The role of the censor weighs on the entertainment game
Roger Wei isn’t sure if he should feel anxious or relieved. He has a shop in Shanghai’s Yangpu district that specializes in live-action role-playing games (LARPs), and sellers like him are now subject to new regulations on script content.
“It looks like we have to register new scripts a month before they’re used in a game,” Wei said. “But so far we haven’t been told exactly how this registration system will work.”
Live role-playing games are all the rage among young people these days. LARP players come to a store like his in small groups to role-play according to scripts that define their characters and place them in a fictional setting that can range from murder mysteries to fantasy adventures.
Until now, this kind of entertainment was not regulated. The new rules, issued by the Shanghai Culture and Tourism Administration, specify that scripts involving violence, sex, animal abuse or other content of questionable merit cannot be used by minors, defined as under 18 years of age.
Wei’s shop, called Shaqingkuang, is on Daxue Road, near the Fudan University campus and several creative parks. It’s been open for about six months. Although relatively quiet during the week, the store’s three rooms are always full on weekends. Most customers are students and local white collar workers.
Each game lasts four to nine hours and requires a minimum of four players.
The store offers nearly 90 scripts. Trending review platform Dianping.com sorts them by difficulty – “for beginners”, “intermediate” or “brain development” – and by story style – “mystery”, “humor” or “the modern world”.
“Like books, movies, and music albums, there are extremely popular scripts and less popular ones,” Wei said. “People review them on various social media platforms, such as TikTok and Xiaohongshu. Players also have their own forums and discussion groups, and we join them to track what customers want.”
One of the most commissioned scripts is called “Martinez is dead in the museum”. His story is set in a fictional world, where people fight over a scroll, in which a spell is written that could break the death shield of a new world. The game features six players, three women and three men, and they would solve a series of murders on the way to the scroll.
Prior to the publication of the regulations, culture monitoring authorities carried out unannounced spot inspections at stores like Wei’s. They were going through the scripts, he said, and ordering him to delete those deemed “inappropriate”.
For example, a script titled “Qinglou” had to be removed from the store. Qinglu means “brothel” in Chinese, and the story was indeed set in a brothel during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
Wei said he was a bit intrigued by its deletion, as nothing in the script was obscene. The action, he said, was like judging a play by its title.
The new regulations could provide more clarity on what content is acceptable and what is not for minors, he said.
However, most drama scripts aren’t really aimed at minors.
“It’s not just because of the murders and the violence in some scenarios, but also because the minors don’t understand the stories very well,” he said. “Even if they were role-playing, I don’t think they would find it very fun.”
Wei says her shop gets calls from parents every now and then, asking to reserve a game for their kids. They are looking for scenarios with light stories, but the choice is very limited.
“Generally, we don’t serve minors,” Wei said. “Sometimes very young faces show up, like 15 or 16 year olds, and we ask them to show their ID. They are asked to leave if they are underage.”
Wei hopes the new rules won’t tie up the screenwriters. And he is not alone.
The China Cultural Media Group, monitoring online reaction to the new regulations, found that 33% of netizens on various platforms supported the regulations, and about a quarter expressed fear that censorship would ultimately kill the industry.
“We need to provide guidance to minors rather than overprotecting them,” commented a Weibo user who goes by the name of Wenhuaiyuan.
“And we certainly shouldn’t be overprotective of the general population, including adults.”
Meanwhile, the new regulations do not address the issue of copyright protection for role-playing game scripts, which is actually a big issue in the relatively new industry.
“I buy all my scripts from publishers,” Wei said.
“We call them ‘publishers,’ but they’re actually different from traditional book publishers.”
In China, every legally published book requires a plate number, but theater scripts do not. Therefore, it is difficult for writers to protect their works.
In Changsha, capital of Hunan province, a lawsuit recently opened over a copyright dispute over a screenplay titled “The Mental Diary of a Yandere Boy”. The title refers to a Japanese term describing an unhealthy love obsession.
The script was reportedly published by a company in Changsha, but its pirated versions quickly spread through online stores.
The company claims that half of all “Mental Diary” scripts currently on the market are pirated versions sold by stores on Taobao or WeChat. The hack, he claims, has cost them more than 2 million yuan ($315,000) in royalties.
It is the first known court case of its kind, but the circumstances it addresses are shared by many roleplaying game writers and editors.
Usually, a script, if not limited to a specific city or store, is sold for 300 to 500 yuan. But on Taobao.com, some online stores sell six- to eight-pack scripts for only 50 yuan.
“Maybe there will be more regulations later,” Wei said.
“As someone relatively new to the industry, I certainly hope that a ‘barbarically growing’ market will become more rational.”