Future Nostalgia: China’s Video Games Plug Into Ancient Culture

Developers are using a modern medium to resurrect centuries-old traditions, as the industry responds to a rising tide of patriotism.

After his real estate startup collapsed in 2014, Tian Haibo was left devastated and unsure what to do next. Then, he made a decision that caught many off guard.

He would create a mobile game to teach the world about the ancient art of Chinese joinery.

It has taken nearly six years for the 36-year-old to teach himself to code, assemble a team, and bring his vision to life. But after a few false starts and 5 million yuan ($740,000) of investment, the game finally launched in June.

In Mortise & Tenon, players carve complex joints into floating blocks of wood, so the lumber can slot together tightly. Chinese craftspeople have been constructing buildings using this nail-free technique — known as sunmao in Chinese — for an estimated 7,000 years.

The gameplay is decidedly low-thrill — akin to a 3D version of Tetris, but slower and set to soothing instrumental music. Some have also commented that a shortage of levels  somewhat detracts from the experience.

But China’s gamers love it. On the app store TapTap, Mortise & Tenon has an average rating of 9.1 out of 10 from over 5,000 reviews, and it has already been downloaded over 2 million times across Chinese app platforms.

The secret to the game’s success has been its appeal to patriotic users happy to see an unsung national treasure represented with such care and creativity. In the product description, Tian sets out his mission clearly.

“I hope to lend my strength to passing on sunmao culture,” he writes. “To introduce it in a way that young people like. … And to let more people know that China is the coolest.”

It’s a formula that’s becoming increasingly common in China’s gaming industry. While domestic developers have always drawn on the country’s rich culture and history, a striking number of video games are now being created — or updated — with the express aim of promoting China’s cultural heritage. Continue to read the full article here


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.