China's Latest Video-Game Craze

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Walter Newton

China is in a frenzy for Airplane War, a cellphone game in which players wage aircraft battles and compete against their friends for high scores. Within two hours of its release in early August, the game was reportedly downloaded 180 million times. Stories of its addictive qualities have cropped up almost as quickly. According to one such tale, two drivers pulled over on a highway, one next to the other, just so they could finish their games. Another account describes serious thumb injuries; the South China Morning Post reported that two Hangzhou women were even hospitalized.

Airplane War’s success is the latest feather in the cap of WeChat, a Chinese messaging platform that has accumulated nearly 250 million users in less than three years. By combining games like Airplane War with free text-messaging, video chatting, and photo sharing—think WhatsApp meets Skype meets Instagram—WeChat has come to rival Sina Weibo, China’s most prominent social network.

The Chinese government, though, is not so enthusiastic about WeChat. For one thing, the service is thought to deprive state-owned telecom companies of text-messaging fees. For another, government censors presumably have a hard time monitoring the political content of messages sent through WeChat, even with the cooperation of Tencent, the company that developed the app.

Which could explain why, according to James Griffiths, the former editor of the popular blog Shanghaiist, there’s “antipathy within certain strata of state industries toward ‘upstart’ tech companies like WeChat.” Recently, the state-run media have warned of the risk of smartphone addiction and wondered whether the devices will cause China’s youngest generation to forget how to write in Chinese script. For the moment, however, the risks posed by Airplane War are more straightforward: car crashes and carpal tunnel syndrome.

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Matt Schiavenza is an associate editor at The Atlantic

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