Leveling Up Playerkilling as Ethical Self-Cultivation – Article Report

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February 18, 2013 by andrewdwtinsley

It is hard to judge what is ethical in a game. In Eve online a “mercenary group”, in one year, stole of $16, 500 worth of in game items by “infiltrating an organization and assassinating their leader.” (245) The group met outside the game to organize the assassination in online chat rooms. Is this a breach of “magic circle” ethics? Many believed so. In Richard Page’s Article “Leveling Up: Playerkilling as Ethical Self-Cultivation” he attempts to show how both Western gamers and Chinese gamers have a different set of cultural influences that dictate the way they play and experience games. He focuses on the Chinese MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game) Zhengtu. Zhengtu is similar to World of Warcraft or Eve Online with a few differences which make  it blurs the line of real life and the game to a greater extent. From his essay it is clear that in the context of Chinese culture versus Western gaming culture that the theory of “Magic circles” is only sometimes applicable and that the Chinese MMORPG Zhengtu is an example of a game to which it cannot be applied. The Chinese philosophy that is applied to Zhegtu also has wider implication for all games.

The philosophies of Chinese culture and Western Culture respectively influence the way people in both cultures experience games. Western philosophy sets up a difference between what is real and virtual and the relationship between the real world and the virtual world (239). Things are thought of as “transcendent” (virtual) or “immanent” (real) in Western philosophy and religion. Thus Video game theories from the West often “rely on the “magic circle”” to distinguish ethical behavior in the game from that in the real world (239). Someone can kill someone else online and it is fine because it is inside the “magic circle”. In Chinese society, by contrast, they believe in the “confusious cosmology” whereby heaven and the body are interlinked and the “virtual” and the “actual” are interlinked. They see Zhengtu for example as “inextricably connected” (247) to the real world. The nature of “confusious cosmology” and Zhengtu means that when someone kills someone else in the game, the Chinese believe that their ethics are connected to their real spiritual selves. This is reflected in the gaming culture as Chinese gamers are also more likely to “connect [gaming] to wider life” (246). The state intervenes in Internet gaming for example as they do with lots of websites. Chinese gamers “are likely to play in net cafés with other gamers from their own neighborhoods, and form in-game groups based on their real-world location” (246).

Zhengtu is the most popular online game in China. It has “2.1 million peak concurrent” users (241). It has several characteristics that connect it to the real world, the first of which is the payment system.  It is a “freemium” game, which is free to play and install, but you can buy virtual items within the game and realistically everyone has to spend some money (248). It is free and easy to install, which is important because it can be installed for free on thousands of Internet cafes across the country. Because the barriers to entry are so low there are a lot of poorer players who do not spend much money on the game and have limited power as a result. (246) This is contrasted with the young rich who spend lots and are very powerful. This inequality in the game is very reflective of real life and each player’s real economic situation. Although the money helps gain power, the skills and experience still have to build on that. Thus it is related not only through using real money to buy items but also by the fact that economic inequality also exists within the game. It is not escapism or a “magic circle” in this sense. It is more related to real life then MMORPG, which use the subscription model which leads to equality among all the players who then have to put in the same amount of time and effort (248).

Its second connection to real life is the “survival of the fittest” mentality and conflict within the game. Self-improvement is essential in Chinese culture and the game is sometimes described as a “crucible for the heart” because players learn more about themselves and their own ethics playing the game. Abuses of power are just seen as apart of the game as they are a natural part of life (239). People in the game have power for the same reason they do in the real world so it is only as fair as the real world. People who play in bad faith are seen as unethical in the game as they are with real-world ethics. The ethics in the game help self-improvement, which Park argues, is linked into thee culture of neoliberal reforms in China. People view ethics in context of the game and the outside world not just inside the “magic circle”. People who play the game unethically don’t develop themselves and don’t truly get anything out of it.

After learning about Zhengtu the “magic circle” seems to be undermined more and more in my mind however the avatars, the fantastical world, the still lack of some real world consequences give some relevance to the idea of the “magic circle” in Zhengtu. The way Zhengtu gamers in China view their gaming experience is relevant to Western games too though because all games to a certain extent have some of the aspects that Zhengtu embodies. Whether we like it or not, killing people in games and the ethics of games cannot possibly be completely removed from reality because they do effect us spiritually. This applies in particularly to MMORPG’s but it will also apply to a lesser extent with other games.






Page, Richard. “Leveling Up Playerkilling as Ethical Self-Cultivation.” Games and Culture 7.3 (2012): 238-257.



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