One afternoon earlier this year, Naomi King, 5, found herself flying up a mountain, surrounded by ghosts.
“I’m hiding from the goblins and trying to be extra sneaky,” she said, almost under her breath.
Monsters danced across a sparkling landscape on the TV screen in front of her.
“She’s been learning about stealth in video games,” her father, Austin King, said. “That’s like her latest thing.”
And that latest thing is all part of Genshin Impact, a video game that has quickly risen to become one of the most profitable in the world, raking in more than $1 billion in revenue every six months. Apple and Google Play both named it “game of the year” in 2020. And best of all, it’s free.
“I think the surprising thing about this one that was a really big deal, especially when it first came out, was just how good it was.”
“I think the surprising thing about this one that was a really big deal, especially when it first came out, was just how good it was,” said Austin King, who’s also an editor at Screen Rant and host of the podcast "Dragon Quest FM."
The other surprise? Where Genshin Impact came from: China. The game’s developer, HoYoverse (formerly MiHoYo), is based in Shanghai, not the traditional gaming powerhouses of Japan, South Korea and the United States. And it’s seen its game reach global success from inside a country where the central government shows every sign of hating video games — from setting strict time limits on children's gaming to keeping a stranglehold on approving titles for Chinese audiences.
Genshin Impact’sunexpected global success highlights a precarious balance: How Beijing goes about nurturing Big Tech while holding true to Chinese Communist Party ideology.
Video games have been in the Beijing central leadership’s crosshairs for decades. According to Daniel Ahmad, a senior analyst at Niko Partners, a research firm covering the video gaming industry, China has “paternalistic oversight of entertainment.”
Ahmad and his colleagues have been following China’s love-hate relationship with gaming for years. In 2000, the country laid down a ban on all foreign video game consoles. Gaming, the party deemed, was akin to “electronic heroin.”
"‘We don’t want children to become addicted to video games.’ That was the official party line.”
“The concern back then was, ‘We don’t want children to become addicted to video games,’” Ahmad said. “That was the official party line. It’s always been the party line.”
The government reversed course in 2015, allowing foreign consoles into what had become the world’s largest market for gaming. Today, the country boasts more than 700 million gamers, though China’s attitude toward gaming for children has not warmed. Last August, the government announced it would begin limiting kids under 18 to just three hours of video games per week.
For one hour each Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, Chinese children can log in to their devices using their name and a specific ID number, which is then checked against a Ministry of Public Security database to identify the player and determine whether he or she is a minor.
“I would say that this is certainly the most stringent regulation or anti-deferral system put into place in maybe 20 years of regulations,” Ahmad said. “And this will be the one that has the most impact.”
The irony is that Genshin Impact, China’s most popular game, is all about addiction. HoYoverse doesn’t make money from downloads because it is free; it makes money from users spending real money as part of the game.
“There’s an addicting quality to it,” King, from Screen Rant, said. “You can play totally free, but there’s in-game currency that you get from completing quests, finding treasure, things like that. But if you don’t want to take the time to do all that, you can buy passes and other things to get that currency faster.”
You don’t pay money to get a particular character to round out your team. You’re paying for the chance to get the character or weapon you want, like spinning a prize wheel or opening a pack of baseball cards. If you don’t like what you get, just give HoYoverse more money and spin again.
Genshin Impact is following the model of “gacha games,” a phrase derived from Japanese vending machines that spit out random toys. It’s a popular model for free mobile games in search of revenue, especially those from Japan. But Genshin Impact itself — the content, the restrictions, the themes — feels distinctly Chinese.
Ahmad said developers included traditional and mythological aspects of Chinese history.
“So, there will actually be places in the game that are pretty much one-to-one recreations of places in China,” he said.
And because HoYoverse is a Shanghai-based company, it had to follow strict Chinese rules around game content. While the government may have lifted the ban on foreign consoles, it still tends to micromanage what exactly can show up in a game sold to Chinese audiences.
One example: blood. Censors don’t like it in video games. If it shows up in a game at all, it must be black, not red. Same-sex relationships are also off-limits. Last year, Chinese game developers signed a pledge to ban content that depicts “sissy men” or “gay love” — anything that might undermine the party’s anti-LGBTQ stance.
Most of all, though, the Chinese government has strict rules around language. What words can appear in a game, what themes are off-limits. There can be no references to the Dalai Lama, for example, and, if you’re a developer hoping to get your game approved by censors, it’s a safe bet to avoid any mention of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Ahmad said politics are generally best left out: “Hong Kong, Taiwan … it’s best to just avoid controversy in entertainment and media in general.”
Jeff Knockel, a researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, has been studying Chinese censorship for more than a decade. In that time, he and his colleagues have looked at social media, instant message platforms, news media and entertainment — all in an attempt to see what gets past the censors, and what doesn’t.
Similar phrases always pop up across platforms: Falun Gong, the controversial spiritual movement; Taiwan; Tibet; anything that could be a headache for the Communist Party.
“We really wanted to get down to this question of, 'Do all apps in China censor the same things or are they just sort of left to come up with what to censor on their own?'” Knockel said.
He said he started looking at censorship in Chinese video games simply because there were so many of them. And what Knockel found was that censorship of games in China can be a bit capricious.
“You really see a lot of diversity in the content that’s censored in each game,” Knockel said. “So, you would, of course, see typical things like government criticism being censored, collective action being censored, things that have a more prurient nature.”
The party rules around these censors are intentionally vague. For example, games cannot have content that could “endanger social morality or national cultural traditions,” an edict that is intentionally unclear.
“And you can imagine why this sort of situation would be desirable for the Chinese government,” Knockel said, “because by keeping it vague, it forces companies to sort of censor additional things just to make sure all the categories are covered that might get them in trouble.”
Knockel said he knows of game developers in China that have taken to keeping a running list of unacceptable words, then sharing it with other developers who copy and paste those words to their lists. And because the authorities don’t do this officially, they have deniability.
Domestic game developers have navigated these censors for years, and if you’re a foreign company hoping to break into China’s $45-billion market, you have to play by China’s rules. “Localizing” games for different national markets is standard practice: Translate the game and cut anything that could be construed as insensitive or out of touch. China is more stringent.
Foreign developers must first partner with a Chinese company, like Tencent, then work with them to ensure the game’s content is in line with party rules. Chinese characters cannot be adversaries in story lines; political content is strictly off-limits; no worshiping money; no “effeminate” men.
“If you look at the number of domestically approved titles that have been approved, it’s always significantly higher than the number of imported or foreign or overseas games.”
“I would say that if you look at the number of domestically approved titles that have been approved, it’s always significantly higher than the number of imported or foreign or overseas games,” Ahmad said. “ And you’ll find that even when developers submit a game, there’ll be this sort of back-and-forth between the regulators and the developer, where the regulators will tell them you can’t have this, or you can’t have that, or this needs to change.”
Games allowing free expression also find themselves banned in China. In 2020, the pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game that allows users to customize their own private island. Wong decorated his virtual lawn with a banner reading “Free Hong Kong, revolution now.” Not long after, the game disappeared from Taobao, China’s version of eBay. It was a shot across the bow for game developers: If your game allows unfettered free expression, it’s not allowed in China.
In Genshin Impact, like many other Chinese games, this censorship manifests through the in-game chat function. Type in the word “Tibet” and you get five asterisks. “Hong Kong,” you get eight. Because Gensin Impact is a globally popular game that happened to be made in China, those rules get exported. No matter where in the world you play the game, the Chinese censors are always on.
Whether Beijing will try to harness the game’s popularity for its own image is so far unclear.
It’s no new strategy for the Central Propaganda Department to evolve with new forms of media and get its message out, whether that be through rap videos, films and television shows, social media influencers or video games. In a recent report from Recorded Future’s Insikt Group, researcher Devin Thorne notes that a main priority of the CCP is to influence young people overseas.
That strategy stems, he writes, “from the belief that young people are impressionable, will hold foundational opinions and ideologies well into the future, and can serve as a bedrock of support for the party and China once they mature into positions of influence.” The Record is an editorially independent unit of Recorded Future.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Overseas youth also pose a particular threat to the Chinese Communist Party, as they understand the culture, they speak the language and, unlike those living within China’s borders, they can loudly speak their minds.
The party’s response? Meet the young people where they already are.
“Video games [are] one form of media that the party recognizes is highly attractive to young audiences in China, but particularly overseas.”
“Video games [are] one form of media that the party recognizes is highly attractive to young audiences in China, but particularly overseas,” Thorne told digital marketing company Click Here in an interview. “And the question that we see work units under the Central Propaganda Department actively researching is how to disseminate Chinese culture — as curated by the party, obviously — and Chinese policies into video games.”
The party, he notes, understands that the sort of “hard” propaganda is less salient for young audiences. More than a decade ago, China was trying its hand at “patriotic” video games like Shining Sword and Glorious Mission, an online first-person shooter put out by the People’s Liberation Army. But these sorts of “red” games, as analysts called them, found little lasting success.
Instead, Thorne said, the video games the CCP finds most useful for its propaganda efforts are those that avoid overt party praise or strong nationalist themes.
“When you start to have a lot of political motives that come in and you start to put a lot of overt messaging about socialism and the Communist system — I mean, maybe there’s a way to do it,” Thorne said, “but I think that’s a pretty tricky balance to maintain that and the entertainment.”
Thorne wouldn’t go so far as to label Genshin Impact, or similar Chinese games, as propaganda.
“I don’t know that they were specifically designed with this sort of political influence goal in mind,” he said.
But he pointed out that — from the party’s perspective —Genshin Impact does have propaganda value.
“And the propaganda value that has been highlighted in party state media in relation to Genshin Impact’s popularity overseas is that it’s transmitting Chinese culture, particularly traditional Chinese culture,” Thorne said. “It’s sort of packaging that in a very fun and engaging way that’s going to draw audiences in.”
For now, Genshin Impact is still one of the world’s most popular video game titles. It was the most tweeted-about game of 2021, according to Twitter, and more than half its players can be found outside China.
Austin King, the American host of Dragon Quest FM, said he doesn’t see the game as “explicitly pro-China.” He’s been playing since the day it came out and writes for Screen Rant about the game’s newest updates and story lines. More than anything, he said, Genshin Impact showed the potential of China’s video game industry.
“I don’t want to say necessarily that it’s made people take [China] seriously when it comes to gaming,” King said. “But I definitely feel like it’s one of those things where it’s made people be more excited for games that are coming out of this country.”
This article originally appeared in The Record on June 7, 2022. It was written by Will Jarvis, with additional reporting by Dina Temple-Raston.
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.