This article is co-authored by Biyi Feng and Yan Zhou, founders of the website Elephant Room

This game is all about secrets, lying and bluffing.

In China, werewolves are all the rage. That’s thanks to the role-playing game “werewolf” (狼人杀, langren sha), a variation of the classic party game mafia (called “Killers” in China, very popular several years back).

Briefly, here’s how it works: before the game starts, each player is secretly assigned a role (i.e. werewolf, villager, celestial, etc. — there can be many, depending on the number of players, including roles that aren’t in mafia or Killers). Then the game starts, and at “night,” players kill, save, spy, or sleep (keeping their eyes closed the entire time), depending on their role (this is done with nonverbal signals given to a neutral, all-seeing “host”). When the game moves from night to “day,” the host informs players of what happened during the night — i.e. so-and-so was killed by a werewolf, so-and-so was saved by a celestial — and the “surviving” players then debate the identities of the werewolves – or falsely implicate innocents – and vote to eliminate the suspects. The game proceeds for multiple rounds until one group, either the killers or the innocents, outnumber the other.

We’ve always been hip to the latest entertainment trends, so of course we couldn’t not check out this werewolf fad. There are more than 100 werewolf clubs in Beijing alone on the popular listings site Dianping, so we picked one near Yan’s house, owned by “JY.”

Biyi: “Is that someone I’m supposed to know?”

Yan, shocked: “Where have you been? He is the ‘Wolf King’! Haven’t you watched his live stream?”

“I don’t watch live streams and don’t know how to play werewolf…”

Yan, rolling her eyes: “OMG.” (Classic Yan!)

JY, originally a gaming commentator on Panda TV, is one of the most successful werewolf players in the world. He runs JY Club, a werewolf franchise with physical locations dedicated strictly to the game in Beijing and Shanghai.

It’s only in the past year that the game as become the thing at parties and social gatherings across China. How?

We have to begin a bit further back. In June 2015, live streaming platform Zhanqi TV produced the first live werewolf gaming show, Lying Man. A year later, Panda TV, the platform invested by young tycoon Wang Sicong, produced its own werewolf show, Panda Kill. By inviting well-known gamer celebrities, the two shows drew fans from China’s vast gaming community. For many hardcore werewolf addicts, the game was a competition of wit and logic in which only the most perceptive and eloquent would prevail.

But then the game went mainstream. MEWE, one of the most successful digital media/entertainment companies in the country, founded by famed TV host Ma Dong, produced the show “Dinner Party Seduction,” in which different Chinese celebrities sat around playing werewolf. As it turned out, young Chinese audiences absolutely love watching famous people “kill” and bluff each other on camera; the show drew more than 6 million viewers for its first episode.

Searches for “Dinner Party Section” on China’s No. 1 search engine, Baidu — indicated by the green line below — eventually turned into searches for simply “werewolf,” indicated by the blue line:

Very quickly, other entertainment shows began running werewolf segments of their own, and clubs like JY’s grew in popularity.

JY club “warmly welcomes players from all levels,” so of course we dragged two other friends with us to give it a try. Stepping into the wolf-themed, futurist-looking house, we were ready to meet some players — you’re put into a room with either nine or 12 people — and engage in a night of brutal killing.

After registering our names at reception and ordering some drinks, staffers led us to one of their three gaming rooms. From furniture, lighting to sound effects, everything in the rooms was particularly arranged. The club even has a team of in-house “judges” specifically trained to host and moderate games (apparently, all of these judges are young, pretty girls in their early 20s… just so you know). Guests only need to sit there and prepare to kill… oh, while wearing wolf masks:

But here’s the thing: once you sit in that carefully arranged room with a bunch of solemn-looking strangers, the whole experience turns from a game into a hardcore, brain-churning exercise.

As we interrogated one another, it was interesting to see the ways people would try to talk themselves out of a guilty conviction. The more experienced players would adopt a specific language filled with technical terms, such as calling oneself “golden water” (meaning you’ve been inspected by the celestial and are definitely innocent, i.e. not a werewolf); “returning the water,” when a player denies a previously admitted-to identity; and “numb jump” (it doesn’t make sense in Chinese either), which refers to werewolves pretending to be celestials. Jargon-bombed and informative-loaded, I could feel my palms getting sweatier and my heart beating faster as the game went along.

JY Club sometimes live streams its games

What amazed me the most was how people’s social behavior changed.

As we were settling into our places, there was barely any conversation amongst the players, but as soon as we slipped into our various identities, we became open and ruthless, unafraid to confront one another with wild accusations. During the first round of testimonies, a young female player sitting opposite us coldly accused both of us of being werewolves because “you guys are trying too hard to be dumb” – when in reality, the two of us really had no clue what was going on. But thus accused, we snapped into the game, and began fabricating stories and throwing accusations at others. The intensity of our interactions was truly astonishing.

Afterwards, players went on discussing what happened, appraising each other’s techniques and lies. The girl who so viciously accused us of playing dumb came by to pat us on our shoulders. “Not bad for first-timers,” she said with a warm smile.

In December 2016, The Werewolf and Werewolf Everyday debuted on the Chinese mobile app market. During Spring Festival period – China’s most important holiday, and also when young people have the most time to kill – both apps attracted a large amount of players, quickly drawing attention from investors as well as competing app developers. As of April, there are more than 40 different Werewolf apps in the iOS app store, with a bunch funded by major venture capitalists. These apps are not just games; by adding social functions such as live streaming, audio chat and gift-sending, users are able to play werewolf while meeting and interacting with new friends, cultivating rivalries and friendships, and even searching for hook-ups (reportedly, male users use werewolf apps to hunt for hot young girls), thanks to the game’s ability to construct reality-based fictional identities.

From live streaming to TV shows to mobile apps to werewolf parties across the country, the game has become a means for Chinese Internet companies to get in on the entertainment market. For today’s young Chinese, werewolf is not just a game or a show; it’s an immersive experience and a new way of constructing social relationships fostered by technology.

We downloaded two popular apps, “Werewolf Every Day” (pictured below) and “Dine with Werewolf” (there were a lot to choose from), to see what the game was like in the digital realm.

Unlike in the real world, where you can ease into a game, everything is controlled by a cold, impersonal virtual moderator inside mobile gaming rooms. There’s none of the fun of covering your eyes at nightfall as the werewolves pick their victims; all you have to do is to follow the instructions that pop up on your screen.

In both Werewolf Every Day and Dine with Werewolf, players can choose to speak either with audio or video when it comes to their turn. This is where things get messed up. We encountered people who scolded / insulted others until they went offline, had connections dropped due to poor connectivity, and endured many long, boring speeches by random faces from weird camera angles. One player was multitasking, seemingly preparing a package while giving his testimony. Halfway through, he disappeared, and the rest of us, not knowing whether or not he’d return, could do nothing except hold our phones and wait like idiots.

It was a jarring experience, and left us hankering for simpler times. We removed the werewolf apps from our phones and scheduled another appointment at JY club. This time we’d bring more friends.

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