We have bad news for any readers in China – the awesome looking Mortal Kombat 11 won’t be getting approved for release in your country. Based on new Government laws which came into effect on April 22nd, it’s banned along with many other types of game, which could prove to be a significant headache for the entire gaming industry.
Confusingly, there are three types of game which are now prohibited under Chinese law; those which make reference to the imperial history of China as a nation (we can’t imagine that being an issue for most developers), those which are based on poker or even include poker (which is bad news for Red Dead Redemption), and games which contain either blood or corpses. That is, obviously, where Mortal Kombat falls down. In the past, when China was a little more relaxed about such matters, developers could get around bans such as this by changing the color of blood and/or referring to it by another name, like ‘slime’ or ‘gunge.’ That’s no longer going to fly; any attempts to disguise a substance that’s clearly intended to be blood will fall foul of the censors.
Before we even get to talking about the ban on corpses and blood, the ban on poker games is a difficult one to understand. China’s relationship with gambling is a complicated one. They have a global gambling mecca under their control on the island of Macau, but gambling is banned on the Chinese mainland. Slot games with Chinese themes are popular on UK slots websites like Lion Wins, where slots like 88 Fortunes, Eastern Dragon, and Dragon’s Luck are popular with players. As slot games aren’t explicitly banned under the new law, would that website still be permissible? Or would the fact that it also hosts vampire-themed slots like Blood Queen see it fall foul of the ban?
The timing of the ban is curious. It was recently announced that Tencent had been approved to sell the Nintendo Switch to Chinese customers, which was taken as a sign of Chinese markets finally opening up in terms of allowing video gaming companies to operate there. Given the sheer size of China in terms of both population and market value – Bloomberg estimates that $30bn is spent on video games there every year – it was about to become a ‘must cater to’ location for developers. Now, those same developers are facing choices of their own. They can either focus on creating games that will be approved by Chinese censors (potentially alienating Western players in the process), produce ‘edited’ versions of popular games for China (doubling their workload as they either remove or replace censored content), or completely ignore China, and focus their strategies elsewhere. Given the money on the table, the idea of choosing the third option doesn’t seem appealing.
Not wanting to expose children to violence is understandable. That’s why games come with an 18 certificate. If we’re being honest, however, most of us played Resident Evil, Grand Theft Auto and games like it long before we were old enough to ‘legally’ play them, and we weren’t warped by the experience. Labels are placed on games for a reason – adults can buy them, and then its for individual parents to decide whether their children should be playing them. The Chinese Government, in its role as a parent to the entire population, has decreed that nobody should shoot a zombie, draw blood from an opponent in a fighting game, or otherwise produce gore. We’re talking about more than Mortal Kombat here; we’re talking major implications for future installments of Assasin’s Creed, Call of Duty and many more major franchises.
There are also other considerations which developers now have to take into account. If the title of their game contains references to China (or Chinese culture in general), they are requested to ‘consider’ how those titles describe China and Chinese values. The Governments belief is that if the title speaks of China in a positive light, it will improve the global image of the country. What’s more likely to happen is that developers will stop making references to China in the titles of video games.
On top of that, all publishers working in China are immediately required to provide far more information to censors than would be the case when serving an American or European market. That information includes detailed scripts of a game’s story, multiple screenshots of content, and confirmation that the game is compliant with strict Chinese guidelines which discourage gaming addiction. That’ a lot of hoops to jump through when all you want to do is bring a game to market.
Our natural worry as gaming fans is what this will mean for blockbuster releases of the future. Right now, we’re getting Mortal Kombat 11 whatever happens, and it will arrive as it’s been programmed. It’s possible that a watered-down version will be created for the Chinese market, although we don’t see how you could water Mortal Kombat down and make the game worthy of the title. In the future, we can’t be so sure. If you were a games developer, and you could either make a bloody and gory Mortal Kombat 12 and make $1bn from it, or you could make something much more gentle without any blood or death in it and make $3bn, which one would you choose? As much as some of us might like to believe that we’d make the best game possible and accept that we’d earn less because of it, in reality, the massive increase in revenue is hard to turn down.
Far from China opening itself up to the world of video gaming and taking a step forward by relaxing its censorship rules to join in with the fun, it now seems like the opposite may occur. China has opened up its markets, and there’s so much money to be made there that the entire video gaming world might adapt itself to fit with their requirements. If they do, and we’re left playing sanitized versions of our favorite games, we’ll all be a little poorer because of it.
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