Chinese New Year Games Spotlight – An Ancient Game in a Brand New Year

Jason Martinez

To celebrate this year’s Chinese New Year, USC Games is releasing a 3-part series featuring hit games from past CNYs.  This is Part 3 of our 3-Part series featuring popular games from Chinese New Years’ past.  

Chinese New Year is one of the few times during the year when families come together from far and wide. Mahjong, a classic tabletop game in Chinese and other Asian cultures, is one of the activities the whole family takes part in. The clacking of the tiles being shuffled can be heard from morning until night. 

In 2020, COVID-19 deeply impacted how Chinese families ushered in the new year. With strict travel and quarantine restrictions, families could not celebrate together as they had in previous years. Because Mahjong couldn’t be played together in person, many turned to virtual alternatives. Mobile games like QQ Mahjong (QQ麻将), developed by Tencent, and Sichuan Mahjong rose in popularity around the Chinese New Year. According to a senior analyst at GameRefinery, QQ Mahjong experienced an increase of almost 700% in downloads, while Sichuan Mahjong had an increase of 600% in downloads during February and March 2020. How does the mahjong experience change when it’s virtual?

For those who aren’t familiar with the game, Mahjong is a four-player tile game in which players compete to complete their hand. There is debate around when Mahjong was first created, but many associate the game’s beginning with the 19th century. Players around the table take turns drawing and discarding tiles until they obtain four sets and a pair of eyes (two matching tiles). Mahjong requires a combination of skill, strategy, and luck.

In an in-person game, joy comes from interacting with other players. There is a lot of noise that happens at the table–the most signature one is the clacking of tiles being shuffled before a round begins. Players are quick to shout out “peng” when they claim a third tile that matches an existing pair in their hand. Whenever a player obtains a winning tile and reveals their hand upon victory, there is usually commotion from all the players. When players are physically sitting around a table, they can also read their opponents’ faces. Certain opponents might involuntarily give away which tiles they’re looking for by visibly reacting to a tile being discarded to the center. A skillful player has a keen eye and picks up tiny observations like this.

In a virtual setting, the player dynamic is different. Players do not see each others’ faces in QQ Mahjong. Instead, they view each other’s avatars. In a Youtube video, a player is seen using a cat paw to draw tiles from the center of the table. The virtual game allows for more creativity in this area but restricts the creative, strategic thinking on the players’ part. The game reveals the tiles needed to win, as well as how many of each tile remains in the game. These elements, usually calculated by the players themselves, are readily available in a pop-up window. The virtual game is quick to conveniently identify winning opportunities for players, whereas players would come up with their own strategies in a traditional in-person game. 

Virtual mahjong may be the prevailing form of the game in the coming year. In China and the US, travel is highly discouraged. Many families, separated from their loved ones, are turning to video calls and forms of virtual entertainment. We look forward to seeing which games top the charts this Chinese New Year season.