BEIJING - China's Communist Party and military are known to dislike video games, viewing them as a vice that could corrupt young Chinese minds, and video game consoles have been officially banned here since 2000.
But then, China made news recently when it released an updated version of Glorious Mission Online, a first-person shooter online game backed by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), on the 86th anniversary of the military's founding earlier this month.
It is part of a recent push by the authorities to promote online video games, especially those with patriotic themes, which are known as "red" games in the industry.
The game, which was first released to the public last December, began as a simulation tool to train PLA soldiers. It was designed by online game developer Giant Interactive Group, which developed it jointly with the military.
The updated version allows players to assume the role of a PLA soldier and defend a group of East China Sea islands from Japanese troops.
China and Japan have been locked in a dispute over the islands controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, and known as Senkaku to the Japanese and Diaoyu to the Chinese.
At a gaming convention in Shanghai in July last year, China's General Administration of Press and Publication (Gapp), reportedly unveiled new measures that would introduce "topics of national interest into the gaming scene".
"We will give priority to publishing more quality China-made online games... providing greater support for outstanding domestic online games companies," said Gapp head Sun Shoushan.
So why are the authorities turning to online video gaming?
First, a fertile pool of impressionable young minds is believed to provide potential for propaganda. Industry estimates show China to have more than 300 million gamers, the world's largest. Its Internet game market raked in 31.3billion yuan (S$6.4billion) in the first half of this year.
Observers see red games as a sign of China's propaganda authorities being proactive in promoting government viewpoints, instead of merely relying on reactionary measures to suppress dissent, such as deleting sensitive Internet postings and suspending microblogging accounts of prominent bloggers, which continue.
Other "offensive" moves include deploying an army of bloggers who post anonymous online comments in support of the government and the party.
Analyst Xue Yongfeng, of Internet consultancy Analysys International, told The Straits Times: "Red games have an edge in that they get support from the government and authorities and can adopt a certain official policy, which can fulfil the patriotic desires among some gamers."
China is not alone in using video games as military propaganda. The United States led the charge in 2002 with a game called America's Army, which was used to recruit potential soldiers as well as train and educate combat troops.
Similarly, the hope is that the Glorious Mission game would help the PLA in its recruitment drive, Giant Interactive Group's vice-president, Mr Gu Kai, told the BBC in April.
"I would hope that somebody will play the game and fulfil their dream," he said. "Most young boys, from the bottom of their hearts, want to be a soldier. They like to fight, they like to win, and if this video game can make that dream come true, I won't be surprised."
So far, the Glorious Mission game has proved to be a bigger hit than other red games.
It is ranked 229th among some 1,400 titles on China's gaming website 17173.com.
The Shining Sword and Resistance War 2 games - both set during the Japanese Occupation and allowing players to join resistance troops and defeat the foreign invaders - are ranked lower at 376th and 718th respectively.
Still, the three most popular computer games are all foreign: Blade And Soul from South Korea; Guild Wars 2 from the US, and ArcheAge, also from South Korea.
Chinese gamers slam the quality of red games as low and lacking a "sense of reality". After all, the Chinese troops inevitably win, with nationalistic pride at stake, leaving little room for excitement or entertainment.
Game reviewer Eric Jou wrote about Glorious Mission: "It's not as informative as other communist propaganda games out there. For example, it doesn't bother explaining anything about the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute. In this game, the islands belong to China. End of story."
But undergraduate Xiao Jingyi, 20, an avid gamer in central Hubei province and a fan of Korean and American games, is itching to try it out.
"I think it would be quite exciting to fight 'xiao ri ben'," he told The Straits Times, using the derogatory term meaning "little Japanese" that many Chinese use to refer to the Japanese people.
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