China’s State Council recently announced the end of its thirteen-year ban on games consoles; a move that suggests a huge change in direction for the treatment of computer games and gamers. Until recently computer games have been treated with disdainful acceptance, and monitored through draconian control measures such as requiring ID numbers to log into some games and time-tracking for certain users. Video games have never been considered a valid form of entertainment in China; in fact The Ministry of Culture for the People’s Republic of China (the authority to whom all Chinese games must answer) does not even acknowledge gaming on its English language website. However, despite this unfortunate attitude China is altering its course and almost certainly planning to monopolise and manipulate this newly-legitimised technology.
The Chinese Communist Party is constantly talking about its goal to improve China’s soft power (cultural impact abroad), which in the past has been limited to films, the Olympics, and a bizarre advertisement in Times Square. So far its impact has been negligible and China is looking for a different approach. According to IBISworld research China’s online gaming sector alone is worth $9bn and has an annual growth rate of 33.4% between 2007-2012; with figures like this overseas expansion was and is ineveitable.
The Push Out West
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Chinese companies, like Tencent, are pushing into international markets. Tencent is China’s largest game distributor (among a myriad of other things) and in 2011 it began purchasing shares of American game companies. As of now Tencent is a minority shareholder in Epic Games, developers of Gears of War and Infinity Blade, and has become the majority investor in League of Legends developers Riot Games. Tencent has also recently partnered with AOL and its AIM application in order to provide bundled free-to-play games whilst simultaneously offering a link to Tencent’s proprietary QQ messenger which, coincidentally, is one method used for games distribution in China. While these may be considered small developments, the implications for the future are fairly obvious: Chinese companies are beginning to make a space for themselves in the international community.
The Censorship Hurdle
However, before we see Chinese-made games on Walmart shelves, Chinese developers have some demons to wrestle. The Ministry of Culture, the ministry in charge of domestically-produced games, sanctions whether or not games can be legally sold in China. Unfortunately, little is known about their domestic protocols and demands, but we can guess that their regulations are as strict, if not stricter than those placed on foreign games entering China. In the past, games have been banned for numerous reasons such as displaying disputed territories as not being a part of China and including supernatural or superstitious elements. This level of censorship limits developers in what they can achieve; social commentary, political unrest, sex, and a whole myriad of other content is simply off the table for China’s games developers. These limitations will inevitably have an impact on the products that they can produce.
The Fantasy Loophole
However, that does not mean that Chinese games are bad; in fact China has a fascinating solution to this problem: fantasy. Fantasy is a realm that the Chinese censors rarely touch, probably because it is divorced from reality and plays a large role in classical Chinese literary culture; the Monkey King, the Jade Emperor and even semi-historical figures like Zhang Fei are famous pieces of China’s cultural heritage infused with fantasy elements. There are thousands of Chinese-developed games exploring different aspects of this fantastical cultural heritage: RPGs, action games, strategy games, dungeon crawlers and a host of others. Whilst most of them lack the spit and polish of Western games, what we have in China is a gaming tradition developing in its own right.
China has even began expanding into the FPS territory with its much-discussed Glorious Mission, a game which caused controversy in August by releasing an update which allowed players to fight against the Japanese army on Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Amusingly (or possibly tragically), the game was actually endorsed and financed by the People’s Liberation Army. Whilst the game is far from a masterpiece, it handled better than some of the more recent additions to the western FPS canon (Medal of Honor: Warfighter springs to mind), and certainly displayed China’s ability to produce a game that can rival western counterparts in look and feel.
There is no doubt that the gaming community could benefit from an injection of fresh content and, providing China’s censors can resist the urge to meddle, the fresh perspective of China would offer, but that is only if the censors can resist the urge to meddle. With proper investment, localisation and motivation, all of which China has the resources to accomplish, Chinese games could rapidly develop a devoted international following the same way Japanese games have. China could have its day in the sun and enjoy having cultural recognition and positive press, whilst the rest of the world gets to experience something new and see a different side of the Chinese nation and people.
Or, we could be exposed to propagandistic, watered-down nonsense, rubber stamped by a ministry with little interest in gaming or its role in life and society. Only one thing is certain and that is that the days of Japanese and Western domination of the games industry are numbered. China is coming and we had all better hope for the best.