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No mahjong, corpses or back-stabbing concubines: all you need to know about China’s new video game censorship regime



China’s top media regulator is accepting new applications for publishing online games
Mahjong, dead bodies, and imperial concubines are to be banned



Published: 6:30am, 23 Apr, 2019



The Chinese government has ended its long freeze on new video games but it is not all good news for the world’s biggest gaming market.
China’s top content regulator began taking new applications for publishing online games in the country on Monday, after it introduced changes to the approval process last week, according to research firm Niko Partners.

The move signals the end of China’s gaming freeze. The State Administration of Press and Publications (SAPP) suspended the licensing process for new games for nine months last year, restarting it in December. Since then more than 1,000 games have been approved by the regulator. In February, however, the SAPP stopped accepting new submissions
from its local branches, as it struggled through a backlog of thousands of titles created by the previous halt.

Niko Partners first reported that SAPP would start taking new submissions from April 22, citing unnamed sources. The move came after a closed-door meeting held by SAPP on April 10 to communicate new rules regarding game publication in China – and after new application forms were published on the regulator’s website on April 19.

New rules introduced in SAPP’s meeting were previously shared online by attendees including G-bits Network Technology (Xiamen) Co., and reported separately by Niko Partners.
Tencent wants its own gaming phone

The South China Morning Post confirmed some of the new rules with gaming executives who have knowledge of the matter. They asked not to be identified because the matter was private. The Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department, which oversees SAPP, did not respond to faxed queries.




Here’s what we know so far:

Mahjong and imperial harem are out

China already bans violent, sexual and politically sensitive content in just about everything from TV shows to rap songs to video games. With the aim of encouraging higher quality games, SAPP just crossed more items off its approvals list: Mahjong and imperial harem.

In the first quarter of this year, SAPP approved 795 domestic video games, none of which were from the poker and mahjong genre. That compares to 962 approved poker games, or nearly 50 per cent of the total, in the same period a year ago, according to data tracked by Niko Partners.

China’s gaming market was once full of low-budget, nearly identical card and board games, where players could use real money to gamble with – in a country where gambling is illegal. Beginning last year, Chinese police launched a wave of crackdowns on online poker platforms that allowed people to play with cash.

Imperial harem games – which let players star as noble lords or emperors in feudal China and collect wives and concubines
– are also banned. The genre gained attention thanks to viral online shows about back-stabbing imperial concubines like The Story of Yanxi Palace, which debuted on streaming site iQiyi last August. But more recently state media lashed out against these shows, saying they promote unhealthy lifestyles.

Overall, SAPP will control the number of approved new games each year, which Niko Partners estimates to be less than 5,000 titles this year, compared to about 8,500 in 2017. Original home-grown titles of good quality will be preferred during the approval process, the regulator said.

WeChat mini games now require approvals before release

In December 2017, WeChat, run by Chinese gaming giant Tencent, pioneered the so-called “mini-game” function which allows users to play games inside the chat app without having to download them separately – a model followed by rivals Douyin and Kuaishou, and most recently Snapchat. By the end of last year, WeChat already had 31 mini games with more than 10 million monthly active users, according to data from Quest Mobile.

But that rapid growth is likely to come to an end. SAPP now requires new mini games to be submitted for approval too. Those already in operation are required to register with SAPP’s local bureaus within 10 days.

WeChat, meanwhile, has updated its mini-game developer policy to allow only enterprise developers – but not individuals – to create new mini games. A spokesman with Tencent did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

No dead bodies, no blood pools

SAPP has banned all games depicting dead bodies or pools of blood – and there is no leeway even if developers change the blood to other colours.

Previously, skeletons and corpses were not flat out banned in games published in China but regulators did prompt the popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft to turn dead bodies into gravestones in its Chinese version.


Ethics committee, self censorship, and anti-addiction systems

In 2007 China introduced anti-addiction systems for online PC games, which, among other things, turned off in-game rewards after underage users spent more than five hours playing one game per day. Only recently have top game developers like Tencent and NetEase moved to incorporate similar – and even stricter – in-game controls into their mobile titles amid Beijing’s concerns about childhood myopia.



SAPP said it plans to research and upgrade anti-addiction systems, which will include specifics on how much time and money minors can spend in games. The regulator also reaffirmed the introduction of a new ethics committee to evaluate games, which was first unveiled in December.

In a move echoing policies governing short video and live-streaming apps, SAPP also ordered gaming firms to establish in-house censor teams to review risks in their own games.
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