“So luminous is the moonlight by the floor of my bed,” wrote Tang Dynasty poet, Li Bai.
It is the first line of his most famous poem, Thoughts on a Still Night and a similar sentiment may have flitted through the mind of a 20 year-old gamer nicknamed Guwang as he played Tencent’s hugely popular Honour of Kings for 125 consecutive nights. That is, until he died suddenly in the early hours of November 2.
In fact, Li Bai is one of a roster of historical figures to feature in Tencent’s highest grossing multiplayer online game of the year – though the tech giant has been heavily criticised for misrepresenting history in the format. Li Bai, for example, is portrayed as an assassin, whereas he was said to have been a romantic dreamer, and fond of his wine.
Yet that criticism is nothing compared to the backlash Tencent has faced since the live-streaming platform, Chushou, announced Guwang’s untimely demise.
Guwang, who earned money as an internet host helping fans to improve their gameplay, had been working non-stop on the platform every night for months.
But blame is being laid firmly at Tencent’s door. “It’s wholly responsible for gaming addiction,” said a netizen. “These games pose little harm to adults who can moderate their behaviour, but not for children and young adults.”
Another added, “These games are only profitable if there are addicted players on them day and night.”
Thousands of others have posted similar sentiment across social media networks.
Guwang – which means the “Lone King” by his legions of young fans – is not the first gamer to die in China after long sessions playing Honour of Kings, which has yet to launch in Europe and the US.
One Chinese teenager committed suicide after his father told him off for playing it too much. A second was said to have suffered a stroke after playing it continuously for 40 hours.
The fatalities constitute a new wave of guolaosi deaths, the Chinese term for death by overwork (similar to Japan’s karoshi). A decade ago, it was more commonly applied to factory workers driven to suicide by endless hours on the production line. Perhaps its evolution in meaning shows how China has changed since then.
Tencent had already been in the firing line in the domestic media, with journalists asking questions about its social responsibilities.
Back in July, the People’s Daily published a scathing editorial, entitled “Is Honour of Kings entertaining, or damaging people’s lives?”
The newspaper described the game as a kind of poison spreading across the country. Its reach is undeniable: the game now has more players (200 million) than the number of retail investors dabbling in China’s stock markets, for example.
A few days before the People’s Daily article, Tencent had moved to restrict under 12s to playing for just one hour a day. Juveniles from 12 to 18 are supposed to be limited to two hours of gameplay. Following Guwang’s death, Chushou reported that Tencent will introduce more restrictions for overly long sessions, without specifying how.
Globally, gaming does not attract the same kind of oversight as drinking, gambling and smoking. Unsurprisingly, Honour of Kings producer Li Min suggested this year that more guidance for players would be better than restrictions across the industry.
Yet Guwang’s death is laced with irony. Barely a fortnight later, Tencent became the first Asian company in history to achieve a market capitalisation above $500 billion. It is now worth more than its local rival Alibaba and joins an elite group of other tech giants (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook) as the world’s sixth most valuable company (though it trades places in the ranking with Facebook on an almost daily basis).
A lot of that success is to do with gaming, particularly mobile gaming; the platform that Honour of Kings is played on. Tencent’s third quarter results saw overall sales shoot up 61% year-on-year to Rmb65.2 billion. Gaming accounted for half of the total, with mobile gaming (Rmb18.2 billion) surpassing the PC format (Rmb14.6 billion) to jump 84% year-on-year.
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