April 23, 2019
Gerard McDermott
New Game Plus / Features

Sony has introduced a new policy regarding sexual content. Japanese developers are reportedly angry and many western gamers are once again convinced that “Social Justice Warriors” have imposed their will on the gaming community. But is this being driven by the return of American Puritanism or is something else going on? It might not be as simple as a culture war or a California-driven plot to change gaming. Some of the biggest recent controversies in gaming and the internet may be all about China.

Business Is A Numbers Game And These Numbers Are Astronomical

Businesses exist to make money, and the videogame industry is business. As a general rule, the bigger the market for your product the more money you can make. With over 1.3 billion people the potential market for videogames in China is astronomical compared to all previous markets.

China has an estimated 620 million people currently playing videogames. That means China’s videogame market is larger than the entire population of the United States, Japan, the UK and Australia combined. In 2018 the Chinese videogame market was worth 38 billion dollars out of a world total of 138 billion dollars. The profit that can be made from that many gamers will dwarf anything previously made in the traditional western markets, so it should be no surprise that the big videogame publishers and developers want a part of it.

But working in China is not as simple as in other countries. The Chinese government knows that overseas companies desperately want access to their people and they use that to make sure external companies follow their rules. The impact of some of those rules might look familiar.

Toxic Chat and Revealing Costumes – China’s Online Games Ethics Committee

Any on-line videogame that wants to be released in China needs to be approved by an Online Games Ethics Committee. This committee was formed in 2017 and in its first year the Committee reviewed only 20 games and rejected 9 of them outright. Here are some of the reasons given for banning some well known games:

League of Legends – “Overly revealing female characters, rewards given based on rank, inharmonious chatroom.”

Overwatch – “Game visuals promote incorrect values, inharmonious chatroom.”

Diablo – “Inharmonious chat, game missions include fraud.”

World of Warcraft – “Overly revealing female characters, inharmonious chatroom.”

Notice the trend.

Is it just a co-incidence that the last few years has seen a lot of controversy here in the west about how female videogame characters are dressed or about “toxic” on-line discussion boards? Or has the industry been preparing to move into the Chinese market? There are definitely true believers in these causes here in the west, but companies like Blizzard are making their decisions about character presentation and on-line communities with an eye on what they need to do to be approved by China’s Ethics Committee.

Anonymity – China’s Social Credit Score

China is using concern about videogame addiction as a method of expanding surveillance over its citizens. It has been announced that Tencent Holdings will require all players of its mobile and personal computer games to verify their identities against police databases from 2019 as part of its attempts to assuage government concern that excessive gaming is hurting the health of the country’s young.

Who is Tencent? Tencent owns Epic Games (Epic Games Store, Fortnite), Riot Games (League of Legends), and Supercell (Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, Clash Royale, Brawl Stars). Tencent also owns WeChat which is China’s major social media app with 1 billion monthly active users (902 million active daily users).

Last year the World Health Organisation in its disease classification manual stated that compulsively playing video games qualifies as a mental health condition. The Chinese government has described videogames as the new Opium – a description referring to a British plot to destroy the productivity of the country in the 1800’s by flooding it with opium. The British even went to war twice with China to force them to accept the drug.

Verifying your identity against a police database just to play a game sounds extreme, but it is about making sure that players can not be anonymous. Why are the Chinese so against internet anonymity?

China is implementing a social score system that ranks everybody according to how good a citizen they are. This includes how they behave on-line. That system does not work if people are allowed to take part in any activity anonymously.

There is some common ground between the Chinese government and all the blue checkmarks on Twitter who want internet anonymity removed – to make it easier to punish people for what they deem bad behaviour.

This is a dangerous step because “bad behaviour” means different things in different places of the world and in different contexts – whistleblowers in the west, dissidents in the middle east, bloggers in cartel-ruled Mexico, and LGBT people in countries with a heavy religious influence on law-making all have valid reasons to keep their identities private when on-line.

Despite the risks, the Chinese government demands it so tech and videogame companies have to bend to them if they want to operate in that country.

A Gaming Culture That Grew Up With Micro-transactions & Lootboxes

Videogame consoles were banned in China until 2015. That means Chinese console gaming culture does not remember a time before DLC, microtransactions and lootboxes. What is jarring and obnoxious in western markets is normal for Chinese gamers. Combine that with a very large mobile gaming market – mobile games are already worth 2/3rds of the Chinese videogame market – and you have a gaming culture that is nowhere near as hostile to the worst publisher and developer monetisation schemes. In some cases they may even embrace it.

Even if only a small percent of Chinese gamers find paying money in their games acceptable, that still means tens of millions of gamers effectively voting with their wallets for DLC, microtransactions and lootboxes. Some studies suggest that up to 94% of paying gamers in China spend money on in-game purchases. About 60% if that is on costumes for in-game characters.

Weight of numbers means the Chinese market will dictate what videogame monetisation schemes are acceptable and what is not, and the rest of us will have to accept it. For the publishers and developers it is effectively an opportunity to re-boot the industry again in conditions that are better for them to make money.

So get ready for a lot of changes that you might not like, because the truth is that the old western markets are so small by comparison that they may not influence many decisions by videogame publishers and developers in the future. We have already seen big changes in how female game characters are dressed and we are already seeing companies like Blizzard implement draconian steps to try to clean up their on-line communities. The “Social Justice Warriors” and their enemies on social media may be fighting in a war that does not ultimately involve them. As with the push to remove on-line/in-game anonymity and the continued prevalence of predatory monetisation, this may be a war that none of us will be able to affect the outcome of. For the foreseeable future, western gamers are at the mercy of a combination of Chinese government regulation and Chinese consumer buying habits.

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