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GameIndustry.biz - Gaming will be a frontline in China's censorship drive

Mar 29, 2020
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In the scale of grand industry scandals, a few short phrases being censored in the in-game chat client of a free-to-play RPG seems like it ought to be in real "storm in a teacup" territory.

Indeed, it's deeply unlikely that very many of the millions of players of Genshin Impact -- a Breath of the Wild inspired RPG for PC, PS4 and mobile, which is quickly shaping up to be one of the most internationally successful titles to have been developed in mainland China thus far -- will ever really notice that the game does the text equivalent of bleeping them out should they choose to mention places like Taiwan or Hong Kong, or a number of other phrases, some of them surprisingly innocuous. Even among those who do notice, the vast majority will shrug it off; it's not a major imposition for most, and it's not like developer miHoYo seemingly had a choice in the matter given China's censorship rules.

For the specifics of those rules and why this has happened at all, Niko Partners' Daniel Ahmad wrote a succinct thread on Twitter (cited in this previous GamesIndustry.biz story) that's worth reading. Taken in isolation, this is explanation enough -- and will certainly be more than enough to sate the curiosity of almost any gamer who wonders enough about the censored terms to try googling about the whole affair.

What we're seeing here is the thin end of a wedge that's going to become a very serious headache for a lot of games companies in the coming years

However, it's worth stepping back from this single instance of China's censorship creeping into the media and communications of people beyond its borders, and considering the broader context -- because this isn't the first time this kind of issue has popped up, and there's a strong possibility that what we're seeing here is the thin end of a wedge that's going to become a very serious headache for a lot of games companies in the coming years.

Unless you follow developments in Chinese politics and geopolitics relatively closely, the first time something like this appeared on your radar was probably last October -- when Blizzard banned a pro Hearthstone player, Hong Kong resident Ng Wai "blitzchung" Chung, and fired two presenters who had interviewed him on a post-game livestream during which he made remarks supporting democracy in Hong Kong. Blizzard's knee-jerk kowtow to China's censors (jerking your knees and kowtowing at the same time being the gutless executive's version of the childhood challenge of rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time) earned it an unusually bipartisan rap on the knuckles from the US Senate and House of Representatives, not to mention some noisy protests from the company's own consumers. Tellingly, however, Blizzard only walked back its decision a few steps at best, almost visibly scrambling to find some convoluted form of words that would appease critics outside China without actually annoying China's authorities.

China's authorities seem to have decided that censorship pools once restricted to its own population can be applied internationally

The lesson anyone in authority in China would have taken away from that affair -- and several other individually minor run-ins with western media and gaming companies over various kinds of content or censorship -- is that the size of the Chinese market and the extent of the nation's stakeholdings in overseas firms means that it's now open season on discussions or statements it doesn't like, even outside its borders. Within China, of course, censorship of users' discussions on digital platforms has been standard for years; the government's control, however, mostly stopped at its borders.

As the country's economic and geopolitical conflict with the United States has expanded, however, so too has its desire to control or suppress narratives and discussions overseas. This has resulted in the removal or hiding of statements or symbols with which China's authorities take issue, often from platforms owned or controlled within China (such as WeChat and TikTok, and games like Genshin Impact) but also on platforms which aren't China-based but rely on keeping the authorities there happy for a major part of their revenue and potential growth -- from Activision Blizzard's games through YouTube and Microsoft Bing, all the way up to major international organisations like the WHO.
Genshin Impact is a relatively minor case of Chinese censorship, but the number of examples is steadily growing

Genshin Impact is a relatively minor case of Chinese censorship, but the number of examples is steadily growing

A good example of this kind of censorship creeping out beyond China's borders can be found in games, in fact. As Daniel Ahmad noted in his thread on this topic, many Chinese game operators used to run two versions of their games, disabling censorship filters in the one aimed at overseas players. This practice appears to be in decline, with Genshin Impact being just one high-profile example; generally speaking, China's authorities seem to have decided that censorship pools once restricted to its own population are quite handy to apply internationally as well, especially now that some of its major tech companies are doing so well overseas.

As the strain between China and the US increases -- something that's likely to happen regardless of who wins next month's US Presidential election, although a change at the top may at least make the process more predictable -- companies which operate tech or media platforms, like games, in both China and abroad, or which have welcomed large investments from Chinese firms, are going to increasingly find themselves dragged into this fight. Asked to police the speech of their users (and employees) in ways that are going to play increasingly poorly to consumers and governments elsewhere, the value of China's market and investment is going to have to be constantly balanced against the power of the backlash elsewhere.

There's a very real degree of commercial and political pressure being brought slowly to bear on game companies

Absent a pretty major shift in approach from consumers or governments, that's a balance that's not often going to favour anything other than capitulation to China's demands most of the time. The country's authorities have plenty of leverage left in the tank and haven't experienced any real pushback to these moves thus far. Protests against companies complying with censorious demands have been small-scale and relatively muted, and overseas governments certainly haven't shown any stomach for waving around big sticks on this kind of issue.

There has even been a small but vocal counter-backlash movement in some instances, largely based on taking Blizzard's conspicuously awful "we just want people to stop talking about politics and focus on the games" excuse and turning it up to 11. In these people's reality, Chinese censorship is actually good, you see, because it stops terrible people from ruining games by mentioning political things -- when as any fool knows, "games" and "politics" are the opposite of one another and should never be put together.

Of course, games have never existed in a vacuum away from geopolitics and some forms of censorship have been a reality all along. It would be pretty intellectually dishonest to condemn China's growing pernicious influence on in-game content and communications without acknowledging that the whole world has spent decades with its games being quietly tuned and, yes, censored in such a way as to minimise the pearl-clutching of middle America. There's a reason games continue to be vastly more comfortable with an exploding skull than with an exposed nipple, or that anything that lies along America's cultural faultlines -- like the existence of LGBT people, or any kind of nuanced discussion of racism -- is generally avoided or pushed to the fringes of the medium.

But holding up this kind of commercially-driven self-censorship to match the whims of the US market alongside government-ordered filtering of media and communications is a false equivalence. We cannot and should not pretend that "if we don't make this regressive creative decision, we'll risk selling poorly in America" is remotely the same thing, morally, as "if we don't follow this censorship order, we'll probably have our Chinese joint venture shut down".

So yes, the Genshin Impact scandal really is a storm in a teacup. Something as (arguably) minor and (certainly) dumb as Taiwan and Hong Kong being added to a game's naughty word filter isn't really anything game consumers are going to worry about in the long term, given that it doesn't impact the game, is easily circumvented, and well, why are you discussing politics in a game chat channel anyway -- or so the logic will go. Put enough stormy tea-cups together, though, and a pattern starts to swirl out of them.

This wedge is still thin, but it's been sliding in for a long time, and far away from the ground reality of a censored game chat channel there's a very real degree of commercial and political pressure being brought slowly to bear on game companies and other firms with influence over culture and media around the world. I'm not sure we'll ever see Genshin Impact's chat censorship as a watershed, but be certain that it's a little taste of a sour flavour we're all going to get very used to in the coming years.
 
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Barakov

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I do my best to not touch any game that has any connection to China(Genshin Impact, League of Legends etc.). At the same time I'm guilty of playing WoW and Fortnite so I'm a little guilty on that side of things. I guess what I'm hoping is that enough storms in teacups happen and the games industry tells China to fuck off. I think that part is a little further off.
 

jigglet

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Great article. Video games is at its core a creative medium, and any creative endeavor cannot be driven by some arbitrary rules from a Totalitarian government. Anything that does so is a seriously compromised product, far beyond any product placement or commercial meddling.
 

Tiamat2san

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Someone needs to try to say
« Winnie the Pooh »
Or « tien an men »
Or « 1997 independence/rétro session »
Just to see the extent of the censorship.

I don’t if it’s possible in this game.
 
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jigglet

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I also feel part of the problem is China plays the race card every time criticism is thrown against it, and there are a lot of white knights helping them.

The truth is; if someone thinks criticism against China is racist, ask them: do you think all Asian people are from China? If so, then YOU'RE the racist one.

As someone who is of Chinese decent I urge everyone to teach this to as many people as possible. I think there's a lot of people who want to criticise China but don't becaue they feel like they might be accused of racism, so I think it's always important to point out that not all Asians are from China. I know it seems obvious but in the heat of a debate, this is an cheap counter-argument that I find many don't know how to adequately respond to. The moment I hear white knights playing the race card, I just say fuck off mate we don't need your "help". Go hug a tree or some shit.
 
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SLoWMoTIoN

Unconfirmed Member
Hard pass on China virus coded games.
I do my best to not touch any game that has any connection to China(Genshin Impact, League of Legends etc.). At the same time I'm guilty of playing WoW and Fortnite so I'm a little guilty on that side of things. I guess what I'm hoping is that enough storms in teacups happen and the games industry tells China to fuck off. I think that part is a little further off.
Strength, friend. I work hard for my greenbacks. I don't want as much as possible going to China. I understand there will be money going toward that Country, that's fine. Certain things in our lives are inevitable, but I am doing what I can to not contribute to it.

Good to know!

 
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SLoWMoTIoN

Unconfirmed Member
You're confusing outsourcing aspects of the production process with titles outright owned by or funded by Chinese.
Outsourcing is still funding "China" and taking jobs from people within the country to maximize profit by scummy corporations. Also a company that is in China, unlike the west pushing for sjw censorship agenda, (not just words) has to adhere to their rules or get their game pulled. I'm all for doing what you like and standing up for you believe. But potato potato friend.
 

Dirk Benedict

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Outsourcing is still funding "China" and taking jobs from people within the country to maximize profit by scummy corporations. Also a company that is in China, unlike the west pushing for sjw censorship agenda, (not just words) has to adhere to their rules or get their game pulled. I'm all for doing what you like and standing up for you believe. But potato potato friend.

We do what we can. Decoupling from the beast isn't easy. I want to say many aren't ignorant in their statements, when they(including myself) want money out of their hands, it's not an easy task.
While I can say I don't have a problem with Capitalism, it has enabled this behemoth of stolen ideas to run rampant across the world and if even keeping a dollar out of their hands can be done, I'll do it.

The problem is that there aren't a lot of people who care to take the approach because of the desire to consume without question.
 
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SLoWMoTIoN

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We do what we can. Decoupling from the beast isn't easy. I want to say many aren't ignorant in their statements, when they(including myself) want money out of their hands, it's not an easy task.
While I can say I don't have a problem with Capitalism, it has enabled this behemoth of stolen ideas to run rampant across the world and if even keeping a dollar out of their hands can be done, I'll do it.

The problem is that there aren't a lot of people who care to take the approach because of the desire to consume without question.
Yeah. We sure love our toys.
 
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I don't care much for Chinese developed games, but I sure hope the rest of the world will test every single non-Chinese developer/publisher on this matter. As soon as a game censors Hong Kong and the like in in-game chats etc. it needs to be punished by the public. This is unacceptable.
 

ChuckeRearmed

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I wonder how the writer of that article feels about Facebook's recent decision to ban all sites related to Qanon, or Twitter deleting accounts for 'hate speech'.
Censorship is bad only if it censors something I like.
Typical logic.

There is some irony in the fact that people are pushing for more censorship and it comes from China. It will be hilarious if China bans LGBT whatever stuff and western companies comply with that :messenger_tears_of_joy:
 
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Aion002

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People should be hyped with South Korea as new game makers.... Epic Seven is the best gacha made outside of Japan... Yet some sleep on it!



There is also from the same company of Epic Seven (Smilegate), Cross Fire!


Stop supporting communism....
 
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Bryank75

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I believe opening up iOS through the Epic lawsuit is the beginning of this. Once they open the doors to iOS and the same laws apply to other game and app stores... China can basically overflow the platforms with software and dictate what the standards are.

That's why closed platforms and walled gardens are actually very important in my opinion. There are places for both open and closed platforms but by eliminating closed, they destroy many protections from negative influence IMO.
 

Fuz

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That's why closed platforms and walled gardens are actually very important in my opinion. There are places for both open and closed platforms but by eliminating closed, they destroy many protections from negative influence IMO.
WTF are you saying?
That's actually the opposite, imagine having China walled gardens.
 
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So far no game came out of china that appeals to me, but if it will, i´ll gladly give it a try. Although still flawed (because of the general asian mindset that values the greater common good more than indivudual prosperity, which is the most communist there is left, in almost any other aspect they are pretty capitalist and meritocratic with the usual nepoitism etc. that comes along) when it comes to concrete steps (open censorship and lack of freedom of speech, not giving value to fantasy like human rights, social score, etc.) China seems much more honest and in the end preferable to me. Unfortunately as a (genetically eastern stranded by birth in the western hemisphere) white foreginer i won´t get to enjoy life over there as easy and due to selfrighteosness i wouldn´t, but i would welcome a more honest and similar approach in governments within the decadent, soft and way too left "democracies".

edit: sry, if this is too ot, pls delete. but in general: if a game is appealing to me, idc where its from. i play "western" games as well although i despise the west.
 
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Bryank75

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WTF are you saying?
That's actually the opposite, imagine having China walled gardens.
They do, the internet and gaming in China is a walled garden of sorts...all controlled by the government.

They are controlling the content inside their borders, they protect it against anti-Chinese sentiment and western propaganda and values.

The same concept works for the west, of you have a more closed system, you can more esily protect from outside influences that want to spread discord or anti-western sentiment...or in this case push censorship as a positive idea.

These psy-ops are more advanced than you would assume, they will learn quickly to use open systems against themselves. They have unlimited subjects to test what works on the human mind.....
 

Elysion

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Censorship is bad only if it censors something I like.
Typical logic.

There is some irony in the fact that people are pushing for more censorship and it comes from China. It will be hilarious if China bans LGBT whatever stuff and western companies comply with that :messenger_tears_of_joy:

That's already happening. The first signs of this were a few years back, when Disney changed the Chinese marketing material for Star Wars TFA, and totally de-emphasized Finn, while he was front and center along with Rey in all marketing in the rest of the world.

And China already has an explicit ban on LGBT stuff in public media, along with other stuff (like a recent ban on depictions of hip hop culture, lol). Who knows, maybe Marvel would've made Captain America and Tony Stark a gay couple by now if it wasn't for those restrictions in China, lol.
 

ChuckeRearmed

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That's already happening. The first signs of this were a few years back, when Disney changed the Chinese marketing material for Star Wars TFA, and totally de-emphasized Finn, while he was front and center along with Rey in all marketing in the rest of the world.
Oh, yeah. I forgot about that. But for me Star Wars brand is dead so I did not really care anyway.

And China already has an explicit ban on LGBT stuff in public media, along with other stuff (like a recent ban on depictions of hip hop culture, lol). Who knows, maybe Marvel would've made Captain America and Tony Stark a gay couple by now if it wasn't for those restrictions in China, lol.
Depending on whom you ask it might be a good or bad thing. :messenger_tears_of_joy:
 
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synchronicity

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I also feel part of the problem is China plays the race card every time criticism is thrown against it, and there are a lot of white knights helping them.

The truth is; if someone thinks criticism against China is racist, ask them: do you think all Asian people are from China? If so, then YOU'RE the racist one.

As someone who is of Chinese decent I urge everyone to teach this to as many people as possible. I think there's a lot of people who want to criticise China but don't becaue they feel like they might be accused of racism, so I think it's always important to point out that not all Asians are from China. I know it seems obvious but in the heat of a debate, this is an cheap counter-argument that I find many don't know how to adequately respond to. The moment I hear white knights playing the race card, I just say fuck off mate we don't need your "help". Go hug a tree or some shit.

Absolutely. Ideologies, concepts, etc are fair game to critical evaluation, and anyone who tries to hide behind the shield of faux racism is evading fair discussion and general human communication. They are essentially telling you "Shut up, you have no right to dissent - get in line and behave." I don't think I will, thank you.
 
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DunDunDunpachi

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Does anyone think China will behave differently than they already have toward Hollywood?

The other side of the censorship coin is propaganda. China will subtly enforce what should be included in gaming, not just what should be omitted, and not only in the game content but also in the communities that talk within/about the game.
 

Javthusiast

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I am playing Genshin, but never planned to spend money on it, cause I would never on a Gacha game.

If I didn't spend money on loot boxes when Overwatch came out, and I was addicted to it for two years, then those trashy Gacha rates will never get me. xD
 

Piku_Ringo

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People should be hyped with South Korea as new game makers.... Epic Seven is the best gacha made outside of Japan... Yet some sleep on it!



There is also from the same company of Epic Seven (Smilegate), Cross Fire!


Stop supporting communism....
While getting excited for basically booty water.

Regardless, nothing is going to stop China's ascension at the end of the day. :pie_neutral:
 

UnNamed

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Genshin Impact is a game made in China by chinese people running on chinese servers. It is absolutely logical this game is heavily influenced by their country's laws. It has no sense to complain about this.

The day the next Uncharted will please China's government just to sell some copies, I will be very worried. It is something we already see in movies, see Transformers and Independence Day 2 and recently with Mulan. It is inevitable, but this doesn't mean we can't do anything.
 

BlackM1st

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Ugh... I know it's a weird censorship question to ask, but why all female characters in GI wear some kind of 1 piece swimsuits instead of separate underwear? So weird.

I checked under each and every skirt in the game up to chapter 3 and all I can see is a swimsuit and granny style underpants.

It's not a weeb game ppl! I miss the days of FF Type 0 like attention to details ;D