If you’ve ever seen an internet ad, you know that China makes a lot of video games, but you probably also think they’re all porn clones of fortress defense browser games that steal your credit card information. But the reality of the Chinese interactive entertainment market is more complex and much, much weirder. I’ve learned that after talking to Alex who used to work for a large video game company in China. He told me that…
4. The Point Of Chinese Games Is To Export Chinese Culture
People make video games for all sorts of reasons. Well that’s not true. They do it for money and all the prostitutes and drugs that money can buy. Except for Sid Meier. He only does it to make the voices in his head stop. It’s also a slightly different story in China. See, for China, video games are a way of acquiring “soft power” to aid them in a kind of cultural world domination. Alex elaborates:
“China has been churning out RPGs that are so utterly larded with traditional culture that at times it’s over the top … For example, every high-fantasy Chinese MMORPG I’ve localized or been a part of has always had the requisite trivia function whereby the character answers multiple choice questions about Tang dynasty poets or what kind of tea is made on Wuyi mountain. (Never mind your character is a spellblade-wielding elven magus in a land far, far away.)”
The most recent MMORPG that Alex worked on literally came with one million Chinese characters’ worth of trivia content.
“My cohorts and I suspect that the developer didn’t even write them all, since it would take ages. Since they ‘borrow’ all of their software, why not simply download all the trivia from some central library online? We ended up writing a few bits of wordplay-based trivia that was lightly dusted with a bit of humor, and only included about 400 characters’ worth of these into the game.” Apparently, the trivia function is one way that video game developers assure the Communist Party censors that they are busy exporting wholesome Chinese culture For The Glory of the Motherland so there’s no need to send them to a gulag. Just kidding. It’s probably not called a “gulag” in Chinese.
Basically, if you want Chinese censors off your ass, simply sell out your principles and make sure that your video game feels a little bit like school. That way literally EVERYBODY loses. And that is the true spirit of communism.
3. Console Games Used To Be Illegal In China As Recently As 2014
Not that long ago, video games were about as popular among the Chinese government as Winnie the Pooh wearing a “Free Tibet” T-shirt. “Video games started out as a pariah industry–in the early aughts, the hidebound state media referred to it as ‘digital heroin’ and blamed it for all manner of social ills,” Alex says.
In 2000, China actually banned the sale of game consoles to “protect the children” because it’s fine to screw over young people when you control the internet and therefore don’t need them to explain Google to you. “In the case of the console ban, you simply couldn’t find consoles in stores until recently, I think 2013 or 2014. Before that, the long arm of the law applied more to those selling consoles than those buying them overseas or on the black market.”
Whatever the case, the ban was, of course, a total bust so the Ministry of Culture lifted it in 2014. Not just because consoles were coming into the country illegally but because China is, apparently, part of the PC Master Race. “I sometimes wonder if the driving reason why consoles couldn’t be found on store shelves wasn’t the law but simply the absence of demand. It’s quick and easy to download a cracked copy of any computer game you want, and most gamers just regard all computer games as being free, or at least free-to-play.”
Hell, even Alex’s company used to pirate games like Johnny Depp signs on to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: without much thought or shame.
“I should point out that my company had a central repository of triple-A games that anyone could download on company computers. One day, one of my translators had Shadow of Mordor up on his work computer, for example. The next day, he had the latest Bioshock. A month later, Trine II. Platforms like Steam have a small following over there because they’re not especially relevant, much of the time.”
2. Right Now, Chinese Video Games Are Basically A Government Employment Scam
There are two ways to fix unemployment. Kill every single person except you and Bob, then give Bob a dollar a day for bringing you coffee. Congratulations, your unemployment rate is now 0%! The other way is to do what the Chinese are doing: make companies hire way more people than they actually need.
“By 2010, the Chinese Communist Party embraced video games when it realized the potential for employing large swaths of nominally high-tech workers,” Alex told me. “My old company reaped plenty of political and monetary benefits from sopping up less-than-stellar students and training them in whatever computer science skills the local diploma mill was supposed to impart.”
”We hoovered up hordes of fresh graduates whether or not they needed them precisely because it put them on good standing with the local government.”
There’s a phrase in China: 解決就業問題, or “solve the unemployment problem,” which gets bandied about in Chinese HR offices. “Many college graduates in China aren’t really equipped with skills for the workplace, and the government of course know that, so for a big company to ‘solve the problem’ the way we did can earn some serious political points … At times, it even felt like college: We provided dorms, free meals, and loans, in return for thousand-hour workweeks.”
Although a better analogy than college would be an adult daycare because with so many people around, there just wasn’t enough work for everyone to keep busy. So many just took naps. “I often asked how many employees the company had. I think it must’ve peaked around 2013, when it had around 3,000 … it was not uncommon to walk into an office and find half a team asleep well after lunch/siesta time.”
1. The Government Is Now Super Involved In Game Production, And Their Demands Are Often Bizarre
The Communist Party has their hands in so many pies, they’re constantly brushing against Jason Biggs’s dick. And this most definitely includes video games. Far from wanting them banned, the government now wants to know exactly what they are all about, and they have some “opinions” that video game companies should really take to heart. Unless they want to get sent to a… hold up, let me look up “gulag” in Chinese. Apparently it’s “laojiao.” Fascinating.
“Micromanaging strange requirements into games is always amusing. Just Google ‘World of Warcraft China localization censors.’”
And to save you a click, Alex is talking about the time when The Burning Crusade came out in China and the government ordered all images of bones, corpses, and skeletons to be taken out of the game.
“The rule against skeletons always cracked me up, since it always felt like this rule was just some arbitrary thing that a bureaucrat came up with exclusively for WOW but was never enforced for any other game. The first mobile game localization I directed had plenty of skeletons.”
This didn’t happen because there was any real taboo against bones in China but because the censors felt that human remains weren’t wholesome. You know how popular World of Warcraft is with preschool kids, which might or might not be sarcasm on my part. “The anti-indulgence, or anti-obsession, functions are another thing the Chinese government mandated for all games, domestic or foreign. After so many hours the game logs you off automatically and tells you to take a break.” Dear God. China has transcended Big Brother and now want to be your Big Mother. They’re not mad, just disappointed.