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Gaming will be a frontline in China's censorship drive | Opinion

China's censorious tendencies have begun to creep overseas through commercial pressure, and games companies are in the authorities' sights

On 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 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

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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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.