China has been in a gaming bubble for the last fifteen years. Isolation by language, draconian anti-console laws, and China-only servers mean that China hasn’t had a lot of impact on gaming outside its borders. Sure, League of Legends, Dota 2, and World of Warcraft all have massive followings here, but all that means is that Chinese servers are usually behind the rest of the world for patches and updates. Occasionally, something like a skeleton, or an icon will be altered for the Chinese version, but nothing more than that.
But as China’s gamers get richer and foreign publishers begin to focus on the world’s second largest games market, it’s clear that these days are drawing to a close. Things are going to change, probably not for the better.
A common misconception
There is a common misconception that China’s opening up to foreign businesses and wealth will inevitably lead to political shift and newfound democratic ideas. In short, there is a belief that the more business we do with China, the nicer the Chinese Communist Party will become. Let’s just nip that fallacy in the bud right now.
Business in China is there for one reason and one reason only: to make money. Companies happily throw away the ethics they espouse at home when it comes to China. Entities like Foxconn have thrived off dirtying their hands so that Western businesses like Apple, Sony, and Microsoft, to name a few, can take advantage of cheap labor, poor working conditions, and occasionally, outright abuse of human rights.
Unfortunately this same misconception is applied to other forms of media, including computer games. Surely more access to foreign media will lead to change, new ideas, and a brighter future, right? Well, it’s not impossible, but it isn’t what happens, because that’s not what happens.
Contrary to hopeful belief, China is not lightening up. In the last month, shows like The Big Bang Theory and Supernatural were banned because they were deemed unsuitable for Chinese audiences. Slash fiction (homoerotic fanfiction) websites were shut down, and an unknown number of authors (mostly young women) were arrested under archaic anti-pornography laws. China isn’t loosening up, it is clamping down.
It works the other way
Western media doesn’t fight or struggle against Chinese censorship, it complies to it. Just look at Harvard professor emeritus Ezra F. Vogel, who allowed Chinese censors to edit his book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, in order to gain access to a wider market.
Or how about the numerous films that are edited for Chinese audiences? Films like Skyfall had whole subplots removed, and even the 3D version of Titanic censored Kate Winslet’s breasts because the government feared the power of three-dimensional boobs. 2D ones are okay though, only the 3D version had the offending body parts removed.
Now you might be thinking that this doesn’t affect you, and it definitely doesn’t affect your games. After all, what have Kate Winslet’s breasts got to do with anything? Well, that’s the problem; breasts were just the beginning.
Over the last few months, there have been startling revelations about self-censorship by foreign companies in China. These companies are censoring themselves before being told to by the the authorities. Bloomberg’s long-time editor Matthew Winkler admitted last year to pulling several stories from Bloomberg’s coverage for fear of crossing China’s censors. This is a huge leap forward in the process of censorship because the government no longer needs to be involved: the people censor themselves.
The worst example of this is Microsoft, who will launch the Xbox One in China this September. It was recently revealed that Microsoft’s search engine Bing was conforming to China’s censorship policies both inside and outside China. Users who used the Chinese language to search in Bing found that their results were distinctly different from what a Google search threw up, and that these results also had a distinctly Chinese Communist Party flavor. This applied to everyone using Chinese, not just those within China! If Microsoft is already willing to sink to these levels with regards to internet searches, then what do you think the future holds for gaming?
Both these last two examples were not confined to China. They had impacts worldwide. Bloomberg’s stories where never published and Microsoft’s censorship applied to all people using Chinese.
So how will this affect games?
Games are tough to edit. It’s not like a movie, where you can just go in and cut bits out. Removing large chunks from games after they have been made is a time-consuming and expensive process. Initially, full games will be submitted and rejected; they will be edited and lessons will be learned. But over time, this will change, and publishers will know what will and what will not get censored. From there on, it’s just a case of leaning on developers to make their games as “universal” as possible so they can increase those profit margins.
This will happen because that’s how business works. You have to sell your product to as many people as possible to get the most profit. Publishers will begin self-censoring just like Bloomberg did under the banner of “it’s the cost of doing business here.”
As to what games will look like, that remains to be seen, but you can be certain that criticism of the ruling party will be excluded, as will sexual content and anything else deemed unsuitable for Chinese audiences. World maps are going to be trickier because China’s view of its territorial boundaries disagree with everyone else’s, especially its South East Asian neighbours. In fact, including China in games at all is going to be difficult because the Party will not want a game in which China is under threat from a force they cannot beat. Even fighting against rebel militias within is unlikely, seeing as Battlefield 4 got the axe last year.
Thematically and artistically, China’s censorship is only going to restrict the gaming community’s ability to deal with complicated issues. Games like Papers Please are never going to get the mainstream support they deserve.
It should be cause for celebration when a nation as culturally and as artistically vibrant as China steps up to the plate. We should be looking forward to new ideas, new challenges, and new games. But we’re not. Instead of celebrating, the gaming community is looking down the barrel of a censorship shotgun and hoping that nobody pulls the trigger. But they eventually will.