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11 August 2015

The Chinese “invasion” of ARK reveals the cultural imperialism in videogames

The influx of a large number of Chinese players to ARK: Survival Evolved has caused a huge stir that goes way beyond racism.

By Phil Hartup

Sometimes as a writer the approach to a topic is easy. There is a subject – go and get it. This topic is different. This is one of those times where what looks to be a simple issue, the aforementioned Chinese dinosaur riders armed with explosives invading an online game, is actually part and parcel not only of something much bigger but something which may have broader societal relevance. But past that there is also the fact that this may not necessarily be what it looks like, beyond looking like Chinese dinosaur riders armed with explosives invading an online game, that is.

So let’s get down to what is happening. There is a game called ARK: Survival Evolved and it is a popular survival game on PC, played largely online, due for release on consoles in a year or so. The PC version is on Early Access and represents perhaps one of the most impressive examples of that particular model, with attentive and apparently very busy developers and rapid updates. The game sees players living on an island populated by prehistoric creatures from a variety of eras, from mammoths to trilobites and dinosaurs in between. These monsters can often be tamed and used to help out, either with the construction of homes and bases or just with going all Land That Time Forgot on your enemies.

Three things are notable about ARK with regards to its online play. Firstly, the game has a heavy player versus player (PvP) focus on many of its servers, which is not uncommon among multiplayer survival games. Secondly, just because you are not online does not mean you are safe. In a lot of games, if you’re not there you can’t be hurt. For example, if you skip playing Counter-Strike for a few days, the terrorists don’t blow up all the Aztec ruins so there’s none left when you get back. When you log out of ARK, though, all your stuff is still there and so is your character, sleeping in a heap. It is not uncommon in ARK on a PvP server to log in to find your character dead and your possessions stolen or destroyed.

The third important element to ARK and its online play is the time commitment that it demands. On the official servers, taming a big dinosaur will take several hours. Gathering the resources to build a strong home to resist assault will also take several hours. The game has plenty of skill, strategy and thought to it, which explains its appeal almost as much as the dinosaurs, but it will unapologetically eat all the time you can throw at it and demand more.

These three factors taken together mean that the stakes in ARK are unusually high for a game of its type, and that you can lose everything without ever knowing how or why. Logging into ARK can carry that same sense of dread as checking your phone in the morning after a night of drinking. As such, raiding and being raided is a big part of the game and generally accepted as part of the cost to do business on a PvP server. Players who don’t want to be a part of that world can play on servers without it: the player versus environment servers (or PvE).

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Everything seemed to be working as intended and even though the servers are not region-locked the brutal violence between players was nothing out of the ordinary for a game that is largely about dinosaur-assisted brutal violence.

However, the sudden influx of a large number of Chinese players has caused a huge stir. The games forums on Steam and Reddit are full of threads bemoaning the arrival of the Chinese players. Not just that they have arrived, of course. ARK is played on a big map on big servers and you don’t necessarily ever know who is out there. Instead there are complaints about how they cheat, or they exploit the game, or how they are just being a big bunch of jerks.

The temptation here would be to express no surprise whatsoever and chalk this up to simple racism in videogames. Racist language has been a problem in games for years, the sort of wannabe-ironic-but-basically-is-just-racist racism that anybody who plays videogames online will be all too familiar with from players. As such, the easy answer to ARK’s problem would be to say that the US and European players should just play nice when new people come along and that if everybody just hugged it out there would be no problem. Such an answer presumes that this is just another case of gamers being obnoxious. Such an answer would be wrong.

What we are seeing with ARK is not a simple issue of xenophobia or racism. These may be factors within the conflict, of course, exacerbated by frustration and hostility within the game, but the root cause of a lot of this outrage is not as simple as an irrational and/or bigoted dislike of Chinese people. I suspect that most players making the complaints have never held a particularly strong opinion on Chinese people, racist or otherwise. The cause of the enmity seems to be something more tangible and more likely to incite antagonism in players than prejudice; namely that the Chinese ARK players have, at least in the early days since their arrival, been winning.

How this happened is largely a question of logistics. The larger player groups descended in numbers on a handful of servers, often it appears as the hangers on to popular game streamers in China. In a game with a server population limit of 70 on the official servers any group that can show up mob-handed with more than 35 people immediately has numerical supremacy. Plus, if that group is working together from the outset, unified by their position as outsiders, they will enjoy a huge advantage over the locals who have probably been fighting each other for weeks and haven’t identified the threat. If you’re on an ARK PvP server and such a large group appears and throws its weight around, no matter where they are from you’re in deep trouble.

The second logistical trick that had, until recently, aided the Chinese players is the ability to transfer objects between servers. Players on safe servers would transfer explosives to players on servers who were meeting resistance. Groups with influence across multiple servers became much more powerful as a result. Explosives in ARK are hard to make, taking a lot of time and resources, so to create them in a server at war is not easy. Importing them on a large scale allowed players without a high level infrastructure to punch far above their weight, destroying established bases without needing to spend time making their own. The server transfer ability has now been suspended and as a result the playing field has levelled somewhat.

An additional issue that has deepened the hostility on many servers is that of asymmetrical time zones. If a group of players does decide that they want to initiate hostilities, and if they happen to be active when their targets are at work or asleep, then their first strike will likely be devastating. Indeed with a substantial time difference it is possible for warring factions to murder their enemies and plunder their bases without ever encountering them in a conscious state. Losing everything you have in the game through no fault of your own to an enemy you were not even aware you had when you last logged out, that’s a bitter pill the size of a golf ball.

There have, of course, been reprisals and ARK’s various forums feature plenty of stories of servers banding together to destroy the bases of Chinese tribes and repel the incursions. On the PvP servers the more common approach is outright hostility and organised warfare which some find more entertaining than peaceful coexistence anyway. On the PvE servers, meanwhile, fighting between players isn’t allowed and hostilities take a more passive-aggressive turn. One particular story got my attention as, with two tribes unable to directly harm one another, players had to be inventive to make their point. In this case a tribe lured away their rival’s most powerful dinosaurs and caged them up.

When cultures clash in videogames the results are always interesting. This is in part because conflict and hostility, while an anathema to a civilised society, are often the very things that make videogames compulsive entertainment. Open warfare isn’t a sign of a dysfunctional community; it’s often what people bought the game for. If a large group of Chinese players turns up on an American server and goes on a murder spree, that isn’t a cultural misunderstanding, it’s an invitation to a fight. When the locals group together to run the invaders out of town it’s not simply xenophobia and racism manifesting in a digital world, it’s an opportunity for people to play together, even if this play is combative. Not to mention, of course, that there are no doubt many servers were everybody is quietly getting along just fine.

As with all games some people will cry foul, and some people will cheat, and some people will take it entirely too personally when they lose, and yes, some racists will see this as a sneaky opportunity to spread hate and feed their stereotypes, but mostly the people involved will have fun. They might hate the Enemy, whatever form that Enemy takes, but they would miss them if they left.

So I say we should celebrate that ARK is a truly global game. We should celebrate that we can log onto a server and meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture, and kill them. We should celebrate that, for all the violence and the biting and the stabbing with pikes, ARK is providing a shared experience for thousands of people around the world. It’s a bit violent, it’s a bit bad tempered at times, but for all that it is kind of beautiful.