Chapter 5. Revenge of the Copycats

I am sitting in a lime green room in Xi'an with several dozen Chinese college kids. I'm wearing a metal bikini and killing bunnies with a long, Chinese martial arts–style knife. Well, the virtual me is anyway. The real me is getting stranger looks than if I were actually wearing a metal bikini and killing bunnies. Clearly, few non-Chinese-speaking Americans come in here to play games.

I'm not very good at the bunny killing. Other bikini-clad warriors keep stabbing away before I can get to them, and I don't have enough powers to go after the wolves or alligators; instead I just battle-trot through them like a ghost, looking for more unkilled bunnies. But cut virtual me some slack—she's trying to navigate an uncertain, crowded world where she is the only one who can't read a word of Chinese. The nonvirtual me is having a similar time with the nonvirtual Xi'an, a city deep in China with a "mere" 9 million people.

This room tells you everything you need to know about China's Internet revolution. It's on the top floor of a no-frills downtown office complex, and the mildewed stairwell is bedecked with game ads. The wood on each step alternates between an Intel ad and the words "GAME ON!" At the top floor is a room utterly unlike Internet cafés in Africa, India, or South America. Most of those are like simulated offices crammed together—ho-hum PCs, desk chairs, and tables. This one is more like simulated living rooms crammed together. The chairs are cozy, ...

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