The world’s largest gaming company—and as of recently, the 10th-largest publicly traded company on earth—is a media, entertainment and gaming provider called Tencent, which is based in China.

Although now sprawling and diversified, one of the company’s long-time and principal sources of revenue was the sale of “virtual goods”—pets, clothing, jewelry, power-ups, costumes, unlockables…an endless array of completely digital objects that real people pay real money to acquire for their digital selves. While the users’ bodies suffer from countless hours in front of the screen, their virtual avatars flourish and prosper thanks to the game-player’s tireless efforts.

In his series “Chinese Style Network Life,” the East China-based photographer Jingli Wu explores this world—not the digital one of high scores and virtual achievements, but the harsh, real existence that is marked by the ramifications of a life lived staring at a screen.

© Jingli Wu. Finalist, LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017

In his strangely poetic, translated statement, here’s what Wu had to say:

“Desperately intoxicated. Waking from a dream, in the face of reality—or continuing to sink. All around China, the young generation is avoiding the question of how to live and instead finding themselves glued to the nearest internet cafe. They are not interested in learning or growing themselves—only with the existence of their virtual selves.

“My work is made in a small city that shows the country’s realistic daily life. Even some excellent young people from this area—longing for the opportunities of big city life—will find themselves blocked in their careers and thus rooted to this small town. Escapism, then, becomes an obvious route.”

Escapism—a particularly troublesome position to take in China, a country in which family life is so strong and binding. While not obvious from the pictures themselves, this social context helps us understand the invisible emotional poignancy of these alienated individuals.

© Jingli Wu. Finalist, LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017

As Wu writes, “The younger members of this crowd have just graduated but fall in the ‘do-not-want-to-find-a-job’ school of thought. They are addicted to their games and hide here to escape their accusing families’ gaze.

“Some in the group do have jobs—largely night work. Maybe they are waiters, hotel staff, even sex workers. But it’s not easy to generalize: there are also divorced parents, estranged fathers suffering from mental illness, people who simply do not want to spend time at home.

“Success in the virtual world, then, gives them confidence, making them further intoxicated by their games. Regardless of the details, they are all bound together by the fact that their real lives are difficult—and thus their virtual worlds beckon with the promise of happiness.”

—LensCulture

Editor’s Note: This project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017—don’t miss the work from all 44 of the outstanding, international talents!