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From personal insights as a gamer and founder... ✦

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  • This article is an excellent walk-through on the evolution of the gaming industry and a future look-ahead.

    Myself, I am a chess player-turned-a gamer, a gamer-turned-a game entrepreneur, and then became 1 of the very few female CEOs in this industry. The journey is so far the most rewarding, as well

    This article is an excellent walk-through on the evolution of the gaming industry and a future look-ahead.

    Myself, I am a chess player-turned-a gamer, a gamer-turned-a game entrepreneur, and then became 1 of the very few female CEOs in this industry. The journey is so far the most rewarding, as well as the most challenging among my 3 startup experiences. Besides the fact that gaming is the largest online economy (1/3 of all mobile app downloads and 74% of mobile consumer spending as the article states), I want to share what games mean to me and attempt to provide a peephole into a bigger picture.

    - What turns a gamer?

    It probably has lots to do with me being an extreme introvert and my unusual childhood growing up in China as a migrant kid. My family's unexpected loss of hukou, a residence permit issued by the Chinese government forbade me from attending a school. Instead of me discovering chess, it was more of chess stumbling upon me during those years of absence from school. Chess became my only toy, game, and friend since 8. Becoming the youngest national champion didn't only offer me a path to receive school education later bypassing the residence permit requirement, but more importantly, the foundation to build upon my self-esteem, characters, disciplines, and social skills. Chess is much bigger than just a game.

    As time passed by, I started my 1st year in school at 13 after competing internationally for our national team. 4 years later, I went to Columbia University to pursue my undergraduate study, and the only problem was that I learned very little English. Keeping up with the intensity of Columbia's curriculums, making friends, or even having simple social interactions seemed extremely difficult to me.

    The difficulties in life don't destroy people. The sense of loneliness, failure, and self-unworthiness do. I started to skip classes, shut myself in the doom and grew depressed. My parents had no idea of what happened across the Pacific Ocean. The pride and the fear of being judged kept me from opening up to anyone.

    Just like chess stumbled upon me accidentally, this time, Starcraft did. During those days of skipping classes, I started to spend 8-10 hours in the game. At a glimpse, yes, I looked like a teenager being addicted to games, and yes, it greatly affected my school. In the root, my problem was never the addiction, but the deep unhappiness and depression in real life. The lack of friends, the sense of not being accepted, and accomplishing nothing were the feelings I was trying to escape.

    However, by playing Starcraft, for the 1st time since I arrived in the U.S, I made friends, friends from my game alliance, friends whom I coordinated and strategized together, friends whom I fought with and achieved victories in the battles together. Those game friends became my Facebook friends and later my real friends in life. After 16 years, some of them I still keep in touch until today.

    - Gaming business from the perspective of a startup

    In 2017, I sold my last startup, ai.Law and co-founded WafaGames with Joe, whom I met by playing Red Alert. It is extremely tough to raise funding as an early-stage studio due to the creative nature of game makings, therefore the highly risky and unsustainable side of a gaming startup. In fact, over 90% of the investments in the gaming industry flow to game publishers rather than game makers, to follow-up rounds and acquisitions of mature companies rather than startups. Gaming is possibly the most polarized industry.

    It is also getting extremely expensive to make a game that stands a chance to compete with big companies like EA or Tencent. For instance, it cost us so far, almost 3 years and more than 3-million USD. The low cap of a budget to make a similar-genre game in big companies is likely to be around 10+ million USD per game. Publishing is even more expensive, averagely $5 to bring 1 android download and $10 for iOS for a mobile MMO game. It requires a minimum of 2000 daily downloads to break even.

    Gaming is a highly competitive, risky, and polarized industry with a massive amount of money at stake.

    - Besides money, what games are really about?

    Games have evolved from nerds' 'sport' in the '80s to today's 'glorified' field in which world-class gamers are viewed as celebrities, top game companies the richest companies among all, and 'gamification' suddenly the most popular design term across all industries. But what games are really about? What makes them so charming?

    It is about fairness and equality that we could hardly find in the real world. In a good-designed game, one's intelligence, hardworking, and practices will be rewarded. As on a chessboard, if I am better, I will win. If I lose, I lose fair and square and will go back practicing more before coming back. One's genders, skin colors, or birthright privileges matter very little here.

    It is about simplicity and transparency. When the rules are set, they are set for all. The path for growth and accomplishment can then be defined. There is little room for back-door tricks or under-table deals.

    It is about sincerity and authenticity in building friendships. Many would disagree that the friends we make in games are sometimes far more real. It's intuitive and effortless to conclude that everything about a game is fake. How could it not be? But gamers are real, game makers are real, and our interactions can't be more authentic, and they cross nationalities, genders, and cultural differences. The things that are missing out in games are prejudices, judgments, discriminations, and masks that we are forced to put on under social pressures. Sometimes, we can only be ourselves in a virtual world. Isn't that ironic?

    I have a very personal story, the one I have never really shared with anyone. Last year my grandpa passed away from a sudden heart attack. I was thousands of miles away from home, and my mom called to inform me the bad news in the middle of the night.

    I lost someone whom I care about deeply and close to my heart since I was a kid, and yet there was nothing I could do to see him for the last time. At that moment, I remember myself sitting on the floor in the dark. Tears broke down and turned into the sharp heart pains; I felt hopeless and numb. After many hours when the dawn was breaking, I reached out to my phone and started to play our game and chat with my alliance friends. Of course, they had no idea who I was and what I was going through. But oddly I felt alive and felt better as if the real human connections in the visual game world provided me with an outlet, an escape.

    We often criticize those who sometimes find their emotional comfort in the virtual world, don't we? We call them weak for avoiding real problems. But aren't we all sometimes need a little escape from a cruel moment, a desperate situation in this often too cold, too unfair world to cure our vulnerability, so we can continue to believe in dreams, beauty, and magic? Aren't we all wish to stay childlike and unpretending in our hearts?

    - Excessive screen time as a social concern

    I think this concern should first be addressed to game makers. It is first our responsibility to take pride in making games as a start-of-art intellectual quest and a meaningful interaction with players with respect, rather than a money-making tool to trigger addiction, and to scheme human natures.

    Chess is a beautiful game and very educational for both adults and children to train their thinking capacities and strategic minds. No one would doubt that.

    Good games ought to be a practice of thought disciplines, a training of problem-solving skills, and fun. Games are not harmful. Bad games are.