Somewhat similar to the ESRB and PEGI ratings in the US and Europe respectively, an age rating for games is being introduced in China as well. Backed by major gaming companies like Tencent and NetEase, among others, but also state-owned media outlet People's Daily Online, the hope is that these ratings might actually become a standard used by all publishers in the country. The effective implementation of the system, however, might encounter more resistance than other similar initiatives elsewhere in the World.
Why doesn't China have an age rating system already?
Unlike many other major markets, age ratings for multimedia entertainment aren't really a thing in China. Movies don't have ratings, neither do books or music, and it's the same for video games. Meaning, when you go to a movie theater in China, toddlers might be sitting right next to you, with their parents, while watching an heavily censored version of, for example, Logan -- okay, so I never actually witnessed a baby inside a cinema in China, but I have experienced very young infants crying, screaming and running around the room during movies.
Unlike many other major markets, age ratings for multimedia entertainment aren't really a thing in China
The main and most obvious reason why age ratings haven't been a thing in China until now is because of the heavy censorship and "control" on all such content that gets an official release in the country. According to the national governing powers, if something isn't fit for one person, it isn't fit for anyone. Needless to say, the reasons for this "mindset" should be beyond obvious, and I won't be expanding on the political side of it here.
Regardless, due to heavy scrutiny of content, age ratings would be redundant in most cases. Games released in China -- either national or imported -- are required to have an approved Publishing License (ISBN) for release. The body that regulates and approves such licenses is already analyzing the game's content when a publishing license is under review.
What Might Change?
First of all, it's important to understand that the initiative to create age ratings for games in China is not being triggered or enforced by official government regulators. Similar to what happened with the creation of the ESRB by the Entertainment Software Association in the US, this initiative is being led by the "China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association Technical Committee for Group Standardization," which is not an enforcing State authority.
The only authorities that effectively regulate and set standards for games in China are the "National Radio and Television Administration" and the "National Press and Publication Administration" -- which regulate the ISBN licenses.
The comparisons with the ESRB are pertinent in the sense that the ESRB was voluntarily created in order to self-regulate ratings in the US, before the State would -- because Mortal Kombat, pretty much. This new Chinese initiative can perhaps be interpreted as a preemptive attempt from those involved to hold off the government from imposing stricter regulations in gaming; in particular, regulations concerning younger gamers, and the time they spend playing online.
The more optimistic outcome
There's still a lot of uncertainty about how and to what degree these new ratings will be implemented and enforced, if at all. One thing, however, is almost certainly not changing: aggravating political and socially sensitive content will not be tolerated, the same way it hasn't been until now.
The system proposes three different age ratings: 8+, 12+ and 16+. Ideally, this would allow room for the introduction of mature games that include more violence and gore, as well as some other elements that are currently banned -- like the depiction of skeletons and other supernatural figures, to cite one example. Assuming that blood could be allowed for the 16+ rating -- and that's a huge assumption, as nowadays all games in China either don't have blood, or the "blood" is represented in other colors -- that could potentially open up the market to countless games that otherwise wouldn't even bother to attempt to launch in China.
Most AAA games never get an official release in China precisely because of more explicitly violent and graphic content, and the same is true for other mid-tier and indie games across all platforms -- from PC to consoles, mobile and streaming/cloud platforms. This is one of the reasons why all officially released consoles in China have an extremely slim catalogue of available games: there just aren't that many games that would be deemed eligible to apply for a Chinese publishing license.
Assuming the 16+ rating tier would allow (even a little bit) more violence in games, and regulatory authorities agree, we could be looking at a totally new landscape for gaming in China as soon as the fall of 2021 -- publishing licenses usually take from six to nine months to be approved, so a gap period would occur. If the the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S are indeed coming to China sooner than later, as has been rumored, then the Chinese console market could boom exponentially, and very quickly.
As for PC, at the moment it is still fairly easy for Chinese users to get access to major unlicensed games through digital stores, such as Steam and others -- Cyberpunk 2077 proved just that recently. Digital stores are still a contentious area for gaming in China, as regulators have found it harder to impose their guidelines in this front. Still, allowing more games to be officially published in China that are otherwise enjoyed thanks to loopholes and "grey areas" of legislation would arguably make things better and easier for everyone, from the consumer up to the developers and publishers.
The most likely, less exciting outcome
Considering who has the real authority to regulate and set standards for games in China, there is naturally a lot of skepticism over whether these these new age ratings will actually change anything in terms of what's potentially available to the consumer. Arguably, the most realistic interpretation is that these ratings are aimed at further increasing restrictions for minors playing mobile games, as they are viewed as the primary audience for video games. Parents will be able to use these ratings to better understand what is appropriate for their children.
With these new ratings, existing and future games will get their assigned rating based on their respective content. The official guidelines for which content is or isn't allowed, however, is unlikely to change. Essentially, we might be looking at a simple age rating system to work in tandem with established regulations -- the same level of censorship across the board, but divided in tiers.
For now, developers shouldn't get too excited with the prospect of finally being able to launch their blockbusters in the world's biggest market. Don't expect the next Grand Theft Auto to be officially released in China, even if a 16+ age rating comes into effect.
Daniel Camilo lives in Shenzhen. He is the overseas business developer for Apptutti, a specialist in publishing games in China.