Hit game Frostpunk is fueling debate on socialism in China
Players can choose to build totalitarian regimes… and players in China love it
“The city survived. But was it worth it?”
This is the question Frostpunk poses for players after they survive the apocalypse -- by turning their city into a totalitarian regime. You won the game. But was it worth it?
That’s why this game is fueling debates about socialism in China. Some Chinese gamers are saying: “It’s worth it!”
Before we dive in, let’s step back a little. Frostpunk is a city-building survival game. It’s set in 1886, but in an alternate timeline where the Earth was hit by apocalyptic snowstorms. You play the leader of a small British settlement, trying to grow your town, protect your people -- and survive the deadly cold.
As the game goes on, the temperature progressively plummets, starting from minus 20˚C and going all the way down to minus 150˚C.
During the game, you have to scavenge for resources to power the generator, build facilities, feed your people and take in refugees. Along the way, you’ll have some tough decisions: Use the guards to quell dissent? Put children to work? Give more power to the church?
It is possible to finish the game without resorting to those choices, but it is extremely difficult.
During my first time playing, I had to start putting children to work… on the third day. And while the storm is supposed to end on Day 45, I only got to Day 18 before my government was toppled.
These tough choices mean getting to the end of winter is only half the battle. The other battle is with your conscience.
When the game ends, you watch a timelapse of your city’s growth. Dramatic music plays, and your decisions are displayed in bold text. If you turned your city into a hive of religious fanaticism or a totalitarian regime, the game will say: “We crossed the line.”
But some Chinese players disagree.
The game has triggered discussion in the country on government, how societies should be run, and what people’s responsibilities are… when a civilization is at the brink of extinction.
Many players are taking the gaming experience personally: They’re comparing the inclement weather in the game to the hardship China had to endure over the past century.
They don’t agree with Frostpunk’s final judgment, and are defending China’s socialist society.
One review on Steam said, “If you are an American whose country is almost twice as advanced as the rest of the world, or if you are a European who lives in a benefit-giving society… you might indeed give it pause and contemplate your actions. But I am a m*****f***ing Chinese person.”
Another said “[The developers] didn’t intend for Chinese people to ‘emphasize revolution, boost production’ and survive by maximizing productivity. What capitalist countries told us through this game -- socialism is badass!”
“Emphasize revolution, boost production” is a slogan from the time of Mao. Slogans like it spread during the times of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, when Mao waged war against capitalists and intellectuals.
To be clear, those periods were historic low points in Chinese history. But Chinese gamers seem to be looking past the horrors of that time and are instead focusing -- whether seriously or ironically -- on the propaganda image projected.
Gamers are lashing out at the values projected by the game’s ending, and the judgement it renders, arguing that what they did was necessary for their city’s survival -- and is therefore perfectly fine.
China’s Communist Youth League even weighed in, supporting players. They effectively endorsed their methods on Weibo, emphasizing unity… to crank up production.
The outburst in nationalism prompted by Frostpunk has even reached the President of the United States.
When Donald Trump tweeted about working on a deal to save Chinese company ZTE, one user responded to say China is “on the way to kick [the] US and the world’s ass” -- pointing at Frostpunk players as an example of why.
Frostpunk is developed by Polish company 11 bit studios. Its partnerships manager Pawel Miechowski told us that the company is aware that some gamers are angered by the endgame judgment and is "addressing that issue."
He added, "We leave free space for interpretation. We have designed Frostpunk as an experience for people so they can come up with their own interpretation while they play the game."
11 bit studios says that Frostpunk's biggest community is in China. Data from SteamSpy show that Frostpunk has sold over 668,000 copies globally -- more than 250,000 of them in China alone.