Mahjong X Robot


As someone who enjoys playing with things, I love toys. When I come across these interesting mahjong action robots or transformable robotic dinosaurs, I cannot resist the temptation to do an episode on the subject of mahjong crossover robots despite it is not my area of expertise.

I take this chance to discuss robots both as toys and as technology. On toys, we can peep into the world of action figures and appreciate their designs, in particular that used mahjong as the theme. On technology, we can touch the subject of traditional mahjong versus the digital mahjong game and future games in the metaverse.

Let’s start with the toys. Figurines were played as toys should be as long as human history. However, the term, “action figures” was first coined in 1964 to differentiate those intended for boys versus the dolls for girls. These figurines could be based upon characters from a film, comic book, military, video game or television program; fictional or historical. With the invention of plastic and the introduction of flexible joints, they can be posed, dressed, transformed or even be used to create stop motion animation.

Over time certain figures are so hot and build up their fans to become their collectors. In a recent trend, to let customers experience the excitement of lucky draws, figures have been sold as blind boxes by which customers will not know what they get until they open the boxes.

Not until I did this research, I do not know the achievement of Hong Kong people in this area which is comparable with those in the US and Japan. The world-famous brand Hot Toys founded by Mr. Howard Chan, make intricately crafted movie characters like the Iron Man by Marvel, those in Star Wars and famous Hong Kong stars like Bruce Lee, Leslie Cheung 張國榮and Wong Ka Kui 黃家駒. Their quality is so high that one can barely tell whether it is real or not simply from the pictures. Other brands like Toyzeroplus, ZCWORLD and Soap Studio are also up and coming.

This mahjong metal robot was also created by a Hong Kong brand called TinBot. Inspired by childhood tin toys, these metal robots composes of magnetic heads, arms and legs that can be neatly packed into the box of body, are made to recall old Hong Kong memories. Mahjong, being an important part of Hong Kong culture, was re-interpreted as a robot with changeable “suits” from different mahjong tiles. I have a set of this TinBot and hope sometimes I can do a stop motion animation video with it.

This set of three dinosaurs after the mahjong red, green and white tiles 中發白 are created by the Chinese company 52TOYS. They are members of the Beast Box series that catch worldwide collectors’ attention and its signature transformation of a cube into a dinosaur has become the subject of many stop motion videos online. 

Created in Japan, the last set of 13 terminal mahjong tiles robots is meant to be 1:35 miniature models of the cute robots Mechatro WeGo that are designed to carry a kid inside. Kids inside can easily drive the robot to walk and control the arms’ movement.

After toy, let’s talk about robots from the angle of technology. Today many things that can act on their own are loosely called robots even it may just be computer programs like we call systems that answer messages automatically as Chatbots. In this concept, when we play a digital mahjong game, we are playing with mahjong robots. Further enhanced with artificial intelligence, in August 2021, Microsoft’s AI machine defeated human players after learning from 5,000 matches.

Among many traditional games, mahjong is one of the very few games that manage to keep its attraction in the new form of digital games. I guess it is partly because in real life, it is not always easy to team up four persons and set up a proper mahjong table with the tiles to play the game, and the presence of virtual partners, or I called them mahjong-bots allow people to play mahjong anywhere anytime.

Despite its convenience, many people think the virtual game cannot be compared with the traditional game as people no longer be able to meet and chat with each other, which is important part of this social game. However, the recent development of instant chatting functions allows people in different parts of the world to virtually meet in the game to play mahjong, and at the same time chats with each other. There is already VR mahjong game in the market though they are practically a 3D version of a conventional 2D mahjong game and its motions are so pretty crude and far being playable. 

Nevertheless, I believe with further development of virtual reality technology, faster programming and transmission speed, one day, people can immerse themselves in the world of VR, control their avatars to shuffle, draw, discard tiles for us and chat with emotion and gesture with our friends in the Metaverse. People may even be able to have reunion with their friends and family who have already passed away and play mahjong with them.

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