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Connecting America & China

September 8, 2006


As the father of a Chinese daughter, I maintain a healthy interest in relations between China and America. The New York Times recently published a couple of interesting articles that highlight how the two countries are connecting at levels far below nation-state negotiations. The first article discusses the increasing request for Chinese au pairs by wealthy American parents [“To Give Children an Edge, Au Pairs From China,” by Ginia Bellafante, 5 Sep 2006] I was curious about exactly what kind of “edge” Chinese au pairs were supposed to provide for the children under their care. I thought the “edge” might involve tutoring in math and sciences. It turns out, however, that the edge parents seek most is having their children learn the Chinese language.

Their services are in great demand, in part because so many Americans have adopted baby girls from China. Driving the need more aggressively is the desire among ambitious parents to ensure their children’s worldliness, as such parents assume that China’s expanding influence will make Mandarin the sophisticates’ language decades hence.

Since au pairs are hired only by the well-to-do, one assumes they understand a bit about resiliency and what it will take for their children to be successful — and part of being successful is knowing which economies are going to drive globalization. In large numbers, they are betting on China.

The last two years have seen an astonishing increase in the number of American parents wishing to employ Mandarin-speaking nannies, difficult to find here and even harder to obtain from China. Au Pair in America, the 20-year-old agency that sponsored the two young women in Connecticut, had received no requests for Chinese au pairs until 2004, said Ruth Ferry, the program director. Since then, it has had 1,400. The agency said it expected to bring 200 more au pairs to this country before the end of 2007, and other companies in the business are beginning to recruit in China, all taking advantage of relaxed standards for cultural-exchange visas for Chinese.

One single mother who has been schooling her children in Mandarin Chinese for several years is one of those who believes that China will be central to the future of global economics. She says, “I think China will rule the banking world in my children’s lifetime, and I want them to be able to participate in that if they want to.” This is quite a switch since most au pairs over the past twenty years have been recruited from western Europe. The article points out that Chinese au pairs are generally well educated, many having college degrees. Some have left good jobs to experience America and improve their English skills. The other article that caught my eye is about a on-line game that is the first video game to sweep the world since Pac-Man was launched in the 1980s [“Online Game, Made in U.S., Seizes the Globe,” by Seith Schiesel, 05 Sep 2006]. The game is called World of Warcraft. Unlike Pac-Man which came packaged with Atari or in big, stand alone consoles in amusement parks or pizza parlors, World of Warcraft is an “online fantasy game whose virtual, three-dimensional environment has become a global entertainment phenomenon among the cybersavvy and one of the most successful video games ever made.” How successful?

Less than two years after its introduction, World of Warcraft, made by Blizzard Entertainment, based in Irvine, Calif., is on pace to generate more than $1 billion in revenue this year with almost seven million paying subscribers, who can log into the game and interact with other players. That makes it one of the most lucrative entertainment media properties of any kind. Almost every other subscription online game, including EverQuest II and Star Wars: Galaxies, measures its customers in hundreds of thousands or even just tens of thousands.

The article points out that even though the game is “made in America,” there are more players in China than in the U.S. “There are more than three million players in China, and slightly fewer than two million in the United States. And as with most video games, a clear majority of players worldwide are male.” The business strategy used by Blizzard Entertainment to become successful is interesting. Instead of selling software they sell services.

One of the main reasons Western software companies of all kinds have had difficulty in Asia is that piracy is still rampant across the region. Games like World of Warcraft circumvent that problem by giving the software away free and then charging for the game service, either hourly or monthly. Since the game’s introduction in November 2004 the company has expanded to more than 1,800 employees from around 400. Almost all of the additions have been customer-service representatives to handle World of Warcraft players, helping them with both technical advice and billing concerns.

For those unfamiliar with on-line gaming, “the basic genre that World of Warcraft belongs to is called the massively-multiplayer online game, or M.M.O. The ‘massive’ refers to the fact that in an M.M.O., thousands of players simultaneously occupy one vast virtual 3-D world. (In a more traditional online game like Quake or Counter-Strike, there are generally fewer than a dozen people in each arena.)” The combination of pay-to-play and 24/7 availability is a powerful formula for as long as the game remains hot. The article doesn’t say what plans Blizzard Entertainment has for the day World of Warcraft cools and joins Pac-Man in the “remember when” bin. To delay that day, Blizzard Entertainment makes sure there are plenty of experiences to be had in its virtual world so that the experience seems ever new. Another interesting point made in the article is the fact that many players view the gaming experience as shared social engagement. One of the oft-heard laments about the information age is that it is spawning a generation (mostly of young men) that has grown up spending hours in front of a computer screen rather than engaging face-to-face with real people.

In Asia, however, online players like those in the Chosen often want to meet in the flesh to put a real face on the digital characters they have been having fun with. Even in the United States, more and more players are coming to see online games as a way to preserve and build human connections, even if it is mostly through a keyboard or microphone.

People may be bowling alone, but it looks like they are connecting on-line. As one U.S. player stated, “Think about it: I’m a 33-year-old guy with a 9-to-5 job, a wife and a baby on the way. I can’t be going out all the time. So what opportunities do I have to not only meet people and make new friends but actually spend time with them on a nightly basis? In WOW I’ve made, like, 50 new friends, some of whom I’ve hung out with in person, and they are of all ages and from all over the place. You don’t get that sitting on the couch watching TV every night like most people.” While I harbor doubts about the long-term benefits of on-line gaming for advancing one’s life strategy, I am in favor of shared experienced. There are a growing number of virtual worlds being populated on the Web and eventually these experiences may help break down cultural barriers. It will be an interesting trend to watch.

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