All Work, More Play: Why Young Chinese Are Embracing Tabletop Games

If games like Werewolf are this generation’s mahjong, it’s only fitting that they also symbolize the blurring lines between work and leisure.

The southern city of Guangzhou’s Gangding business district is something of a board gaming mecca, with more than 20 board game stores crammed into an area of about 4.3 square kilometers. On weekends, these spaces are jam-packed with players, who often form groups and arrange games on messaging app WeChat in advance. Games usually begin around 7 or 8 in the evening, and it is not uncommon for them to continue until 2 or 3 in the morning. I’ve seen players game until they drop, then mutter things in their sleep like: “I am a prophet and I checked the person next to me. They’re a werewolf!”

They’re not delirious — just dreaming of their next move in Werewolf, a popular Mafia-style game pitting a village against hidden monsters in their midst. Werewolf is just one of the most prominent board games young white-collar workers around the country have taken up in recent years, including murder-mystery role-plays and card games like Splendor. Even many not particularly avid gamers can point to at least one board gaming invitation or outing, and the games themselves have spawned online adaptations, live broadcasts, and national tournaments.

Reflecting on the popularity of their hobby, some of my gaming buddies have joked that “Werewolf is the mahjong of our generation.” Indeed, in the four years that I’ve been playing and researching Werewolf, I’ve noticed how it and other board games retain certain functions of traditional Chinese games, including mahjong. But I’ve also come to believe that Chinese yuppies’ newfound infatuation for board gaming is inseparable from their possibly hopeless desire to escape their tedious and oppressive professional lives.

In China’s collective imagination, mahjong is most often associated with idleness and gambling. A common form of entertainment at Chinese family gatherings, most Chinese people might play a few rounds during the Lunar New Year holiday, though in the courtyards of China’s older residential areas, you can still see gaggles of elderly people idly smoking, eating melon seeds, and turning over tiles almost every day.

In contrast, the young Chinese obsessed with new board games like Werewolf are rarely the sort you’d associate with the word “idle.” Usually overworked urbanites between the ages of 20 and 40, they refer to themselves as “company cattle,” a self-deprecating term that first appeared in Japan in the 1990s and has since caught on in China as people groan under the pressure of longer shifts, greater workloads, and rising house prices.

All the players I interviewed said they routinely work overtime. More than a few said they work at least 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week. For them, it’s not uncommon to rush to the board game store the moment they get off and to arrive at work the next morning bleary-eyed after a whole night of gaming. They’re not looking for the idle leisure of mahjong, but so-called revenge entertainment. Continue to read the full article here



– Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell. This article was written by Liu Tingting. It originally appeared on Sixth Tone