China doesn’t censor skeletons: the truth about game censorship in the Middle Kingdom

C. Custer

China is one of the most misunderstood nations on earth when it comes to censorship. Yes, its government is one of the most censor-happy on earth, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of the common myths about Chinese censorship are correct. And when it comes to video games, there’s one we’d especially like to debunk: the illegal-skeletons theory.

(See: China declares Battlefield 4 illegal)

If you talk about games in China, you’ll often hear people espouse this theory: skeletons, blood, and other things have been censored in games like World of Warcraft and Dota 2 for cultural reasons, or because the government doesn’t want to encourage superstition.

But, while it’s true skeletons and blood are censored in WoW, Dota, and a bunch of other foreign games, the blanket ban people talk about doesn’t exist. For example, here are a couple of screenshots from two Chinese-developed games. The first is from a game called 倩女幽魂, developed by Netease. The second is from a game called Age of Wushu, developed by the Suzhou-based Snail Games.

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Well, there are a bunch of skeletons.

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And there are even more skeletons.

OK, so skeletons and the like obviously aren’t straight-up banned in Chinese video games. And in truth, they’re not that uncommon in Chinese culture, either. Chinese literature is full of the supernatural, from the ghost stories of Zi Bu Yu in the Qing period to the Baigujing skeleton-spirit in the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West.

But if skeletons are allowed in games and present in Chinese culture, that does beg the question: why are they censored in games like WOW and Dota?

The answer can be a little difficult to pin down.

What laws are on the books?

It’s impossible to know what pressure the Chinese government might be exerting on game companies behind the scenes, but in terms of public censorship regulations for games, the relevant regulations are here. Specifically, the Ministry of Culture forbids:

  • Gambling-related content or game features
  • Anything that violates China’s constitution
  • Anything that threatens China’s national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.
  • Anything that harms the nation’s reputation, security, or interests.
  • Anything that instigates racial/ethnic hatred, or harms ethnic traditions and cultures.
  • Anything that violates China’s policy on religion by promoting cults or superstitions.
  • Anything that promotes or incites obscenity, drug use, violence, or gambling.
  • Anything that harms public ethics or China’s culture and traditions.
  • Anything that insults, slanders, or violates the rights of others.
  • Other content that violates the law

It’s a somewhat broad list that, at the end of the day, comes down to interpretation. Could a skeleton in a game be interpreted as “promoting superstition,” for example? Possibly. Likely, it would depend on who—and when—you ask. And that leads to…

Game companies censoring themselves

Since the rules are broad and open to interpretation, game publishers will often choose to err on the side of caution and cut or edit anything that might be perceived as objectionable before the Ministry of Culture’s review process. That gives the game a better chance of getting approved, which means it can be released in China.

(See: Original Dota 2 icons vs. censored Chinese versions)

The pressure for quick approval is especially heavy on Chinese publishers wanting to operate foreign games, because those games have already been released abroad. For every day the game doesn’t come out in China, more Chinese gamers will sneak and hack their way onto overseas servers, denying the Chinese publisher its share of the profits. It wouldn’t be a surprise, then, if game developers were censored their games pretty heavily before submitting them to the Ministry of Culture to make sure that they won’t face rejection and the subsequent further delays as they’re forced to fix the game and re-apply.

Indeed, this seems to be exactly what happened in the case of World of Warcraft. When the game was first censored, back when it was being published in China by The9, some papers reported that the changes were made to make the game more “healthy and harmonious,” and there was speculation that the government was to blame. But The9′s PR director Zhao Yurun told ChinaNet that actually, The9 had chosen to flesh out World of Warcraft‘s skeletons voluntarily, before ever submitting the game to the Ministry of Culture for review. Their hope was that the changes would help the game sail more smoothly through the approval process. Zhao Yurun told reporters:

We hope the expansion pack will successfully get the approval in acknowledgement of the self-discipline of our company

Doom's China icons, with the skeleton stuff removed.

Doom’s China icons, with the skeleton stuff removed.

Does foreign-ness matter?

One easy observation to make is that the fleshy-skeleton phenomenon, and other similar examples of censorship, seem to afflict foreign games more often than they do Chinese ones. It could be simply that, as mentioned above, companies publishing foreign games are more likely to censor games with a heavy hand because they want their games to get approved quickly so they can keep pace with the game’s other servers overseas.

But it could also be that China’s government has another, stricter set of censorship standards that apply only to foreign games. I’m not aware of any evidence such a regulation exists, but China has been known to use internet censorship and dragged-out review processes as a tool to make similar domestic games and services more competitive.

TL;DR:

So, while there’s no way to be totally sure what’s going on behind the scenes, can can draw some basic conclusions:

  • Skeletons are not censored in all Chinese games, or considered taboo in Chinese culture.
  • There is no public law that bans the use of skeletons, blood, or anything else like that in video games. But China’s laws about game censorship are broad and could be interpreted in a variety of ways.
  • The censorship of skeletons in foreign games like WOW and Dota 2 was probably voluntary on the part of the games’ Chinese publishers, who were being extra careful to avoid any potential delays in the review process.

In other words, the next time you see a fleshy skeleton lumbering towards you in WOW, don’t blame Chinese culture, and don’t even blame the Chinese government. Instead, blame the game’s Chinese publishers, who put flesh back on the bones in the hopes of getting the game released more quickly in China.

(h/t to reader Wangshu for suggesting this piece)

The post China doesn’t censor skeletons: the truth about game censorship in the Middle Kingdom appeared first on Games in Asia.