Why is China so interested in the video game industry?


Holiday greetings. If you are one of the 3 billion video players, you already know that game consoles are the perfect gift, so perfect that retailers are in trouble to meet demand this holiday season. The delays, not to mention the global semiconductor chip shortage, have affected the production of almost all digital gadgets. Long before Black Friday, retailers had to warn consumers that many consoles could sell out quickly, leaving many buyers disappointed. But the world of video games faces more threatening geopolitics than supply chain disruptions.

Last year, the gaming industry’s revenue was estimated at $ 159.3 billion, an increase of 9.3% from 2019. The boom is not just due to the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has forced people to stay at home: game studios are offering increasingly sophisticated entertainment . It’s no surprise that Chinese giants like Tencent have started to pay considerable attention, especially to successful Western studios. In fact, they are buy a lot of them. One day in July, Tencent acquired two game companies: one British and one Swedish.

It may seem like nothing but business, but many video games include strong political content, even if their sole purpose is to entertain gamers. The games offer endless variations on the combats between good and evil. Unsurprisingly, many espouse Western values ​​such as democracy and free speech, simply because their creators live in societies where these things are taken for granted.

Holiday greetings. If you are one of the 3 billion video players, you already know that game consoles are the perfect gift, so perfect that retailers are in trouble to meet demand this holiday season. The delays, not to mention the global semiconductor chip shortage, have affected the production of almost all digital gadgets. Long before Black Friday, retailers had to warn consumers that many consoles could sell out quickly, leaving many buyers disappointed. But the world of video games faces more threatening geopolitics than supply chain disruptions.

Last year, the gaming industry’s revenue was estimated at $ 159.3 billion, an increase of 9.3% from 2019. The boom is not just due to the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has forced people to stay at home: game studios are offering increasingly sophisticated entertainment . It’s no surprise that Chinese giants like Tencent have started to pay considerable attention, especially to successful Western studios. In fact, they are buy a lot of them. One day in July, Tencent acquired two game companies: one British and one Swedish.

It may sound like nothing but business, but many video games include strong political content, even if their sole purpose is to entertain gamers. The games offer endless variations on the combats between good and evil. Unsurprisingly, many espouse Western values ​​such as democracy and free speech, simply because their creators live in societies where these things are taken for granted.

China’s growing interest in video games is making a lot of money, but that’s bad news for the global gaming industry, especially when it comes to artistic freedom. “Chinese companies investing or acquiring businesses here are perfectly reasonable. But there are concerns that the Chinese government may force them to cooperate under the 2017 National Intelligence Act, ”said Per Stromback, spokesperson for the Swedish games industry, a trade association. The law broadly states that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the intelligence work of the state in accordance with the law”.

What if they don’t want to? The state can demand it. This may explain why the longtime sponsor of a competition for video game creators withdrew this year. A source close to the contest organizers told me that the sponsor was concerned that the winning entry would offend Beijing and did not want to be held responsible for the content of the game or the consequences in the Chinese market. Video game studios acquired by Chinese companies are also feeling pressure to adjust their content for Chinese values.

This spring, the Chinese government attempted a rather unconventional method to standardize global video games. He introduced a motion to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which regulates products ranging from photographic film to car seats, to approach video games in the same way. The application only concerned technical standards: ISO does not deal with artistic content. But Beijing clearly intended video games to be treated as a technical rather than an artistic product. This could lead member organizations, like China, to use the international body to file complaints against video games it disapproves of.

The Swedish gaming industry rebelled against the move, using its influence gained from Sweden’s disproportionate success in the market. “We said, ‘Video games are art. Regulating them in the same way as light bulbs would reduce the freedom of creators, ”said Stromback Foreign police. “A successful export of video games requires freedom of expression. “

The Swedish games industry has encouraged ISO members to vote against China’s regulatory motion. The motion was defeated, but Beijing’s efforts caused anxiety across the industry. One country’s industry association even said it was prudent to consult with Chinese owners of a member company before voting against the motion. Meanwhile, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the US regulator that controls acquisitions for national security reasons, had already launched an investigation in the takeover of Sumo by Tencent, the British video game studio it acquired in July.

Even those who don’t play video games should be concerned about authoritarian governments that care about the industry. Because most officials in authoritarian countries aren’t exactly skilled gamers, video games are a rare corner of the Internet where people residing in those countries can voice ideas that could get them in trouble offline. “If I were a dictator, I would definitely want to keep the video game industry under tight control,” said Erik Robertson, a longtime video game creator who leads the biennial Nordic Game conference.

The acceleration of the geopolitical confrontation is particularly acute for the video game industry, with its fictional wars, heroes and villains of various nationalities. Beijing’s recent restrictions on the time minors can spend playing video games, as part of a repression on tech giants – have not undermined the global power of Chinese companies. On the contrary, the reduction in playing time means that companies cannot rely solely on the domestic market. But the Chinese tech industry remains cautious not to upset the government. In September, for example, the Chinese Gaming Industry Association announced that its members would boycott “politically harmful” content, among other content deemed harmful or inappropriate.

Video game makers around the world must now try to guess what constitutes politically harmful content. It’s easy to see where this will lead: Creators will play it safe for fear of displeasing Chinese authorities and potential buyers, which will certainly result in less exciting content. Assassin’s Creed IIThe protagonist of, Ezio Auditore, said at one point, “Wanting something doesn’t give you the right to have it.” Auditore lives in Renaissance Italy, but an authoritarian regime might view his commentary as a reflection of contemporary geopolitics. This could, for example, be interpreted as a reference to the fact that China does not have the right to take Taiwan. Imagine the agony of video game makers as they try to create new versions of Assassin’s Creed, and many other games, without offending the overzealous sensitivity of Chinese officials.

What if players in authoritarian countries felt that their corner of the internet was no longer a vestige of freedom? The past few months show that the 21st century gaming industry is about to be put to the test. In fact, those who plan to spend the holidays battling various villains might start to assess how the market is changing by quietly spreading messages regarding the plight of Uyghurs, Taiwan, or Peng Shuai.


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