China has one of the fastest-growing and most dynamic gaming scenes in the world, and its most successful eSports players enjoy celebrity status on a par with pop idols and top athletes.
But there are some major differences between the Chinese and European gaming markets, arising from not only from China’s distinct cultural and historical background, but from the government’s stance on censorship, family values, and corporate behavior.
As such, there are a few things developers need to be aware of if they hope to create games for the Chinese market.
Chinese president Xi Jinping wants to see the Chinese national soccer team at the top of the pile, alongside France, Italy, Germany, and other giants of the sport.
To this end, he has ordered the foundation of several junior training bases, and permitted the sale of games like FIFA 23. EA Sports’s popular soccer sim is a hit in China, with players propelling teams like Shanghai SIPG to the top of the global leaderboards.
Like European players, Chinese FIFA 23 fans are not always content to farm FIFA coins, instead purchasing them outright (such as with FC 24 Coins) to quickly strengthen their teams.
eSports are huge in China, with the country regularly hosting major tournaments and fielding some of the best teams in the world.
While Chinese eSports competitors have loosened their iron grip on Dota 2 somewhat, they still dominate in League of Legends and other MOBAs.
The Chinese authorities are happy to see this continue. China equates eSports competitors with conventional athletes, and maintains exactly the same expectations of them in terms of training and results. A win is a win, no matter the sport.
That said, a large number of online games have been censored in China for exhibiting effeminate men, scantily-dressed characters, and other elements deemed by the Chinese state to be setting a bad example.
In many cases, distinct versions of Western games are available in the East, with problematic components patched out.
Blood and bones
Chinese censors really don’t like the sight of blood, and gory games are unlikely to see the light of day in China.
There are exceptions, however. Developers can plead their case in front of the regulatory committee, as the team behind Dota 2 did when defending the presence of a character called Blood Seeker, who feeds on blood and then weaponizes it.
All they had to do was make the blood green.
The authorities take an equally dim view of bones and skulls, not only because they’re potentially gory but because they signify the occult.
This policy has a pretty major impact on the RPG and MOBA genres, which tend to have a lot of dark fantasy visual elements. In order to secure a Chinese release, the developers of these games have been forced to replace entire avatars and more.
Chinese culture takes religious rites and rituals around death very seriously. Therefore, as you well imagine, they’re not keen on zombies.
Like skeletal characters, zombies are routinely replaced with more generic monsters who behave in the same way but look less offensively reanimated.
One of the biggest games to have been impacted by this policy is Call of Duty, which was forced to replace the conventional zombies in its popular undead-themed survival mode with radically different cyber-zombies.
The Chinese authorities maintain traditional gender stereotypes in which men are hard and burly and women are soft and willowy. As such, depictions of slender and scantily clad men are strictly forbidden.
That means no K-POP idols and no sexually ambiguous behavior. To satisfy regulatory committees, bare male torsos are covered with armor and bulging musculature, ensuring the long-term survival of the nuclear family.
In China, history is very much a means of promoting the interests of the ruling party. Events are routinely distorted, modified, or erased from the record for the purposes of propaganda.
This is especially true of political activism, and so the developers of the most recent entry in the Black Ops series were forced to remove all references to the Chinese student uprisings of 1979, which are featured in the original version.
Refusing to cooperate with this injunction would have prevented Activision from distributing its game in China, a potential market of 1.5 billion people.
The Chinese authorities aren’t just sensitive about skeletons, zombies, blood, and historical events.
They also strictly police the depiction of dragons, a potent national symbol, even insisting on the removal of the character Mushi from the Disney film Mulan on the grounds that real dragons are ferocious and dignified, rather than small and stupid.
Depictions of Winnie the Pooh are also prohibited, since president Xi Jinping is frequently and intolerably likened to the popular cartoon bear.
China is one of the most important markets in the world, with a growing population of consumers looking for the next great game to play. But any developers hoping to conquer this market must first understand the culture and ethos of the country’s governing party.