China is blocking the world’s hottest video game because it lacks “core socialist values”

Gladiators not wanted.
Gladiators not wanted.
Image: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
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China’s media regulators on Friday (Oct. 27) took aim at PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), a smash-hit survival game that has sold over 13 million copies since its release in March. The video-game office of the official China Audio-Video Copyright Association published a notice (link in Chinese) stating that the game contains too much blood and gore, and thus will be unlikely to get a license to officially launch in China. The office cited consultations with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the country’s main content regulator.

Created by South Korean game developer Bluehole, PUBG has become one of the world’s best-selling PC games in just six months since going on sale on game platform Steam, and has beaten popular titles like Grand Theft Auto V and Dota 2 in player numbers. Its competition concept is similar to the young-adult novels and movies The Hunger Games—players are parachuted onto an island to scavenge for weapons that range from frying pans to AK-47s and fight each other until only one player survives.

In its online statement, the Chinese copyright association compared PUBG and similar survival games with ancient Rome’s gladiator battles, saying the violently competitive spirit behind them is “against our country’s core socialist values and the Chinese nation’s traditional cultural behaviors and moral principles, and bad for teenagers’ physical and mental health.” The association recommends Chinese gaming firms not develop or distribute such games, and asks domestic live-streaming platforms not to promote the survival genre.

PUBG’s Chinese players soared to nearly 5 million by the end of September, almost double that in the US the same month, according to Steam Spy, which tracks data on Steam games. At the same time Chinese players suffer worse connectivity problems than players in other regions, as Bluehole is struggling to deal with the influx from China to the game’s Asian server.

PUBG currently has no local publisher in China. Chang Byung-gyu, co-founder of Bluehole, told Bloomberg last month that Chinese tech giant Tencent had contacted it in relation to a partnership, and offered to buy a stake in the PUBG developer. A dominant player in China’s gaming market, Tencent already owns popular mobile and PC titles such as League of Legends and Clash of Clans. Earlier this year it also re-launched its own game-distribution platform to compete with Steam in China.

Tencent and Bluehole didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

As Daniel Ahmad, an analyst at Asian games research firm Niko Partners, notes, Steam currently operates in a legal gray area in China where “Chinese gamers have access to all the games on the Steam library, many of which would be blocked or censored if they were officially released on a different platform.” But the Chinese government could impose restrictions on or block Steam at any time, he says.

This year, ahead of a key meeting that culminated in a turnover in the top ranks of the party, China has policed online content and tech firms more vigorously, including when it comes to video games. In July, Tencent rolled out a series of measures to restrict play time for teenage users in its own mobile game Honor of Kings, after state media outlets weighted in against the viral hit, calling it a “poison.”