usually founded by those gaming entrepreneurs, are in fact the invisible majority of the industry and contributed extensively to the production of Chinese games consumed within and without China. It would be impossible for researchers like us to draw a holistic picture of the Chinese game industry without studying gaming entrepreneurs and their businesses.

Hugh: This is fascinating. In this paper, and more broadly, you problematise the anglified notion of “indie game developers” and you kind of contextualise them as “game entrepreneurs”, which is similar but different, as I understand it. As a native Chinese speaker and researcher, but affluent English speaker educated in the US, are you able to unpack this idea for us a little bit more? Perhaps set up your own definition of “indie developer” within a Chinese context.

Gejun: Yeah, of course. Well, this is a tricky question. I’m really glad you asked this but to be honest, defining indie developers or, you know, the relationship between indie developers and gaming entrepreneurs in the Chinese context is really a daunting task. Let me first explain how I approach “indie” in my article.

During my fieldwork, I found a growing number of gaming ventures label themselves as “indie” because of their self-identified financial and creative independence. These kinds of like independence, also including their products, are very similar to those trendy indie games in the West. However, the Western conceptualisation of indie may serve poorly to describe the indie gaming scene in China which has its unique historical and geographical specificities in terms of categorising the Chinese digital game industry. After all, the concept of “indie” hasn’t drawn an agreed-upon definition or a definitive scope of included titles and genres in the Chinese concept. Therefore, I resorted to the interviewee’s self-identification and to whether their products or services were labelled as indie by their related game media coverage or even the gamer’s community reviews. In this regard, I need to explain a couple of things so that our audiences may have a clear understanding of the industry-established production culture versus indie game development in China.

As you may well know, most Chinese games, especially mobile titles, are extensively built upon freemium business models that are coupled with repetitive gameplay experience. Such games, unfortunately, account for the mainstream consumer choice in the domestic market and have served as a benchmark, actually, for the game development and the publishing industry. Therefore, the way in which games are made in China is predominantly monetisation-driven. This is particularly salient in the commercial game sector, either in big companies like Tencent or NetEase, or small gaming ventures that have been discussed in my article. You will often find producers, designers and programmers prioritising monetary return over gameplay matters across all stages of game production. To a large degree, the prevailing production culture of the Chinese game industry is highly associated with the profit-centred ethos of the broader Chinese internet industry – that everyone in the internet industry would have put the money above everything else.

What is more worrisome is that a great many domestic gamers are so accustomed to those commercial games and take some as the gold standard of what games are supposed to be. In other words, most Chinese gamers are faced with rather limited and homogenous options in the domestic market, resulting in a low level of digital games literacy among themselves. On the other hand, indie game development in China has manifested a different approach to game production. Precisely, many indie game developers intend to set themselves apart from the commercial mainstream of the Chinese digital game industry. They are so sick of the profit-centred ethos and want to make real games in which most gamers and themselves can obtain a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction from playing. Just like the good old experience of playing Nintendo 64 Zelda and the PlayStation 1 Resident Evil 2. To a certain degree, they are very similar to Western indie game developers in terms of making games fun to play. These developers are also nurtured by many community actors, like the Chinese Indie Games Alliance to further grow and enact their creative autonomy in encouraging ways. All these indie-related activities are indicative of the industry’s turn to normalcy, namely just treating games more like a cultural product or an artistic expression instead of an internet product for profit. That said, several domestic major players like Tencent have appropriated the term indie as a commercial gimmick to promote their games toward indie gamers base or gamers longing for something different in the domestic market. These games seem to have an indie touch on the surface such as employing retro aesthetics. But these games are entirely commercial and still laden with monetisation mechanisms. Therefore, the demarcation around “indie” in the game industry is very fuzzy, right now, and getting more and more porous to commercial infringement.

So, after all, returning to your question, I would define “indie game developers” in China as a loosely bound group of game industry professionals who would align their game production with their own understanding of indie that is adapted into their situated industry sector. This understanding may vary between being highly identical to the Western concept of indie and being purely rhetorical for commercial interests.

Hugh: That is very interesting. So, there is a lot of crossovers essentially but also a lot of difference. Can you tell us about the methodology of this paper and how this shaped the process of your research?

Gejun: Yeah, in this article I used semi-structured interviews to obtain qualitative data for my analysis. I only focused on the founders of gaming ventures established in Shanghai since 2011 and was limited to those specialising in game development publishing or delivering services across various gaming platforms like console, PC and mobile. Setting 2011 as a cut-off year accords with China’s nationwide policy initiatives targeting domestic cultural and creative industry. Combined with the diffusion of mobile devices and the mobile internet, there has emerged a business-friendly environment for gaming entrepreneurship in China.

In terms of location, Shanghai has a long-established reputation for high-tech and the media entrepreneurship. Bolstered and reinforced by global financial capital, domestic policy incentives and the robust talent pool. Eventually, I managed to get a total of thirty-three entrepreneurs, and the interviews were conducted in 2018. The interviewees were predominantly male in their twenties and their thirties with bachelor’s or associate degrees. This demographic pattern conforms to the population of high-tech and the media entrepreneurs in Shanghai. For business attributes, all the interviewees’ ventures have surpassed the pre-market entry stage, as having at least one game product or service available in either the domestic or foreign game market. Commercial game development and indie game development are among the most prevalent product and service categories, followed by VR and AR game development.

The recruitment process was quite interesting, I was trained through multiple projects during my graduate school years to conduct interviews with entrepreneurs in the US. To find a good interview, I typically looked for related news coverage online and then sought contact info through online databases like Crunchbase. Later I would send interview invites by email or LinkedIn chat. While this recruitment strategy was quite effective in the US, it was almost unviable in China because most Chinese game entrepreneurs choose to not disclose their contact info online, and many even hid their venture’s locations. I had to participate in many industry social events so I could talk to some entrepreneurs and add their WeChat accounts for a possible follow-up. Also, I paid a visit to over twenty creative industrial parks in Shanghai and delivered written interview invites to the reception desk of gaming ventures in those parks. The response rate was about one-third, I would say it’s not too bad actually, but the many interviewees admit that they would talk to me because no media outlet would be interested in hearing them out.

Hugh: What were some of the key findings of the paper? Can you outline for us some of what your research and what the paper revealed?

Gejun: So, I found that by accessing and mobilising social capital, gaming entrepreneurs were capable of securing opportunity identification because of deliberate social interactions in the industry. However, they revealed the contrasting reflection between recognising and evaluating opportunities about social capital in the pre-market entry stage of venture’s creation. So, first, social capital access and mobilisation were not linked with gaming entrepreneurs’ opportunity recognition and noticeably the emphasis of social capital among gaming entrepreneurs suggests that they may impart intuitive interpretations of how their business concepts are formed in relation to professional networks. A specific commercial gaming entrepreneurs’ extensive industry experience brings them in-depth knowledge of industry environment and therefore they can readily identify and translate new changes into venture creation opportunities. By contrast, indie and fledgling gaming entrepreneurs might have less human capital to leverage for locating opportunities in the first place. Instead, they use a heuristic-based logic to parse new industrial changes and apply implications of these changes to forming new business concepts. Second, gaming entrepreneurs revealed heterogeneous accounts of accessing and mobilizing social capital for opportunity evaluation. Commercial gaming entrepreneurs would factor their pre-existing connections with significant industry peers into assessing their initial formation of a business concept.

Conversely, indie and fledgling gaming entrepreneurs relied on extended professional relations to conduct opportunity evaluation. Although lacking similar professional networks compared to their commercial counterpart, these indie and fledgling entrepreneurs rely on relatively diverse professional networks to be better informed about what to do, where to go, and whom to talk with for validating recognised opportunities. Third, gaming entrepreneurs’ social capital access and mobilisation were closely tied to the respective environment of industry sector they were evolving in. To commercial gaming entrepreneurs, their gaming ventures must wrestle with major companies’ oligopolistic grip on domestic industry. They would prefer utilising connections with these organisations to obtain important knowledge and information which would help dispel the risks attached to their opportunity identification. At the same time, these entrepreneurs were vulnerable to information flows that bore little significance to their venture creation. On the other hand, to indie and fledgling gaming entrepreneurs, their gaming ventures were situated in a less competitive industry environment. Thanks to minimally censored access to Steam, the developing indie community has been able to achieve overseas market presence and evade head-to-head competition with the gaming behemoths in the domestic market. And despite the narrow market they’re operating in, most fledgling entrepreneurs barely confront mainstream game companies as there is no mainstream in their situated niches, such as the case of VR gaming. Therefore, despite the small market sectors to target, the indie and fledgling gaming entrepreneurs conceived of new business concepts in response to innovative game products and service ideas driven by the widening spectrum of gaming platforms, genres and market initiatives.

Hugh: This is very interesting. I’m curious to know, are you continuing along this trajectory of research into gaming companies in Shanghai?

Gejun: Yes! So right now, I am looking into how… I am actually commencing a new project examining the globalisation of the Chinese gaming industry, but it’s more from an entrepreneurial perspective. Because see if you take a look at the history of the Chinese gaming industry, many people would assume that the major stakeholders like the state, like the domestic giants, would have been the sole contributors to the industry development. But I hold a different opinion that these small to medium-sized enterprises or, I say, the population of the gaming entrepreneurs, they are also the major drivers of this industry’s creative pipeline. Right? I mean they’re either working with the global gaming corporations or the local game companies to contribute a lot of their creative skillsets to – not just the AAA or the famous mobile gaming titles, but a lot of indie or casual gaming that have been well-perceived by the domestic and international audiences. So, my next project will be looking into their efforts, over the past twenty years, to see how these gaming ventures, these gaming entrepreneurs have contributed to the globalisation process of the Chinese game industry and what are their very unique or distinctive characteristics that set them apart from these major stakeholders.

Hugh: That is fascinating. Thank you so much Gejun. China boasts such a large complex and unique gaming ecology and the light that you shed on it is so important. Whereabouts can listeners find out more about your research?

Gejun: You can find more about my research on my university page, or on my Google Scholar page or even on my personal website, I can share it with you later. You can also reach out to me by email, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. I am open to any collaboration opportunities with advanced scholarly discussions on the Chinese digital game industry and the global gaming industry in general. Again, thanks for having me, Hugh. It was my great pleasure talking to you and to your audiences.

Hugh: Thank you so much, Gejun. Much appreciated.