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Anti-video game policies in China

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As with anything in China, the Communist Party and Chinese gamers/developers were in an endless game of cat and mouse.

The video game industry of the People's Republic of China (mainland China) is currently the largest in the world, with over 700 million people play video games, generate over 30% of worldwide revenue, and is home of some of the largest video game company in the world (Tencent and NetEase).[1]

As with other media types in China, video games is subjected to a censorship policy by the Communist Party of China. The Ministry of Culture of China (MOC) is responsible for regulating the video game industry within the country via a series of laws, edicts, and guidelines. Any video game published in China are required to obtain a publishing rights from the MOC be able to be published.[2]

China's policy regarding video games varied depending on the adminstration policy of the paramount leader at that time, but usually revolves around video game addiction, a widely debated topic between the moralist state-run media and officials and various video game companies. Due to the sheer size and influrence of the Chinese video game industry, some of the policies enforced by the MOC ended up affecting the entire video game industry as a whole.

Famiclones and the Chinese console ban

In the aftermath of the North American video game crash in 1985, Japan became a dominant power in the video game industry with their third generation consoles (such as Nintendo's Famicom/NES). At this time, China has recently emerged from their economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping's leadership which saw a massive economic boom within the country, and Japan has started to making their way to selling consoles in China. Despite high demand, however, only few foreign companies have imported their consoles into the country due to high import tariff and valve-added taxes. This created the grey market of video game clone in China – reverse-manufacturing of bootleg consoles and at much lower costs than an imported systems. Due to China's notoriously poor copyright protection regulations, video game piracy is also rampant. The sales of bootleg consoles and games outgrew and outpaced that of a legitmate foreign imports and drove them away. By the 1990s, most of video game consoles in China were mostly an illegal clones.[3]

Console games market in China continued to grew through the 1990s, which generated concern in the Chinese media and society that of video game addiction caused negative effects on Chinese youths (particulary studying). This situation was partially a result of China's one-child policy, with sibling-less child have less people to interact and turning into video games at home.[4]

The concerns and debate about video game addiction and negative effect on children reached a climax in June 2000, when the Chinese government under Jiang Zhemin passed a bill crafted by seven ministries specifically aimed at video games. The bill established certain provisions on video game content and regulations on operations of Internet cafés and arcades. The most significant facet of this bill was a ban on the production, import, and sale of consoles and arcade machines. This ban was not absolute, as it allowed for some consoles to be released in China, notably Sony's PlayStation 2 in 2004 and several of Nintendo's consoles rebranded under the iQue partnership, as well as left the bootleg console market virtually untouched. The ban has indirectly helped the PC gaming industry in China to rapidly grow (due to being the most accessible platforms) in the next fifteen years, culiminating into the rise of the Chinese video game industry that eventually dethroned the American counterpart to become the largest video game industry in the world in 2015.[5]

The ban on the arcade games was eventually lifted in 2009 and the consoles in 2014.

Online gaming boom and the beginning of Chinese video game censorships

Online gaming and an effort to limit play time

While the console ban has boosted the PC gaming market to an unprecedented extent, in the early years of the ban, Computers and legitimate video games were still relatively expensive to purchase, which continued to fuel the bootleg and piracy market in China. To counter this, many Chinese developers has started to develop the new types of monetization method: Free-to-play online games, which allowed any players with an access to PC (either their own PC or via internet cafe) to play the game, and offering microtransactions to recoup the costs. This created a boom of MMO games in China and established market dominance of Tencent and NetEase, whose remains the two biggest video game publishers in China to this day. As the success of free-to-play model became apparent to the western game developers, they started to implementing the free-to-play system into their games, some of the western free-to-play and paid subscription games such as League of Legends and World of Warcraft also enjoyed success in China. This, however, has prompted several Chinese developers to create numerous clones of popular western games as a cheaper alternatives, a problem that still presists to this day.[6]

However, Online gaming's rapid expansion has became a concern to the government under Hu Jintao around 2007 and reviving the gaming addiction debate that prompted the console ban in 2000. On June 2007, the Ministry of Culture of China issued a law to incorporate an "anti-addiction" software into video games to monitoring how long the underaged persons played, if played more than three hours, their in-game currency earned in that session will be deduced in half, and if more than five hours, players will lose all progress in that session.[7] As the system requires national ID number, however, many Chinese players get around this restriction by using their parents or aged relative's ID to register their accounts, some even ignored the 5-hours restriction and continued playing anyways due to they "have nothing elses to do."[8]

Chinese gaming censorship

During the transition of power from Jiang Zhemin to Hu Jintao in 2003. The CCP has issued a law required publishers to obtain a license from the Ministry of Culture of China before publishing their games in the country, essentially giving them an authority to control the contents within the game as a part of censorship policy. If the MOC deemed the game "inappropiate", the game is refused to be sold in China and thus banned them.[9]

Examples of banned games including;

  • Hearts of Iron series for "distorting history and damaging China's sovereignty and territorial integrity" (due to "incorrectly" representing the territory controlled by the Communist faction during the Chinese Civil War, as well as allowing the player to defeat the Communist faction).
  • Command & Conquer: Generals - Zero Hour for "smearing the image of China and the Chinese army" (as one of the in-game mission shown the GLA (the terrorist faction) destroyed the Three Georges Dam, as well as featured an in-game unit named "Propaganda Truck").
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons was pulled from the store Taobao as players created and posted anti-government messages in-game with a custom pattern tool, unlike other games, this wasn't banned for being against Chinese policies.
  • Battlefield 4 for "smearing the image of China and endangering national security" (as the game featured a World War 3 scenario with China being the main antagonistic force).
  • Resident Evil 6 for "endangering national security" (due to the campaign featured a mission located in the ruined city of Shanghai and a plot involving Chinese bio-terrorists).
  • Final Fantasy 7 Remake for "negatively portrayed the image of China" (as the MOC believed that the antagonistic company in the game, Shinra Corporation, is a representation of "evil capitalistic China").

In addition to banning games completely, several games have had their content screened to remove certain imagery deemed offensive or unfavorable. Common examples including;

  • Blood and gore were either toned down or removed. Notable example being Identity V, in which NetEase replaced the initial human character design into the now iconic sack-and-buttons doll design.
  • Skeletons or skulls being either fleshed out or removed entirely. Cases of which can be seen in Chinese versions of popular video games such as Dota 2 and World of Warcraft.
  • Nudity and sexually suggestive contents. A Chinese version of several games have altered some of the character's design to be less revealing to comply with this guidelines, such as Fate/Grand Order'.
  • Anything regarding homosexuality is completely banned, with games like Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni banned for its sexual content and glorifying homosexuality
  • Depiction of a war or fighting between two (or more) contemporary countries. This usually prompted the developers to replace the real country in the game by a fictionalized counterparts, such as in Arknights, Azur Lane, and Girls' Frontline.



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