A popular martial arts game turned into a battleground of words over the weekend, resulting in the Chinese developer cutting off players in Taiwan in a dispute over free speech.

Problems between Chinese developer Seasun Games and Taiwanese partner Wanin started when gamers in Taiwan talked about the “Wuhan virus” in a chatroom for the game JX Online 3. The term is considered insensitive to Covid-19 victims in the city that was at the epicenter of the outbreak.

JX3 is a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) akin to World Of Warcraft. It has 3.3 million daily active users in East Asia, according to Seasun. Of those, Wanin was handling 1.5 million accounts. But that ended on Sunday when Seasun broke off its cooperation with Wanin.

Kingsoft’s Seasun Games was allegedly alerted to the inappropriate terms for Covid-19 after users based in Taiwan sent screenshots of the chatroom. (Picture: JX3)

The day before, online entertainment was widely shut down in mainland China for Ching Ming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day. The holiday is dedicated to cleaning grave sites and honoring ancestors. But this year, Chinese authorities turned the holiday into a day of mourning for people who died from the Covid-19 disease.

The State Council ordered a halt to public entertainment, with tech companies participating in their own ways online. For gaming giants NetEase and Tencent, the response was shutting down game servers.

Although the commemoration didn’t take place in Taiwan, JX3 was still still shut down for three hours, with the game citing site maintenance. This apparently didn’t sit well with some Taiwanese players who used the game’s chatroom to discuss Covid-19.

The term “Wuhan virus” has a controversial history. Although it was initially used both by international and Chinese state media, the term was ultimately deemed insensitive. The World Health Organization’s best practices for naming new viruses include avoiding location names and cultural references. While the official name of the virus is Sars-CoV-2, it’s now most commonly referred to by the name of the disease, Covid-19.

Debate over the term “Wuhan virus” or “China virus” became even more heated when it took a political turn as the US and China blamed each other as the virus spread across the globe.

The Chinese government has increasingly taken a tough stance on the term. Seasun, a subsidiary of Chinese software giant Kingsoft, decided to punish offending players by issuing 10-year suspensions. This, however, led to an avalanche of comments from spiteful users in chatrooms using the offending term.

Seasun Games ended its call to rectify speech from JX3 players in Taiwan by saying, “May the dead rest in peace, the living work hard and the motherland prosper.” (Picture: Weibo)

Seasun then issued stronger demands: It requested that Taiwanese partner Wanin “rectify” the offending remarks, ending a Weibo message with “may the motherland prosper.” But Wanin refused, saying that Seasun’s request to shut down chatrooms wasn’t “compatible with Taiwan's existing speech environment.” The Taiwanese company also reinstated suspended players.

In response, players in Taiwan congratulated the company on Facebook for taking a stand. Some saw the event as an attempt by the Chinese government to control speech in Taiwan.

In response to a request for comment, Wanin referred us to their official statement. We reached out to Seasun Games but didn’t receive a response.

Sensitivity over free speech issues related to China aren’t just about censorship related to Covid-19. It became a hot topic last year when addressed in an episode of South Park and a controversy involving the NBA.

But the issue hit the gaming community last October when Blizzard caused outrage after banning esports player Blitzchung for expressing support for the Hong Kong protests in an interview after winning a Hearthstone tournament. Blizzard eventually offered a vague apology in an attempt to soothe free speech concerns in the US without angering Chinese gamers.

Mainland Chinese gamers have unsurprisingly taken a different view about the JX3 event. One Weibo commenter posted that accounts from offending players should be frozen “until reunification” with Taiwan. China claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island, and has never ruled out the use of force for reunification.

For now, it remains unclear whether Taiwanese gamers will be able to join the MMORPG from local servers again any time soon. But fortunately for them, Wanin said it’s offering refunds.