Some stores now offer their own rudimentary pre-order service, where customers can reserve games via Taobao. This is a safer proposition for sellers as they are assured of a sale before purchasing games from the dealers. Unfortunately with no stable market, prices are still subject to change and many customers end up cheated when a storeowner has to renege on the price. Legitimate distribution would alleviate a lot of these issues, but in its absence storeowners are forced to do the best they can with what they have.
Harassment from the police is not uncommon and storeowners find themselves walking a fine line between promoting their business and staying under the radar.
Compounding the uncertainty of pricing and importation is the very problem of legality - the inescapable fact that these stores sell a product that is illegal under Chinese law. While enforcing the console ban is a relatively low priority for the government, harassment from the police is not uncommon and storeowners find themselves walking a fine line between promoting their business and staying under the radar. When I first learned of the console ban, I was surprised by how obvious some of the stores were; with games lining the windows and gaming icons like Solid Snake and Mario splashed across their signs. Surely the owners must be inviting police trouble by being so brazen? "I try not to be obvious," says Gu. "Many stores have been raided but I have been lucky so far. If I hear that there will be raids in the area, I close my store for the day." Police often use the threat of raids to bully bribes out of storeowners and Gu tells me he has often had to pay police off in the past. "They're not really concerned with the ban; it's a low priority but it is also an opportunity for them to make money."
In light of these illuminating answers, I ask Gu why he bothers operating such a troublesome business at all? I'm also curious as to what he believes the future will hold and whether there will ever be a legal market for videogames in China. "I'm not sure if it will ever be legal," he replies, "but the market for console games will continue to grow regardless, as the demand is huge. Whether it's legal or not, I would like to keep doing this."
It's now 10:30 in the evening and Gu is still doing a fair trade. I leave Long Xiang and walk down Gulou East Street, passing several other game stores on the way. I reflect upon what I've heard and the issue of consoles in China today and I am reminded of prohibition in America, which failed spectacularly and gave rise to a mess of corruption and made criminals out of the common man. People will continue to play games and clearly no ban is going to deter them, just as businesses will continue to supply that demand as long as it exists, and unlike prohibition, there are no clearly defined "bad guys" here.
Unfortunately, there's no obvious solution or convenient ending for this story as there is no real way for gamers or businesses to appeal the ban with the Chinese government. We can only assume that as the grey market continues to expand, driven forward by the demands of Chinese gamers, someone in power will eventually have to take notice. Perhaps they will see the cultural significance of games and the opportunity for China to develop its own game industry or, more likely, they will be enticed by the taxes and profits a legitimate marketplace would provide. Either way, I hope they will make the right decisions.
Luke Ume is a foreign designer and keen gamer residing in Beijing.