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“From Addicts to Athletes: Youth Mobilities and the Politics of Digital Gaming in Urban China”

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Marcella Szablewicz.  Marcy received an MA in East Asian Studies from Duke University and a PhD in Communication and Rhetoric, under the advisement of Drs. June Deery and Tamar Gordon, from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Department of Communication and Media.  She is currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in MIT’s department of Comparative Media Studies.  You can find more of her work online at

 1)    Nothing’s more popular right now than taking potshots at over-specialized, overstuffed, jargon-y academics.  Prove the haters wrong by describing your dissertation in terms that the average man in the street could understand.

“From Addicts to Athletes” departs from a simple premise: Recent statistics have shown that over three hundred million Chinese play Internet games. But while many young people argue that games provide free space in which to achieve necessary release from the pressures of society, the government and media often depict games as a kind of “opium for the spirit” that adversely affects Chinese youth.

Smells Like Opium for the Teen Spirit

Motivated to understand the logic behind these drastically different perspectives, in my research I trace the shifting discourses and practices of digital gaming in urban China, paying particular attention to the various ways that digital games are socially shaped —both how young Chinese describe and remember the importance of games in their social lives and how gaming is portrayed in government and media discourse. Based on ethnographic fieldwork spanning six years, I explore the mechanisms by which different games come to be constructed as either “healthy” or “unhealthy” and the corresponding processes by which the gamers who play them are portrayed as either “addicts” or “athletes.”  Despite belonging to the realm of so-called “free” time, I show that digital games and those who play them do not go unencumbered by political realities.  To the contrary, I contend that such constructions are rooted in larger cultural debates about patriotism and productivity, class and the crafting of the “ideal citizen.”

This notion of the ideal citizen is set against the backdrop of the precarious economic futures faced by youth in contemporary urban China. I use digital games as a window through which to observe how young urban Chinese are engaging with technology in their everyday lives, and how digital leisure practices might offset the pressures brought about by structural constraints such as the one-child policy and college entrance exam system.  I show how some young people express disillusionment with their urban surroundings and establish for themselves a “subculture” of gaming, while others incorporate digital games into narratives of upward socio-economic mobility. In so doing, I reveal the ways in which Internet gaming practice is both molded by and operating in contention with more broadly conceived cultural values and norms.

2)    It’s the rare graduate student who heads off for a phd thinking, “I’m going to write about drugs in my dissertation!”  How would you describe the genesis of your project relative to your coursework, your advisor’s work, the state of your discipline, etc.? 

The Revolution was Televised…but Not Tweeted

The genesis of this project was my early fascination with the ways that the Internet would affect political and social life in China.  Having first visited China in 1997, a year that coincided with the rise of publicly available Internet in China’s major cities, I, like many other China-watchers, was hopeful that the Internet might herald the “democratization” of information in China.  I somewhat naively envisioned political dissidents utilizing the Internet to spread their democratic message to as yet unenlightened citizens, and I imagined the ways in which this would forever change China’s political landscape and empower its people.  When I next returned to China I eagerly set out to study Internet cafés, only to discover that these places had not become the locus of political activism I envisioned, but had rather morphed into public leisure locations, packed wall-to-wall with young people playing Internet games.

I soon became interested in understanding what gaming meant to these young people born in the 1980s and early 1990s, those who witnessed the rise of the Internet and whose social lives were greatly changed by its presence.  As such, I turned my attention away from the more overt forms of political activism occurring online in order to investigate the political possibilities of the new desires and lifestyles that were being produced in the Internet age.  As someone who does not play games myself, I was driven to understand what it was about playing Internet games in the Internet café that so many young Chinese found appealing.  This was obviously a question that was also weighing on the minds of parents, journalists and government officials, as youth began ignoring their school work and skipping the college entrance exam to play games with their peers.  It was not long before there was widespread concern and panic about the negative consequences of Internet gaming.

In my second year of graduate school at RPI I took a course in Discourse Analysis with Dr. Nancy Campbell. In this class we were introduced to a methodology known as situational analysis (Clarke, 2002).   As part of Clarke’s methodological prescription to “map” the situation, I began to conduct media analysis and I realized the extent to which the discourse of Internet addiction had come to dominate the popular understanding of digital games in China.  It was almost impossible to find an article in the Chinese press that discussed gaming without mentioning the risk of Internet addiction and other negative side effects.

In particular, I was intrigued by the claim that games were a form of “opium for the spirit” (精神鸦片),  a metaphor with a clear connection to China’s troubled colonial past.  I dove into literature on opium and opium addiction in China, such as Brook and Wakabayashi’s (2000) Opium Regimes and Zheng’s (2005) Social Life of Opium in China, and I even began to research the history of “opium for the spirit,” uncovering the manner in which the phrase was used during the Cultural Revolution to refer to foreign films and culture.  The thing that was most interesting was not only how the use of the phrase “opium for the spirit” invoked foreignness, but also how it masked issues of power and class that are inherently tied to locations of public consumption (from opium dens to Internet cafés) and to the definition of what constitutes “deviant” behavior.  For while both opium and Internet games have been portrayed as something that, under proper circumstances, might replenish the spirit, they have, through their widespread public consumption, earned a reputation as a stain on the image of the nation and are therefore seen as something that diminishes the spirit.

After the Long March– the Vast Wasteland

So it was that when I finally embarked on my year of dissertation fieldwork in China in 2009-10 I was highly keyed into the discourse of Internet addiction, and I was cognizant of the way in which many of the young Chinese students I interviewed felt the need to frame their online activities in such a way as to protect against the “addict” label.  It was in this way that I discovered a phenomenon known as “e-sports,” a series of nationally recognized professional digital gaming competitions.  Interestingly, both student gamers and government officials went through great pains to separate this “healthy” form of gaming from “unhealthy” Internet games.  It was in this way that my dissertation, “From Addicts to Athletes,” was born.  For in examining the construction of these two labels it becomes possible to call attention to the fine line between addiction and athleticism, allowing us to see how online gaming is a malleable technology that may be framed as something either incredibly harmful or as something productive under terms set forth by the state.

Staging the Competition

3)    What’s in your dissertation’s future? What do you plan to do to turn it into a book (or a series of cutting edge articles)?

My first order of business will be to produce one more journal article (readers might also be interested in my article, The Ill Effects of Opium for the Spirit).  However, the main goal will be to produce a book in which I can properly highlight the longitudinal shifts I observed over the course of my research stints as well as the particular stories of the young people I had the opportunity to work with while conducting this research.  To that end, I am returning to China this summer in order to catch up with my gaming friends and find out how their perspective on the subject might have changed in the two years I was buried away writing the dissertation.  It is the stories of these young people that remain at the heart of this essentially ethnographic work, and I cannot imagine parceling them off into short journal articles!

4)    Quick! what’s best and worst about your dissertation?

Best: I believe that this dissertation is a testament to the power of multi-disciplinary and multi-sited research, as I draw upon a number of different bodies of literature and offer a perspective on digital gaming that most “games studies” scholars would not.

Worst: The best is also the worst, as the messiness of the situation I wish to describe makes it challenging to offer the reader a coherent narrative in a book format that relies on a linear order.


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