Tingting Liu | Keywords in Play, Episode 27

“Keywords in Play” is an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.

This episode we speak with Dr. Tingting Liu, discussing her research as a cultural anthropologist examining digital intimacies, gender, platforms and gaming in China. It is part 2 of a special 6-episode Season of Keywords in Play, exploring intersections and exchanges between Chinese and Australian game studies scholarship. This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

Dr Tingting Liu is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University, China. She received her PhD in anthropology from the University of Queensland in 2018. Dr. Liu used to serve as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, as well as a part-time lecturer at the University of Sydney. Dr. Liu’s research interests centre on digital media, video games, gender, sexuality, and their intersections. Her pioneering research on Chinese digital games has been published in leading international journals, including Games & Cultures, Information, Communication & Society, and Television & New Media.

The podcast series is part of Engaging Influencers initiative. This initiative is curated by the Australia Council for the Arts and funded by the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations

As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.

Please consider supporting Critical Distance at https://www.patreon.com/critdistance

Critical Distance is a community-supported project. Support us on Patreon, and join the discussion on Discord!

Interviewer: Hugh Davies

Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Emilie Reed, Zoyander Street

Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart

Double Bass: Aaron Stewart

Special Thanks: Mahli-Ann Butt, Chloe Yan Li

Transcription: Safya Devautour


Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Hugh: Welcome to Keywords in Play, Tingting! Can I ask you to introduce yourself and your research, in your own words?

Tingting: Thanks for having me here. I am Tinting Liu, I am currently working at the School of Journalism and Communication, Jinan University which is based in Guangzhou, China and I used to study and live in Sidney, in Brisbane, for my PhD and then my post-doc project. Speaking of my PhD, I did ethnographic fieldwork in South-East China focusing on digital romance in precarious times, the digital culture, the digital dating culture. But my research focus has always been looking at how changes and continuities of rural-urban relationships and sexualities and gender relations and how they are manifested in people’s leisure time activities. My research focused on digital dating, online gaming and people’s experience of having pets etc. So, I am basically a cultural anthropologist who has a research interest in new media and new cultural practices in China.

Hugh: Tingting, you’ve undertaken some fascinating research concerning digital intimacies in China. Looking at this quite broad range of subjects spanning their implicit and explicit ideologies in playful dating apps and game platforms and so on, you seem to show that these interactions and digital identities are not isolated but are connected to broader trends in the digital media economy. Is that a fair assessment of your work and where may have I gone wrong in summarizing it?

Tingting: Well, yeah, it’s all right because I have a particular interest in applying anthropological research methods, such as in-depth face-to-face interviews and participant observation to studying digital cultures, that’s correct. And I hope this method will allow for a deeper understanding of the social culture and behavioural aspects of digital phenomenon. But I wouldn’t say that I intended to do that because I am a quite normal Asian kid who grew up in a quite conservative educational background. So, my parents would say “Digital gaming is for the bad kids and online dating is for the fallen girls”. And, I wouldn’t say I had already envisioned this career doing things about digital dating or gaming. If I said that to my father, my father would say “Nonsense! Think twice. What are you talking about?”. It is really my focus on… My very interests are really quite typical of conventional cultural anthropology, within the boundary of the field of cultural anthropology. I look at how class relations, how gender relations, how sexuality cultures, have been changed and how those things are played out in people’s pastimes and leisure activities. That’s my very research focus. And my research journey has taken me into this wonderful journey that is full of people’s online dating stories and their gaming stories. And I’m particularly interested in meeting people, talking to people, and also, I am very into non-fictional writing so that’s properly the heart/core of anthropology. Yep. But, by saying so… But, my understanding of anthropology may not be a very typical anthropology, because I would find myself very hard to publish my works in anthropological journals or when I attended anthropology conferences, you can imagine how weird I am. So that’s my… Yeah, that’s how I understand my very positionality. Yeah.

Hugh: Okay! I’d like to discuss your paper “Video Games as Dating Platforms: Exploring Digital Intimacies through a Chinese Online Dancing Video Game”. I recognise that much of the research here is older work, but I feel like this paper sets out much of what your research is continuing to explore since, and it does so within a framework of game and play studies which is of course of key relevance to this podcast. Are you able to give an overview of this paper and its findings and perhaps to connect this paper to some of your most recent research?

Tingting: Yeah, well, that paper is the very starting point of my research in video games but actually it’s a by-product of my PhD thesis. My PhD thesis focuses on the online dating experiences of Chinese rural to urban migrants. I lived inside a factory, and then when I lived there, I visited those internet bars, those in the industrial towns and when I was there I discovered this phenomenon in which the rural migrants would spend their time playing this game “QQ Dazzling Dance” and then they would meet their loved ones online. So the very question that drives this paper, this very small-scale investigation, would be: How video games become a dating platform for the rural migrants? So actually I was doing research on online dating, but it guided me into this field. And I think in the paper I did two things: Firstly, I analysed the game itself, the past, its rules and the marriage you chose in which… In the game, people can get married. And I just documented that and conducted critical textual analysis on that. The other thing that I did is that I interviewed those rural migrants, how they perceived those in-game marriages – are they real or are they not real? And how those online gaming marriages can be translated to real offline romantic relationships. So, that’s basically what I did in that paper, and it gave me this, another lens really to look at how much we need more work on game studies because it has become a very important phenomenon in rural migrants’ lives, and I guess it’s the same too in other middle classes but perhaps they are playing different games.

Hugh: Is that so? I’m also really interested by some of your more recent research collaborations that further bridge these ideas from platform studies and digital dating studies. Works such as “Protecting our female gaze rights: Chinese Female Gamers’ and Game Producers’ Negotiations with Government Restrictions on Erotic Material”. I really like how this article touches on the alliance between game makers and players, and what you write as being the everyday, conditioned, leisure-driven micro-resistance. Are you able to unpack that paper for us a little bit, and what you see as being its central contributions?

Tingting: Well, yes I have been doing this research on otome games in the past two years with Zishan Lai, who used to work with me in her Master’s degree but she’s herself now, and she is a very devoted otome games player. So otome games are created by and for women, for heterosexual women, and it’s centred upon relations – romantic relationships, between the player and gorgeously constructed male NPCs (non-playable characters). And this game interests me because I think it’s not unusual to have romantic games because there are many romantic games or rape games for men to play. This game is quite… What they call it is “adult games”, not rape games, that’s my interpretation. So most of the adult games, imported from Japan, have been enjoyed by men. And this game… What’s the name… “Lian yu zhizuoren”, “Mr Love”, this game attracted me because it’s made for Chinese women, and I found that it is the first generation of young women who have this kind of consumption of desire, sexual appealing games, only made to satisfy them. So I would like to ask what are they thinking about the game and how they react to… How they make sense of their gender identity and their situation in China where the Chinese government has a very specific and strict censorship on erotic materials. So that gives the game a restricted room to display the sexual materials, so that’s what we are looking at in the paper. And very interestingly we found that the gamers have aligned themselves with the game company to advocate for their sexual rights, to say: “We are adults, we are adults, why can’t we enjoy this sexual game freely?” and the game has developed some visual, audio and interactive ways to navigate within the censorship. Yeah, that’s probably what we have done and we are still doing it because there are a wide variety of otome game emerging in China.

Hugh: That’s fascinating.

Tingting: Yeah, yes, it’s super interesting.

Hugh: I want to ask you, as well, about your 2020 paper “The Freedom of Binge Gaming or Technologies of the Self”. This is a fascinating paper and a fascinating concept. This idea of binge-playing as kind of like revenge gaming. I am curious to know how this Chinese culture and expectations of work and play exist and coexist and are upset by video games, how work of frustrations sometimes appears in these gaming spaces.

Tingting: But Werewolf is not a video game, it’s a board game.

Hugh: Of course, yes.

Tingting: But, in the two just mentioned games, those are not… I am not a very big fan of these, the games of QQ Dazzling Dance or Mr. Love but I’m a huge fan of Werewolf, so these papers were close to me, while the boardgame Werewolf, listeners of this podcast would be quite familiar because it’s from the English language gaming community. And also the game has some video versions, so you can play it online but still, it’s a social game. And I just found myself binge-gaming Werewolf during my last two years of my PhD when I was super busy, and my research question is very simple: In a country where the white-collar upper middle class are working so hard, they are so busy, why are they still spending so much time in such a time and energy consuming game as Werewolf? So that’s my research question. And I found that Chinese people, I think that’s the same in Korea and in Japan, the white-collar middle class are working in a very shockingly desperate way, the long hours of work. And at the same time, people are spending a large number of hours on games. But Chinese people, they are not unfamiliar to this kind of indoor pastime, because we have Mahjong, we have cards. When I was a little girl, I saw my parents playing Mahjong for over ten hours a day, so it’s quite common in Asian countries. I know it’s uncommon in Australia, that’s also very interesting because Australian people are, generally speaking, deductively speaking, really like outdoor activities like jogging, hiking but Chinese people would enjoy this kind of people squeezing in a very small indoor room, eating, smoking, drinking and then playing board games. So, Chinese people are not unfamiliar with this, but the thing is we are getting busy, because our generation, compared to my parents’ generation, are much more busy. I think we can clearly say that, and I think that the next generation will be busier. So, I want to know why. And my answer to the question based on my observations and interviews is that people would find this kind of binge-gaming as a way to master their lives, to make them think life is worthy of living because they can still spend a large amount of time gaming. That sounds quite self-destructive, but I think it speaks to the very construction of the upper middle-class identity now. This is a new identity in China because in China, during the socialist era, the white-collar middle-class, as a concept, as a collective class, were erased – because we are in a socialist structure. So, this middle-class identity is quite new and I think gaming, binge gaming, unhealthy self-destructive, self-harming mode of binge gaming is lying at the centre of people’s coping strategies against this draining economic system. That’s my finding. And I hope we can have a healthier lifestyle, but I think that is still true even after the pandemic.

Hugh: That is fascinating.

Tingting: Yep.

Hugh: So, I’m curious to know a little bit more about your research methodologies and how it informs your practice.

Tingting: Yeah, sure!

Hugh: I’m wondering, do you identify your work within a tradition of digital ethnography or are you meeting your participants in person? How do you feel these exchanges inform your research approach and your findings?

Tingting: Well, thank you for the question. Because I think lying at the centre of my methodological thinking, I would rely very much upon real-time face-to-face in-depth observation and interviews because I was trained in this way in the Department of Social Science at the University of Queensland. And also, because when I was trained, during my PhD, I just came to know that an Australian anthropologist, particularly interested in indigenous culture and people how they make sense of land, how they make sense of post-settler society and their work would rely much on ethnography, the very conventional way of ethnography. And I only used digital ethnography, what was saved, we collected materials from online observation, only after the research on QQ Dazzling Dance because, after that, I came to know that if I need to unpack why a game matters to my research participants, I have to know the rules, the visual audio tests, and those semiotics, the very complicated semiotic systems. So, I only came to online observation, because I did research on games and also, part of the reason that I rely more on online interviews is really because of the pandemic which prevented us from doing offline interviews. But I find that for the future, I think, that line would be even further blurred between online and offline because we can’t find a physical field site without digital media anymore. I think that would be the future, yeah.

Hugh: Fascinating. Tingting, you’ve undertaken some excellent and innovative research into gender and sexuality in digital gaming in China. Where might listeners find out more about your research?

Tingting: Well, I have put my research on my Google Scholar profile, and I think that’s the place where you can find most of my work, yeah. Thank you for paying attention to my work. I did not have this kind of professional identity as someone who is, like, doing research on digital gaming. I am now sometimes approached by students who seek supervision from me about games. That gave me my professional identity as someone who is into games, so I really appreciated. Because I think it is the future, I think in the future we need more research into games.

Hugh: Yeah, I agree. I’m curious to know, as well, I mean, do you feel that you have many peers in China who are doing digital games research?

Tingting: No, not at all, not at all. I don’t think my university would brand me as someone who is doing digital games study because I think, the utmost fear in China, I think that game studies are not really important or well-established discipline in China. It’s just an emerging area for us field researchers and I often find that it’s very hard to explain to people when I wrote a paper, I can explain to them when the paper is published, when it’s already out then I can say now you can see it’s a research instead of my personal interest in pastime activity.

Hugh: Ok, look we should probably wrap it up there but thank you so much for that, I really appreciate it.

Tingting: Thank you, Hugh, for having me!