Taiwan's Tween Generation
The Cyber Land Where Kids Connect
MapleStory, a free South Korean role-play adventure game, has been a hit among school-age gamers for five years now. It even entices parents to venture into the fantasy world of their kids. What is the game's magic?
The Cyber Land Where Kids ConnectBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 443 )
"Although I've reached Level 200, I don't have any friends > < Who wants to be my friend?"
"When you see me you can say hello to me!! But most of the time I'm playing all by myself, since I keep getting brushed off because I'm too inexperienced ＝＝"
"Is anyone in my guild still there? Please respond if you know me or have seen me. I'm afraid that by the time I go home, I'll be left all alone..."
The messages in the chatrooms of MapleStory reflect the young gamers' desire for friendship and company.
MapleStory is the most popular online game among schoolchildren from fifth grade up to the second year of junior high school. What Facebook is for adults looking to connect with friends or like-minded people, MapleStory is for school children – in this online gaming community, they find peer recognition.
MapleStory is a free adventure game developed in South Korea. In it, players roam Maple World, fighting monsters and completing various quests. In the process their online characters develop skills and abilities and can join a guild for easier interaction with other players. The game was introduced in Taiwan in 2005 by Gamania Digital Entertainment and immediately filled a gap in Taiwan's online gaming market, which previously had little to offer early teens. Within less than a year, almost 5 million youngsters had signed up, half of them under the age of fifteen.
A myriad of new and more sophisticated online games have come out since, but MapleStory's position remains unrivaled, as it still maintains almost 400,000 logins (not counting repeat logins) per day.
In contrast to the majority of other online games, MapleStory does not emphasize audio-visual effects or 3D scenes. Neither does it have a complex storyline. MapleStory only offers a simple 2D structure and side scrolling. The adventure game attracts players with its cute online characters and graphics and maintains a sense of novelty by rolling out new versions every month. As a result, its popularity remains unbroken.
Since the game follows simple principles and is easy to learn, not only teenagers are drawn to it, but also parents who are eager to share their kids' adventures in cyberspace.
Eager to Grow Up
The subculture within the mountains and valleys of MapleStory goes far beyond what the grown-ups can imagine and comprehend.
"What surprises me most in these young players is that they address each other very naturally as husbands and wives," reveals Vincent Chuang, COO at Gamania Digital Entertainment.
Chuang believes that this phenomenon shows that the social interaction features are what make MapleStory such a success. Kids in their preteens or early teens are eager to grow up. That's why the game features weddings and also allows players to set up families. "When chatting with one another, they publicly profess love, apologies, and boldly express themselves, breaking free from the pressure that they experience in real life," Chuang observes.
Karen Fu, a senior marketing manager at Gamania, regularly visits the game's chat rooms. She discovered that many youngsters don't actually hone their fighting skills or defeat monsters when visiting the site, but log on exclusively for chatting with other users. They talk about the things that happen around them, apparently eager to get attention and find companions, Fu sums up.
"It's just like we liked to play house when we were little. Kids today also like to set up family relations. We can often see them advertise for grandfathers, grandmothers, sons and daughters," notes Fu.
Providing a Stage for Self-Expression
Li Chi, associate professor at the Department of Social and Public Affairs of National Taipei University of Education, believes that the phenomenon of the "little adults" in cyberspace reflects that these young players are about to, or have just entered adolescence. Kids at that age identify with their peers more than with their parents. They are afraid of being snubbed or excluded. "They also want to flaunt their individuality, showing off in front of their peers," notes Chi.
MapleStory regularly adds new props that allow players to dress up and make their characters special, which precisely meets the youngsters' needs for self-expression.
In the past, Lineage, which targets teens above 15, used to be Gamania's most successful game. The experience with Lineage showed that online games need to have props with a strong "functionality." But no one expected MapleStory's rather simple dress-up props such as hats, shoes and chairs to become important accessories for which players are willing to compete and spend money to buy.
"Although the players in this community are of a young age, they value props with an individual touch more than you could imagine. Props that look special but not too exaggerated, such as wings and hats, are their favorite. Besides, everyone hopes to put together an outfit that others find very cute," says Chuang in relaying his impressions.
In real life these kids are forced to wear school uniforms, so they use their excursions into cyberspace to dress up creatively and display their personality. Cute images and characters with trademark features are highly popular among these kids, because they satisfy their keen visual perception and love for cartoons.
"The so-called cute factor actually means being very likeable, a character whose strengths and weaknesses can be seen at a glance, that lets kids easily imagine what it would be like to be with them," notes Li Hao, deputy director of R&D at Game Flier International, which operates the Taiwanese version of Livly Island, another successful online game for pre-teens.
Lee cites as example popular cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, whom many kids perceive as a friend they can confide in. Children feel an affinity with SpongeBob, because his character comes alive in the cartoon images.
These online games may have succeeded in hooking their millions of fans with cute characters and fresh storylines. But in the end, their ability to fulfill the basic need of tweenagers craving to be accepted among their peers is the key to their popularity.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz