Chinese authorities may be spurred to clamp down on video games which can be used by players as platforms for politically sensitive content, following incidents involving popular titles from Nintendo and Seasun Games.

“Regulations on gaming are bound to be more strict and more detailed,” said Ding Daoshi, director of research at internet consultancy Sootoo in Beijing, based on recent controversy over content posted by players on Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Seasun’s JX3.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has come under attack in content posted by a group of players on the Nintendo social simulation video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which has become an online gathering place for pro-democracy protesters. (Picture: SCMP)

Released last month, the new Nintendo title – a social simulation game set on a deserted tropical island – vanished earlier this month from online retailers and game live-streaming platforms in China, including Twitch-like sites DouYu and Huya.

Players in mainland China blamed that disappearance on Hong Kong pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung, who had posted on Twitter that he plays the game and that it has served as an online gathering place for their movement.

Seasun, meanwhile, halted earlier this month the availability in Taiwan of JX3 – a martial arts-focused massive multiplayer online role-playing game – in a dispute with local partner Wanin International. Their conflict stemmed from the partner’s refusal to censor players’ in-game chats, which referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus.” The term, which references the city in central mainland China where the outbreak was first reported, is considered a slur by the Chinese government.

Seasun, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Kingsoft Corp, also issued a 10-year suspension to each of the offending Taiwanese gamers.

Seasun Games handed out a 10-year suspension to each of the Taiwanese JX3 players found to have used a pejorative term for the coronavirus in the online game’s chat room. (Picture: Handout)

Although China’s video games industry is directly under the State Administration of Press and Publications (SAPP), Sootoo’s Ding suggested that these recent incidents could prompt scrutiny from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the main regulator, censor and policymaker for the country’s internet industry. He said the CAC, which was formed in 2014, has a rigid approach in overseeing online content in ecommerce, search engines and apps.

Kyoto-based Nintendo, Seasun and the CAC did not immediately respond to separate requests for comment on Thursday.

Speculation on the video game industry’s potential scrutiny by the CAC comes after stringent new internet rules took effect in China last month. The regulations – which were announced by the CAC in December, but implemented from March 1 – put responsibility for any objectionable content on the websites that host it as well as the service providers, content producers and users.

The rules state that content posted online should be mainly positive, uplifting and devoid of rumors.

Further scrutiny from regulators could put additional pressure on China’s video games market, which had struggled through a nine-month freeze on new game licences in 2018 amid a regulatory revamp. Since then, the SAPP has increased enforcement in a bid to close certain “loopholes that have been around for years,” according to a recent report by research firm Niko Partners.

Controversies, however, continued to erupt across the industry. American game developer Blizzard Entertainment faced a major backlash from US lawmakers and gamers around the world after it punished Blitzchung, a Hong Kong-based esports competitor – whose real name is Ng Wai-chung – who voiced support for the city’s protesters during an interview at the company’s Hearthstone competition held in Taiwan in October last year.

Defending that decision, Blizzard president J Allen Brack said the company’s relationship with mainland China was not a factor. Blizzard later reinstated Ng’s prize money and halved his ban from Hearthstone competitions.

Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong gamers clashed online in December last year on the action adventure game Grand Theft Auto V, developed by UK-based Rockstar North. The players staged a virtual battle in which mainland Chinese gamers dressed as riot police, drove trucks with water cannons and threw grenades at the Hong Kong gamers.

Preventing increased regulatory scrutiny may force game developers and online operators to adapt to the times. Zheng Jintiao, co-founder of media outlet Gamer Boom, said a number of Chinese developers and publishers are creating more child-friendly games and titles with a focus on traditional Chinese culture.

“You have to learn to express [something less conservative] more subtly, rather than be obvious,” Zheng said.

China is the video game industry’s biggest market in Asia and the world, with more than 720 million gamers across mobile, desktop personal computer and console hardware, according to Niko Partners. It projected this market to generate about US$36 billion in revenue this year, up from US$33 billion in 2019.