Why is the Chinese Government Clamping Down on the Gaming Industry?
For years, the Chinese government has been indicating that it plans to clamp down hard on the gaming industry which it sees as a possible threat to its authority over its citizens. Video gaming companies, online casino players (like our Thunderbolt casino coupons play), esports players, casual gamers are being forced to kowtow to the government’s demands in order to continue to have access to the huge Chinese gaming market.
The Chinese see video games as a threat to their authority while the gaming community worries about how the Chinese are restricting the industry to muffle free speech. Western companies are caught in the middle as they try to comply with Chinese censorship demands while meeting their responsibilities to the free world. In one disturbing instance, a professional esports player known as “Blitzchung” from Hong Kong was interviewed following a Hearthstone match that he had just won in Taiwan.
On the livestream interview Blitzchung verbalized a slogan used by activists in Hong Kong who were protesting Chinese attempts to undermine the island’s independence. Hearthstone’s sponsor, Activision Blizzard suspended and punished Blitzchung, declaring that Blitzchung had violated player rules that forbid “conduct that could be offensive or might harm the company’s image.” They demanded that he forfeit the prize money and banned him from competing for the next year.
The gaming community was outraged. It’s nothing new to have a company like Activision Blizzard try to appease the Chinese in order to be allowed to do business in the country but the blatant disregard for Blitzchung’s right to free speech was seen to have crossed lines.
The incident, however, highlighted the role of video games as a central battleground for free speech – not only in interviews but in narrative decisions made by video game designers, chat features of video games and so on.
It is clear that the digital entertainment of the world’s more than 3 billion gamers is being shaped by censorship demands and video game companies must confront the question of how to balance a commitment to free speech with the need for business growth.
The gaming industry is scattered among many different countries but now a Chinese tech company, Tencent, is moving towards becoming a major player in the industry. Tencent has recently doubled its stake in Ubisoft and has large stakes in additional U.S. gaming businesses such as Epic Games, Discord and Riot Games. Critics note that such investments provide Tencent with significant power to enforce Chinese restrictions on gamers and gaming businesses around the world. Other countries with anti-free speech restrictions may begin to pursue similar investment strategies -- Saudi Arabia recently announced a $38 billion investment push into the video game industry.
The type of censorship power that is being exercised over the gaming industry is worrying other creative fields including cinema which is heavily scrutinized by Chinese censors. A 2020 report by PEN America states that “Beijing’s censors have affected and influenced Hollywood and the global filmmaking industry.” Values that the Chinese Communist Party sees as unacceptable are often either edited out for distribution or removed from production.
In the 2018 movie Bohemian Rhapsody, all references to homosexuality were removed from the Chinese release, despite the fact that the lead character, Freddy Mercury, was gay. China is heavily invested in the film industry which makes it impossible for Hollywood studios to make films about Chinese repression in Tibet, Hong Kong or the Uyghur region of China.
While much attention has been paid to the censorship of the Internet and Hollywood by the Chinese government, there hasn’t been the same level of attention paid to the tightening content censorship of the gaming industry so the Chinese government has faced little challenge in imposing its rigid restrictions on what game makers can do in the Chinese market.
Games that are developed in one country and published in another generally go through a design process called “localization.” Localization refers to the process of making the game suitable for each locale – altering idioms, reconfiguring dialogues so that they make sense. In effect, localizing the game involves selecting which speech and in what way to put into a game.
Chinese demands for localization can be cumbersome and difficult because innocuous references in other parts of the world are deemed offensive to the Chinese government (Winnie the Pooh is seen as a stand-in for Chinese leader Xi Jinping). Last year, Epic games halted production of the Chinese localization of Fortnite because of censorship demands. But in general, the Chinese market is so large and lucrative that companies are prepared to accede to their demands.
China isn’t the only country where localization is turning into censorship. Russia has begun to use neural networks for identify banned content in video games that are available to Russian citizens and censor them. This includes any content that refers to homosexuality. India, whose government is not known as an authoritarian regime, insisted that PUBG pull PlayerUnknown’s Battleground Mobile from the Indian market until it made changes to gameplay and content. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is banned in Pakistan because, according to Pakistanian authorities, it paints the county in a negative light.
Game developers themselves tend to self-censor because, at the end of the day, they want to sell games.
Censorship issues crop up on other tech platforms. TikTok, for instance, censors content in compliance with Chinese censorship laws. References to the Tiananmen Square massacre and democracy protests in Hong Kong are suppressed and in some countries like China and Russia, content from openly-identified homosexuals is muted. In 2019, influencer Feroza Aziz used her TikTok makeup tutorials to draw attention to the persecution of Uyghurs in western China – TikTok prevented those videos from being shared.
Even more worrying, Chinese companies including Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance, have admitted that they share user data with the government which puts anyone who publishes banned content via their services in danger of being identified in a government database.
There are no easy answers to the question of how to protect free speech in the video game industry or in any entertainment industry. The gap between corporate and democratic values complicates the subject and it’s not something that can be legislated. Gamers, however, can demand full speech rights from gaming services and platforms in order to standardize the expectation that free speech will be prioritized.