We’ve all heard the stories of “harmonization” (the euphemism for censorship) of western games imported into China, like skulls in World of Warcraft turning into sacks of flour, or skeletons into straw-men. However, censorship of games in China goes beyond censoring dead bodies, and guidelines exist that developers must follow in order for the government to approve the publication of their games. One developer from Guangdong posted on Weibo that his game was blocked from publication because it depicted violations of China’s family planning laws (known in the West as the one-child policy). He wrote,
The administrative department requires that childbearing in our video games comply with family planning. That is to say that if you have second child in the game, we have to fine you a virtual social support fee. I am not making this up. Here is the document in full, including the source and images.
The images he posted came from a PPT file called Ministry of Culture Online Game Content Review Process put out by the Internet Culture Office and the Ministry of Culture in 2010.
My company has a game called “Dream Emperor” (梦想帝王) where, as emperor, you gather renowned generals, and then you gather beautiful women to be your concubines. It didn’t pass the censors because they said China practices monogamy, so the game couldn’t have concubines. We said this is an emperor from antiquity, so he has to have concubines. It was no use. We changed the concubines to palace maids and finally passed the censors. This really happened to our company.
The guidelines for in-game family and childbearing and in-game pet ownership were listed under Key Points in Self-Censorship of Online Games, along with seventeen other guidelines including: guidelines for naming your game, the background of your game (historical setting, religious content, etc), background music and sound effects in your game, in-game scenes (censoring pornographic, horror, and bloody scenes), in-game maps (real locations must be accurate), character design, building design, prop/item design, combat design, quest design (the game should not have quests with required time-limits, for example doing a task for an hour; and it should not reward long-term play, encouraging children to play often and continuously), marriage systems, occupation systems, team or guild features, entertainment features (games cannot have gambling mini-games that impact player skills or levels, for instance), emotional systems, life skills, and text and profanity censorship.
Almost all guidelines state, “Do not include other functions that would negatively influence minors,” indicating that the guidelines are primarily focused on protecting children, and in particular protecting them from gaming addiction. For instance, childbearing and family, pet ownership, and quest design all include points about not luring children into playing for long periods of time, such as to take care of an in-game baby or pet, or complete a time-sensitive in-game quest.
However, the strong stance against immoral behavior in-game is also clear. Just as Xu was not allowed to use concubines in his game despite the historical accuracy, other elements such as illegal drugs, murder, prostitution, pornography, obscenities, abetting crimes, and cults are also prohibited. Of course, as World of Warcraft and Diablo showed us, blood, dead bodies, severed limbs, injured or bloodied characters, and other horror-inducing images are prohibited.