In the years after it was founded in 1999, the Swedish video game company Paradox Interactive quietly built a reputation for developing some of the best, and most hardcore, strategy games on the market. “Deep, endless, complex, unyielding games,” is how Shams Jorjani, the company’s chief business development officer, describes Paradox’s offerings. Most of its biggest hits, such as the middle ages-themed Crusader Kings, or Sengoku, in which you play as a 16th-century Japanese noble, were loosely based on history.
But in 2016, Paradox decided to try something a little different. Its new game, Stellaris, was a work of sprawling science fiction, set 200 years in the future. In this virtual universe, players could explore richly detailed galaxies, command their own fusion-powered starship fleets and fight with extraterrestrials to expand their space empires. Gamers could choose to play as the human race, or one of many alien species. (My personal favourite dresses in a lavish golden cape and has a head like an otter’s, with soft reddish-brown fur, dark eyes and a black snout. Another type of alien is a sentient crystal that eats rocks.)
The game was an instant hit, selling more than 200,000 copies in its first 24 hours. Later that year, Paradox decided to take Stellaris to China. This would mean navigating the country’s notoriously tricky censorship rules, but given that China was, at the time, home to an estimated 560 million gamers, the commercial appeal was irresistible.
Paradox had been burned in China before. In 2004, the ministry of culture had banned another one of its releases, Hearts of Iron, confiscating CD-Roms and shutting down websites that sold the game. It wasn’t hard to see why. Hearts of Iron was set during the second world war and touched on numerous sensitive issues – not least by portraying Tibet as a sovereign country. The Chinese ministry of culture accused the game of “distorting history and damaging China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. (China argues that Tibet has been an inextricable part of its territory for centuries.)
The company was not concerned about a repeat of 2004. Unlike Hearts of Iron, Stellaris was a game set in the distant future, involving intergalactic travel and aliens. Still, to help navigate the Chinese market, the developer partnered with the Chinese megacorp Tencent, the biggest game publisher in the world. As part of the deal, Tencent bought 5% of its shares. Paradox was so confident of success that in December 2016, it took the unusual step of announcing that it would launch in China even before a licence had been granted.
“From our perspective, it should have been largely problem-free because it doesn’t deal with any nations, Chinese or otherwise,” said Jorjani. It did not pan out that way. “Working through the ministry of culture, the censorship is not a super-clear process,” said Jorjani. “It’s a bit of a black box.” Five years after its big announcement, Stellaris has never officially launched in China.
China is the world’s largest market for the world’s largest entertainment industry. Today, the number of Chinese gamers, about 740 million, is bigger than the entire populations of the US, Japan, Germany, France and the UK combined. Its domestic market is worth more than $45bn a year. Yet, for decades, China has had a stop-start relationship with the entire industry.
Video game consoles started to arrive in China in the late 80s – some legally imported from Japan, others smuggled in to avoid high customs taxes – and arcades popped up around the country throughout the 90s. Like many governments around the world, the Chinese authorities were wary of this emerging interactive entertainment, and worried about its impact on young people. Around the turn of the century, Chinese officials and the media started to describe games as “digital opium” or “electronic heroin”. In 2000, the Communist party banned gaming consoles and arcade machines outright. But the ban did not include personal computers, and pirated copies of video games became widely available on the black market.
Today, Allison Yang Jing is an established game developer in Hong Kong, but at the turn of the millennium she was a 13-year-old living in western China. “Families would buy their children a home computer because they believed it was a way to boost grades at school,” she told me. “But most of the parents would complain later that ‘This is not a study machine, it’s just a console.’”
At the time, home internet was slow, so children started going to internet cafes to play PC games. Yang Jing remembers playing strategy games such as Age of Empires and Starcraft. There was a constant battle with parents and schools, who wanted to clamp down on gaming. “Teachers would go to cafes to catch students,” she said. Over the next decade, millions more would flood into internet cafes, as PC gaming flourished, creating an increasingly attractive market for international developers.
Any foreign gaming companies looking to operate in China are legally obliged to have a local partner. For Chinese firms such as Tencent and NetEase, this was a goldmine. These tech giants, the Chinese equivalents of Facebook or Google, have regularly part-acquired foreign video game firms and then helped them access the lucrative Chinese gaming market. One of the first and biggest deals came in 2011 when Tencent made an agreement with the American developer Riot Games. Riot went all in, selling a 93% stake to Tencent for a reported $400m. Four years later, it sold the remaining equity and become a wholly owned subsidiary of Tencent.
Shortly after the 2011 deal, a game designer at Riot’s headquarters in Los Angeles was called in for a meeting. After Tencent’s takeover, office life at Riot had been filled with the usual paranoia that comes with a new owner. “You know how it is with acquisitions. They say: ‘Oh, everything is going to be the same.’ But it eventually changes,” said the designer, who asked to remain anonymous.
They had been working on League of Legends, a fantasy-inspired online battle game. Today, League of Legends is one of the most popular games in the world, with tens of millions of people playing every day. But back in 2011, it was still on the rise, and breaking into China was key. At the meeting, some designers discussed plans to create an altered version for the Chinese market. This process, known as “localisation”, usually involves translating the text and dialogue of a game, setting up new servers to allow the game to run smoothly online, and ensuring the content complies with the publishing rules of the country.
According to the designer, Riot managers had provided a PowerPoint presentation that she assumed Tencent had made for them, although she didn’t know for sure. The slides explained some of the hurdles they would need to overcome. First, Chinese regulators are notoriously squeamish about gambling, strong violence and nudity – not only in games, but in TV and film, too. This is partly because the country does not have an age-rating system. Daniel Camilo, a Shenzhen-based specialist in publishing games in China, has said the government’s mindset is that “if something isn’t fit for one person, it isn’t fit for anyone”.
The Chinese body responsible for censorship, the National Press and Publication Administration, has some very clear rules – no copyright infringement, for instance, and no sharing state secrets – but most of its guidelines are less precise. Works that “endanger social morality or national cultural traditions” are banned; as is media that “promote cults and feudal superstitions”. This vagueness gives the censors almost unlimited power and flexibility when it comes to deciding what is and isn’t allowed. Many of the rules come down to the “moral paternalism” of Beijing’s leadership, says Lokman Tsui, an expert on Chinese censorship. “They really see themselves as moral authorities – not just the authority on the truth, but also the authority on morality.”
In 2011, the designer at Riot learned of an unwritten rule that no video game can show characters emerging from the ground, as if rising from the dead. There were other rules of thumb, too. “There can’t be exposed bones or ribs hanging out,” she told me. If a game features skeletons, developers reworking it for China will simply add on flesh. Nor can games feature realistic-looking blood. “There was a vampire character, and instead of red, [the blood] had to be black,” she said.
The team at Riot was also asked to consider the Chinese market’s assumed preferences when designing characters. Some of the advice struck the designer as sensible. One slide focused on the importance of not mixing styles of dress from across Asia, which can be confusing, offensive or simply ridiculous to a Chinese audience – the equivalent of a British character in a French beret.
Other recommendations were almost comical. “They said things like, ‘they [Chinese gamers] don’t really love grotesque monsters, goblins and ogres,” the designer recalled. “They like the pretty, young, more anime style.’” She remembers a long discussion about “butts” and the subtle differences between drawing them for east and west. Another time, they talked about mermaids. “A mermaid is great because she has a female torso and fish bottom,” she was told. “Here’s what’s not great: a fish head and sexy legs.”
It is hard to distinguish what Chinese gamers truly want, and what the industry, or the Chinese Communist party, has decided for them. Yang Jing, the Hong Kong-based developer, believes the assumption that the Chinese market prefers “beautified” games is a misconception. She said the industry has stumbled in its attempts to cater to children and women, who make up a large proportion of Chinese gamers. “There are games that are supposedly catering to the female market, but most female players find them very shallow and sexist.”
Looking back on the 2011 meeting, the designer didn’t feel there was any censorship of ideas or politics – it was purely a question of aesthetics. At that point, she said, there were no “Chinese overlords” directing the American company on what it could or could not put into its games.
A decade later, the situation looks very different. Since Xi Jinping took power in 2013, China’s government has become increasingly repressive at home, and increasingly resentful of international criticism of its handling of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in the western province of Xinjiang. According to an industry insider who helps foreign developers enter the Chinese market, those developers haven’t yet realised how restrictive the situation has become: “All these developers I talk to think everything is fine and dandy, whereas everything is on fire, and we should be panicking.”
By now, China’s growing influence on Hollywood is well known. In 2018, for instance, Paramount Pictures partnered with Tencent Pictures to produce an upcoming sequel to Top Gun. In a trailer, Tom Cruise’s iconic bomber jacket had a key difference to the one from the original 1986 film – a stitched-on Taiwanese flag had been removed. (Beijing regards Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy, as a breakaway province of China.) In 2020, the US arm of Pen International, an association of writers that seeks to protect free expression, published an explosive report on how decisions in Hollywood, including the content, casting, plot, dialogue and settings of films were increasingly “based on an effort to avoid antagonising Chinese officials”. It wrote that during the past decade or more, “domestic patterns of censorship and control have extended beyond China’s borders”.
Something similar is happening in the world of video games. In 2019, the US developer Blizzard, creator of massively popular games such as World of Warcraft and Hearthstone, expelled a top professional gamer from an international esports tournament and took back his winnings after he expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Chung Ng Wai, a player from Hong Kong known by the name Blitzchung, had given a live interview in which he said in Mandarin, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”. After a backlash against Blizzard’s decision, the company’s president, J Allen Brack, apologised and admitted it had “moved too quickly”. The prize money was returned, and Bitzchung’s one-year ban was reduced to six months. Later, when asked in an interview if Blizzard’s partners in China, NetEase, had an influence on the decision, Brack replied: “Was NetEase in conversation around this issue? They were, certainly.”
In the wake of the Blitzchung affair, the US developer Riot Games backed the ban on political speech, saying official broadcasts of its tournaments were not a place for “personal views on sensitive issues (political, religious, or otherwise)”. Blizzard and Riot have interests in China. But more recently, paranoia about upsetting Beijing has spread deeper into the industry. In December 2020, a major European game publisher, GOG, pulled the release of a game that was mocking of President Xi, even though it has no Chinese investors and had not planned to sell the game in China. The horror title had featured subtle artwork comparing Xi to Winnie-the-Pooh, a common insult against the leader whose appearance has been likened to the cuddly bear.
If re-editing a movie for release in China can be tricky, changing a video game often involves a whole different level of difficulty. Whereas a film is essentially a linear series of shots, many video games are mazes of interwoven systems. Imagine that a European developer wants to release a game in China, but there is a level in which a player assassinates a Chinese general. In a game, killing that general may lead to the player stealing his pistol, which will then affect how difficult the game becomes dozens of hours later on. The gun could be referenced in vast reams of branching dialogue. Feature film scripts average about 100 pages, whereas some games have hundreds of different potential endings that unfold according to how you play. I once reviewed a video game that had a 4,000-page script. All this can make it incredibly hard to amend games to satisfy the censors – if one part of the game is removed, the rest can collapse.
Facing the prospect of such expensive and time-consuming reworks, developers might simply decide it’s not worth the trouble. Battlefield 4, a Swedish-made and US-published game in which you fight the Chinese military after a coup and can blow up buildings in Shanghai, was never going to make it past the censors.
Other developers, enticed by the promise of hundreds of millions of players, go back to the drawing board. One of the highest-grossing video games of all time, the Korean-developed PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), was not officially released in China because it was deemed too violent, with players killing each other until the lone survivor is declared a winner. In 2017, Tencent partnered with the Korean developer, promising to ensure that the game accords “with socialist core values, Chinese traditional culture and moral rules”. Getting past the regulators required creating a completely new game. Peacekeeper Elite, as the modified version was called, had no blood and no death – when a player was eliminated, they simply kneeled and waved goodbye before vanishing.
China’s government runs a gargantuan system of direct censorship – in 2013, it was estimated to be employing 2 million people to monitor and censor internet content – but perhaps even more important is the way it enforces a climate of self-censorship. The scholar Perry Link once described the threat posed by Chinese censors as being less like “a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon” than “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier”. He continued: “Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is: ‘You yourself decide.’”
In the video game industry, as in many sectors, most censorship is not about top-down directives. Because the official guidelines are so vague, foreign developers tend to abide by a fuzzy, speculative and ever-changing set of unwritten “rules”, many of which are gleaned from trial and error. Time travel, for example, is considered best avoided. “I’m not 100% sure why,” said the industry insider I spoke to. “But from what I heard it’s because the government doesn’t want the people to think there is a possibility of going back in time and changing the party regime.” Lokman Tsui, the Chinese censorship expert, suggested this may be true, pointing out that history and science fiction have sometimes been used to surreptitiously criticise the government. “For a while, history was a loophole for discussing political stuff,” he said. “You would tell tales to make political commentary. I don’t know if that is similar for time travel, but I can imagine there is some similar logic going on there.”
In recent years, the industry insider, who works to help western developers in China, has found his job increasingly difficult. Growing restrictions on the internet meant he could no longer access Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, which he needed to promote his client’s games, or online game publishing platforms, which he used to sell the games. Even previously reliable VPNs had stopped working. To get around this, he would regularly travel to Taiwan, where the internet is not tightly controlled.
Then, in 2018, the government announced it was halting the release of any new games, Chinese or international. The ban lasted nine months. No official reason was ever provided. Chenyu Cui, a Shanghai-based analyst at the video game consultancy firm Omdia, said it was partly a response to complaints from parents that their children were addicted to gaming. Other explanations include an internal power battle by regulators, or a panicked attempt by authorities to rein in companies such as NetEase and Tencent, which had grown immensely rich and powerful in a very short time. “It was kind of a slap on the wrist to Tencent, to say, ‘Yes, you are a multibillion conglomerate, but you still have to obey the Chinese government,” said the insider. This slap on the wrist caused Tencent stocks to plunge by 40% in just a few months, wiping $200bn off its value – a hit it took a long time to recover from.
During the freeze, authorities introduced even stricter regulations on video games, such as an outright ban on blood, no matter the colour. Games that fail three times to pass the byzantine review process – which includes submitting videos, screenshots and often tens of thousands of words explaining what the game is – may be permanently blocked. Meanwhile, an online game ethics committee was established to “implement the spirit of the National Propaganda”. The Communist party-backed Global Times reported that the body would block games that “violate family ethics” by portraying “homosexuality or pregnancy before marriage”.
Although the market reopened in 2019, the ban has left behind a fear that Beijing could pull the plug at any time. Before the shutdown, Tencent usually had a hands-off approach when working with developers, said the insider. Now, he said, they are under far more pressure to control the content of their games. After the government expressed frenzied alarm around gaming minors, Tencent added an “anti-addiction system” to its mobile games, announcing that it would check players’ identities and ages, and limit children aged 12 and under to one hour of play daily. (Since then, Tencent has implemented face-recognition technology to verify the age of users.) The company has also unveiled new titles that promote patriotic themes. In autumn 2019, Tencent collaborated with the state newspaper People’s Daily to produce Homeland Dream, in which players can make “Chinese” cities or provinces – including Hong Kong and Taiwan – more prosperous with real-life policies implemented by Beijing.
Some international developers I have spoken to say they can tailor games for China without changing their operations elsewhere. They play down the censorship, pointing to the fact that China tolerates a grey market in which players can buy foreign games that haven’t been approved for domestic consumption by using Steam, the largest online distribution platform for PC games. But even that is changing. This year, an “official” Chinese version of Steam was launched, with just a few dozen games. If China were to restrict access to the global version, it would drive many more developers into the censorship process, or else risk losing millions in sales.
My interview with the insider was in late 2019, and at the time he was happy to speak on the record. “We’re always vocal about China,” he told me. “It’s really good that somebody big is doing a story on this, so we can get the word out.” But when I went back to him recently, ahead of publication, he had become nervous and requested anonymity. He said he believes his Chinese staff’s phones are being monitored, and he is worried. “It’s really turning into a dystopia.”
To their strongest critics, Tencent and NetEase effectively play the role of a private arm of the government’s censorship operation. There is no doubt that Tencent’s founder, Ma Huateng, and Netease’s CEO, Ding Lei, have capitalised on the country’s move towards a more open economy in the past two decades, while always trying to keep on the right side of the authorities. But many international video game companies see Tencent and Netease as helpful allies in working around censorship, rather than more sinister enforcers of the government line. Tencent itself says it wants the companies it invests in to “operate independently”.
In April 2021, Ma became China’s richest man, with an estimated fortune of $63bn. Min Tang, an assistant teaching professor at the University of Washington Bothell, wrote a dissertation on how capitalism and power structures shaped Tencent, but even she found it hard to understand how close Ma was to Beijing. “Not much documentation reveals Tencent’s government relations,” she wrote, “except for the known fact” that, after rising to prominence in business, Ma became a deputy in parliament.
Even less has been written about NetEase’s Ding Lei. He founded the company in 1997 and offered one of China’s first internet services. Ding became the country’s first internet and gaming billionaire in 2003, and today Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index puts his net worth at $34.7bn. Despite this, NetEase’s English-language presence on the internet is minimal – its official Twitter account has only about 5,000 followers.
Still, no Chinese company could rise to such power without a close relationship with the authorities, and the influence of these two companies goes far beyond video games. Tencent owns the messaging app WeChat, which has one billion users, and has been accused of using it to surveil people, even outside China. (The company denies this, saying all “all content shared among international users” is private.) In China, the firm regularly shuts down WeChat accounts at the request of the government, including critical voices. Meanwhile, NetEase has a massive internet presence and has branched out into other seemingly unrelated industries, including, surprisingly, pig farming.
When I spoke to video game industry workers inside Tencent and NetEase – none of whom were willing to provide their names – they framed China’s strict censorship rules as just one element of a global market in which all governments restrict culture. In Russia, for instance, portraying LGBT characters can lead to a ban. In some Muslim-majority countries, smoking or alcohol consumption has to be removed. Some localisation experts refer to “geopolitical imaginations” – an assumed shared view of the world from country to country.
“It’s a tricky issue,” said a staffer at NetEase. “I think a lot of western observers assume that the things that end up being censored in games are things that only people in the government care about. In reality, they are sensitive to a lot of Chinese people, too.” But given the Communist party’s increasingly harsh restrictions on free speech, it is impossible to know to what extent the Chinese censors really reflect public opinion. Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, says she believes that a fair proportion of Chinese people actually are “very critical of the government, but the manipulation of the online environment has meant those voices are drowned out, creating this mirage that Chinese people are very nationalistic, which tells only part of the story”.
Ostensibly liberal governments also censor. Australia has a particularly paternalistic attitude to video games, restricting them much more than TV or film. In Europe, German regulators have banned scores of mainstream games for gratuitous violence. For this reason, some Chinese industry figures argue that singling out China is unfair. “The direction this conversation usually goes is people say are bowing their heads, or ‘kowtowing’. They use some shitty, racist, veiled language to say how people are trying to make money,” said one person at NetEase. He pointed out that age ratings of films, TV shows and video games are also a form of censorship that dictates artistic choices. Hollywood producers will make sure films are edited to get a PG-13 rather than an adult rating, because that means they can pack the cinemas with teenagers. “In the same sense, you can say that is censoring to try to make money,” said the NetEase staffer.
Frustration with the focus on China is motivated partly by a sense of double standards. Much of the global games industry, like the film industry, has long been shaped by a jingoistic American outlook. Just as action movies during the cold war often had Russian villains, video games since 9/11 have stereotyped Arabs and Muslims as henchmen to be gunned down. One upcoming game, called Six Days in Fallujah, portrays the events of a bloody 2004 Iraq war attack from the perspective of American soldiers. One gaming news website, Kotaku, mockingly referred to it as “war crime simulator”. Indeed, the part of the industry that makes shooting games is deeply entwined with the US military. Games have been created specifically in order to recruit soldiers, and developers regularly collaborate with the US military – and gun makers – to create their games.
As China becomes more dominant in the market, developers will probably start censoring themselves from the outset, altogether avoiding themes that might offend Beijing. “It’s cheaper to make these adjustments during development than once the game is out,” said an employee at Tencent.
Asked if global game developers will now broadly self-censor their games to appease China, the NetEase source was combative, but said: “So if this is the soundbite you want, I will say, it will definitely happen. But the context that you frame that within is that this would happen with any market that was this large. Any opportunity that any producer has to make a ton of money by releasing their media within a certain market, they are definitely going to try their best to localise that content for that market. And that’s the whole point, that’s what we do, that’s how I’ve made my money for years.”
The impact of all this is unpredictable. But what is clear is that an entire generation is learning about the world through video games, and China now has significant influence over what is in them. People unfamiliar with video games often underestimate their cultural impact. So many children are learning history by playing the Assassin’s Creed franchise – in which each game is set in a different time period, from the medieval Middle East to Medici-era Italy – that the game’s developer, Ubisoft, implemented an educational mode in which players are given guided tours of games set in ancient Egypt and Greece. Would Ubisoft – which is 5% owned by Tencent and has an established presence in China – release a similar version set in China (or Tibet and Taiwan) and risk upsetting Beijing and blocking access to the market for its other games? If the game were to cover sensitive historical topics, it would be a gamble. A few years ago, Ubisoft made a much smaller spinoff game based on Chinese history called Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, but it was not released in the country.
It’s not just creative freedom that’s at risk, but freedom of expression, too. Unlike other art forms, video games allow users, and not just makers, to express their creativity. In April 2020, Hong Kong activists used the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons to spread pro-democracy messages. The popular island-life simulation game allows users to decorate their game environment with their own designs, and famed activist Joshua Wong shared a screenshot on Twitter of his own in-game island with a banner reading “Free Hong Kong, revolution now”. Shortly after, the game was removed from China’s eBay-equivalent, Taobao.
In retrospect, perhaps it was naive to assume that just because Stellaris was set in the distant future, it wouldn’t attract much attention from the censors. Paradox’s Shams Jorjani thinks the biggest problem was that the game gives players the power to choose how to govern their galactic empire. And “choose” is the critical word. Players might opt to run a religious death cult, a criminal enterprise, or, if they want, a democracy.
Paradox is not willing to compromise. “As a company, we’re very clear what our values are. We are pro-democracy,” Jorjani said. A handful of other big names in the industry have taken a similar stance. After the Blizzard controversy, Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, said it would never prevent someone from expressing their political views. This was particularly striking, as Tencent owns 40% of Epic. Still, the company’s founder, Tim Sweeney, is in the rare position of being a controlling shareholder, which allows him to take a clear ideological stance. After the Blizzard ban, Sweeney said on Twitter: “That will never happen on my watch.” Another studio, Czech developer Bohemia Interactive, which sold an undisclosed minority stake to Tencent in February, has also committed to freedom of expression.
These developers are the exceptions. In a sign of just how anxious companies are about discussing China, most firms contacted with requests for interviews for this article refused, including Tencent, NetEase, Riot Games, Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft (“the topic is quite sensitive”), GOG (“kindly decline to make any further comments on the topic”) and Krafton. Even companies that have, as recently as 2019, pledged to uphold free speech, such as Wizards of the Coast and Immutable, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did the the Chinese government and regulator.
Jorjani understands that companies with big stakes in China, such as Blizzard, are walking a tightrope. “Let’s put it this way, China is not our primary market,” he said. He acknowledged that if Paradox had to deal with lots of censorship in their own key markets, such as western Europe and the US, they might have to “rethink” their approach.
Still, he is clear there are no “edicts” on whether his game designer teams should avoid making political statements. “The main driving factor is interesting gameplay,” said Jorjani, “not so much anything else.”