The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is “taking its political censorship to the extreme by disconnecting Chinese online gamers from their guildmates outside China,” as Taiwan News put it on Wednesday.
In other words, the CCP is preparing to closely monitor, censor, and block communications between Chinese gamers and the foreigners they play with.
The latest flex of the CCP’s authoritarian muscles began with a Nintendo game called Animal Crossing, a laid-back game about simple village life in a cartoon world of talking animals whose emphasis on pleasant social interaction has been credited with driving sales of the Nintendo Switch video game system during pandemic lockdowns around the globe. Animal Crossing provides a non-competitive, nonviolent virtual environment where players spend a good deal of time hanging out with each other and working together on low-pressure constructive activities.
The Chinese Communists cannot abide that level of social interaction between their captive citizens and the rest of the world, since they might start discussing forbidden topics like Hong Kong or the CCP’s culpability for the coronavirus pandemic.
Animal Crossing was banned outright — or more precisely pulled from game retailers without explanation by invoking some long-ignored import controls — while other games will be closely monitored and censored with a package of new measures that includes a curfew for younger gamers and limits on how much money they can spend on games.
From Wednesday’s Taiwan News report on the CCP’s online gaming censorship drive:
On April 10, China banned the popular social simulation video game in which gamers can create a home and interact with cute animal villagers, owing to Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong revealing a customized scene in the game which reads “Free Hong Kong” and mocks Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Several other players were also found leveraging the game to vent their discontent with the CCP and making satirical content related to the CCP’s failure to tackle the virus.
The communist regime is said to have noticed an authority vacuum in online multiplayer games, which enables people to freely socialize without monitoring. Local metropolises are scrambling to draft laws to expand the scope of online censorship in video games and even prohibit gamers from meeting and chatting with people on the other side of the Great Firewall, according to LTN, which cited news from a Chinese gaming forum.
One-player online games will also be subject to surveillance, as a new real-name mechanism is going to be implemented in China. Also, the new law will not allow for zombies and plagues, map editing, roleplaying, as well as organizing a union in games — regulations which are believed to be inspired by the sensitive content made by Joshua Wong.
Taiwan News expected the CCP to put a high priority on keeping Chinese gamers from “learning how the world is reacting to Beijing’s handling of the outbreak and subsequent cover-ups.”
This is what Joshua Wong did with his little chunk of Animal Crossing real estate:
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) April 10, 2020
Although Animal Crossing is non-violent, other Hong Kong democracy activists found an amusing way to express their disapproval of Beijing-controlled chief executive Carrie Lam:
This is how #hongkong ppl spend our time during coronavirus lockdown – villain hitting in #animalcrossing, the villain is #CarrieLam, the worst governor in #hongkong history.#AnimalCrossingNewHorizons#StandWithHK pic.twitter.com/K5AbOTl9tD
— Studio Incendo (@studioincendo) April 1, 2020
Wong was unsurprised by the CCP’s ham-fisted response to his video game messaging, sarcastically daring the Communists to try banning every single game he plays. He taunted the CCP by holding up his Nintendo Switch to show off all the games he plays, which prompted his followers to meme-ify him by Photoshopping all sorts of defiant messages onto the screen of his handheld game console.
“It is so absurd that not even a family-friendly game is allowed behind China’s firewall,” Wong told the Hong Kong Free Press on Wednesday.
This is not the first time the CCP has noticed that video games are also communications platforms that can be used by dissidents to penetrate the “Great Firewall” constructed by Beijing, and the CCP’s authoritarian reach extends far beyond China. Perhaps its most notorious exercise was banning a Taiwanese video game called Devotion last year, and even getting it pulled from American online retailers, because the game included a mocking reference to Chinese dictator Xi Jinping that compared him to Winnie the Pooh.
Despite strong reviews and great interest from players in many countries during the brief period it was for sale, Devotion remains unavailable to this day, not even in the United States. A few copies of it have been preserved by academic institutions, essentially as museum exhibits.
Engadget reported last August that the video game industry is influenced by China in much the same way that the CCP exerts increasing control over Hollywood movies, American television shows, and even U.S. news media: the Chinese market is huge and voracious for games, especially those with highly profitable microtransactions, or items that can be bought within a game for small amounts of additional real-world money.
The CCP has frozen video game licenses to demonstrate that it is serious about blocking foreign game studios that do not comply with its regulations on game content. Sometimes those restrictions are coded to work only for Chinese players, but as with Hollywood movie studios, Chinese companies have growing financial leverage over foreign game companies and have repeatedly forced them to alter worldwide content to meet the CCP’s censorship demands. Disgruntled American and European gamers are beginning to notice that many products released by Western game companies are obviously tailored for the Chinese audience.
“This is how Chinese video-game censorship works in 2019 — by affecting the global, connected industry. Oh, bother,” Engadget concluded, quoting Winnie the Pooh, whose presence in Devotion prompted the CCP to force it off the market.