China Joy Expo: A Celebration of Video Games and Cosplay

The weekend of August 3rd, many strange costumes may be seen wandering around Shanghai. It's not a Chinese adaptation of Halloween but one of the biggest gaming conferences in the world, China Joy Expo. The 14-year-old conference is held at the New Shanghai Exhibition Center (上海新国际展览中心, Shànghǎi Xīn Guójì Zhǎnlǎn Zhōngxīn) in Pudong, Shanghai and attracts hundreds of thousands of attendees from the video game, movie, comic, and digital entertainment industries, many of whom will be dressed as their favorite character, known as cosplay.

original drawing by Clytie Yuan

original drawing by Clytie Yuan

Gamers (玩家, wánjiā) are notorious for spending hours alone at home in the dark playing video games late into the night. While they often converse and collaborate with other players digitally, they are not known to participate in many face-to-face social events (社交活动, shèjiāo huódòng). And yet, 300,000 people will emerge from their "caves" and come together at the China Joy Expo, many in costume. What attracts them to attend the expo in person?

The number one response is the show girls. Companies exhibiting at China Joy hire female models to dress up as their game characters and interact (互动, hùdòng) with people at the expo. The character outfits for the show girls became more and more revealing over the years, to the point that a few years back, the organizers (组织者, zǔzhīzhě) of the expo enforced monetary fines imposed on the companies for outfits that were too revealing (measured by cleavage length). They have also limited the number of show girls each company can hire. But the attraction remains a staple of the expo.


The main purpose, however, of the China Joy Expo is to showcase gaming companies and their products in China. The major global companies like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo (任天堂, Rèntiāntáng), and Ubisoft are all present. But just as important as the big names are the local Chinese gaming companies like Tencent (腾讯, Téngxùn), Netease, Shanda, Perfect World, etc. As with many other global industries, China's rank as the largest population in the world also makes it the largest market for gaming, an industry which a few years ago generated more sales than box office movies in China. The number of homegrown gaming companies is rapidly growing and shows no signs of slowing, especially as more and more foreign companies seek entry and partnerships in Chinese video gaming.

The history of video games (电子游戏, diànzǐ yóuxì) in China, however, is quite different from the rest of the world. In the 1990s, as video game consoles appeared worldwide in nearly every household with a teenager, the Chinese government banned (禁止, jìnzhǐ) the manufacturing of the consoles for over a decade. As a result, the most popular video games in China were PC-based. After that, smart phones entered the market and mobile gaming eclipsed PC games. Today, on the subways and buses in China, at least half the smart phone activity is game-based.


Now, all kinds of video games exist in China and all kinds of companies are capitalizing on it. Two of the largest Chinese companies represented at China Joy, Tencent and Netease, are not exclusively gaming companies but rather digital content service providers. Tencent is best known for its social chat platform WeChat, an essential tool for daily life in China. They also have a platform called WeGame for selling and playing mobile games. In the same way, China Joy Expo is embracing a wider kind of growth by showcasing not only video games but many different forms of digital entertainment, including movies, music, comics, and more.

While other gaming conferences like E3 in the USA remain largely closed to the public and narrowly focused on professionals in the gaming industry, China Joy continues to grow. It is not yet the largest gaming conference in the world, Gamescom in Germany holds that record with 350,000 attendees, followed by Brazil Game Show with 300,000 and Tokyo Game Show with 270,000. Even so, China Joy continues to connect its domestic (国内, guónèi) players and companies with the world, bringing people together in person for one long weekend each year to forge partnerships across physical borders the rest of the year in the many diverse worlds of digital entertainment.