It’s not rare to see fellow travellers on the bus or train in any global city using their mobile phones or tablets as entertainment during the morning or afternoon commute. As the newly experienced marvel of Hong Kong’s clean and efficient public-transport system started to wear off last week, I became more nosy about what my commuter comrades were so engaged by on their smartphones.
With nearly no newspapers or books in sight, I assumed some were instead reading news bulletins or streaming radio services on their phones. But the rather stern looking businessman next to me kept moving his finger across his screen – in the same direction each time and about once a second. I didn’t think he could be reading through stories that fast. So, I peered a little closer. The man seemed to be moving what looked like a birthday cake from one shelf of a cartoon-like bakery to another. After the cake, he moved a muffin, then a cookie, then what I think was a donut and at that stage my nosiness was sated and I returned, rather confused, to my book.
A few tram stops down the line, my neighbour had left the bakery and was instead on the golf range, firing off golf balls with his finger, one after another. Looking around, the girl in front of me and her friend seemed to be playing some sort of medieval game together, albeit on two separate tablets.
While I’ve never been one for video games, I’ve never noticed quite so many of them as I have here in Hong Kong.
Games do seem to have a greater importance in many Asian cultures than they might in Europe or the US. Growing up in the UK, I had books or music for enjoyment but every summer when I visited my family in Malaysia, we would sit down to hours worth of board games. Despite it being their second language, my cousins would always beat me at Scrabble and even when alone, a pack of cards was available for a solid game of Solitaire. Indeed, my mother still regularly tries to recruit any visitors to the house for a game of Backgammon, despite having left Malaysia over 40 years ago.
Talking to local friends in Hong Kong, games are as much about social interaction as they are about winning. Historically, sitting down to a long game of Mahjong was an opportunity to meet and chat. And while simple daily practices like tai chi keep the body alert in this part of the world, regular games are thought to keep the brain working too.
However, these things can clearly go too far. A few years ago, a man in his twenties died of heart failure in a South Korean internet café after barely leaving his seat for 50 hours while playing an online game. And in the US, nearly every casino has a marketing department targeted at Asian-Americans who will head out to gamble – and lose, as the odds go – in their busloads.
The wireless gaming industry is set to be worth more than $20bn (€15.3bn) over the next five years and it seems a chunk of that will come from across Asia. I just hope that it doesn’t mean that the tradition of sitting down to a tangible board game – and a real conversation – dies.
Aisha Speirs is Hong Kong bureau chief for Monocle.