The idea that video games can impart real-world skills has been around almost as long as video games themselves. In the forgotten 1984 film The Last Starfighter, a teenager masters a video game and is immediately recruited as a spaceship pilot—because the game was actually the proving ground for an intergalactic defense force. In the 1985 book Ender’s Game, the conceit is taken one step further: a boy genius wins a military simulation, only to learn that he was actually controlling Earth’s armies against an alien force. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army has been successfully using a video game to recruit soldiers for more than 12 years, and the Chinese, no slouches at either video games or cribbing good ideas, followed suit in 2011 with the PLA’s Glorious Mission (光荣使命).

Outside the context of fiction and propaganda, educational games (or serious games, as they are currently called) promise something they rarely deliver: education and entertainment at the same time. Most serious games are didactic to the point of not being fun; in others, the educational content is buried so deep that it barely registers—the gaming equivalent of putting spinach inside a brownie. Some years ago, I wrote about the challenges a Houston company faced in teaching children about healthy eating through video games, and little has changed since then.

I was therefore more than a little skeptical when the EU’s estimable China IPR SME Helpdesk announced they had launched a Serious Game (capitalization theirs) about protecting IP in China. According to the Helpdesk, the game “aims to offer a taste of the experience of doing business in China” and “will allow you to increase your knowledge and awareness about managing intellectual property when entering the Chinese market.”

I give full marks to the Helpdesk for trying something other than the usual litany of webinars, white papers, and blog posts, and to the EU for funding it. And while the game is not going to make anyone forget Grand Theft Auto, it is good enough that once you start, you want to keep playing until you win.

The narrative of the game is simple: you are a European company starting to manufacture and distribute products in China, and your goal is to make as much money as possible. The gameplay proceeds on a narrow trajectory—this isn’t The Sims: Chinese Factory (although that would be an amazing expansion pack)—and you learn quickly that your odds of success are higher if you make the “right” choices.  For instance:

  • If you don’t register your IP before using it, chances are good that someone else will steal it and you won’t have any recourse.
  • If you don’t conduct due diligence on your Chinese partners, chances are good that you’ll end up doing business with a crook.
  • If you don’t insist that the Chinese side sign an NNN Agreement, chances are good that your IP will be stolen.
  • If you trust the Chinese side or an unqualified assistant to write a contract instead of a lawyer, chances are good that the contract won’t protect you.
  • If you have documents translated into Chinese by the Chinese side or an unqualified assistant, chances are good that the translation will have glaring mistakes.

These lessons may seem self-evident, but our firm receives multiple inquiries every week from companies who have done exactly the opposite. Of course, it may be the case that such companies have never heard of either this blog or the China IPR SME Helpdesk until they get into trouble and type “China trademark help” into Google. But that’s a messaging issue. The game gets its point across, and it’s a point well worth making: if you do business in China without using either common sense or the protections afforded by law, you won’t last long. Indeed, we make the same point ourselves on a regular basis, including twice in the past two weeks (see here and here).

My biggest complaint about the game is its lack of robustness. It crashed multiple times on multiple platforms. But after the fifth restart, it struck me: the frustration I was experiencing was the same frustration that occurs when conducting business in China. Perhaps this is not a bug but a feature, and I should give the Helpdesk more credit for subtlety. Anyone who has worked in China knows that understanding the rules only gets you halfway. The rest comes down to perseverance.

(Many thanks to summer interns Emily Hackman and Trang Phan for their able game-testing assistance.)