Securing the China Market: World of Warcraft and Western Accommodation of Communist Party Restrictions

Guest contributor and friend of the blog Evan Willford places Blizzard Entertainment’s recent censorship scandal in the context of a longer history of the company’s accommodation of the Chinese government.

blitzchung

Professional video gamer Chung Ng Wai showing solidarity for Hong Kong protestors in October 2019.

Since this summer, hundreds of thousands of protestors have packed the streets of Hong Kong, demonstrating against Chinese encroachment on Hong Kong’s special status under the “one country, two systems” principle.[1] The largely peaceful protests have generated sympathy across much of the Western world. This sympathy has created a dilemma for corporations and organizations eager to preserve access to the lucrative Chinese market but reticent to draw bad PR from condoning the human rights abuses of the Chinese government. The video game publishing giant Activision Blizzard’s attempt to walk this fine line during October 2019 reveal how conceptions of free speech, Internet protest culture, and the imperatives of global capital accumulation collided in the aftermath of a distinctly 21st-century event: an eSports tournament. This conflict, and the longer history of Blizzard’s relationship with China, offer historians a glimpse into the future of our discipline and a preview of the challenges of writing histories involving transnational digital systems.

Blitzchung Bop

On October 8, 2019, during a post-match interview at the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters Hearthstone tournament, professional Hearthstone player Chung Ng Wai (better known by his handle “Blitzchung”) professed support for the Hong Kong protests by donning goggles and a respirator and yelling “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!”[2]

Later that day, Blizzard Entertainment (a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard and the developer of Hearthstone) announced that Blitzchung and the two casters interviewing him violated competition rules against “[e]ngaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image.” As punishment, Blizzard suspended Blitzchung from participating in Hearthstone eSports for a year, stripped him of his $10,000 in prize money, and banned the casters from working Blizzard events.[3] Online backlash quickly followed, as the story spread across social media sites such as Reddit[4] and Twitter, with players,[5] forum moderators,[6] and other casters[7] announcing that they were quitting the game out of solidarity with Blitzchung.

Four days later, in the face of this mounting backlash, Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack issued a statement in which he reinstated Blitzchung’s winnings, reduced the suspensions from one year to six months, and acknowledged that Blizzard “reacted too quickly.” However, Brack stood by the decision to punish those involved, stating that, “[t]he specific views expressed by [B]litzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made… If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.” Furthermore, Brack insisted, “I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.”[8] While other considerations clearly factored into the decision, it is hard to believe that Blizzard’s relationships in China had no influence—especially considering that 12% of Activision Blizzard’s revenue comes from the Asia Pacific market and that the massive Chinese gaming conglomerate Tencent owns a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard.[9] In any case, the company’s double strategy—reduce the penalties to mollify those sympathetic to Hong Kong while upholding the principle of punishment to deter unwanted speech—seems to have steered the company between Scylla and Charybdis, at least for now. More broadly, Blizzard’s strategy suggests that corporations under global capitalism face much stronger incentives to accommodate illiberalism than to sacrifice financial gain in service of the values of their employees[10] or customers, a suggestion reinforced by the company’s history of accommodating the demands of the Chinese government.

Wrath of the Lich King Communist Party of China

The history of Blizzard’s flagship game, the Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW), demonstrates that this Faustian bargain did not begin in June 2019 with the Hong Kong protests. Rather, Blizzard’s concessions to the Chinese government date back to at least 2005, when WoW first launched in China. In addition to providing context for the Blitzchung controversy, this history offers a case study for historians interested in the multifaceted nature of video games or digital platforms more broadly, as well as highlighting another potentially fruitful field of study for scholars of diplomacy and international business.

Launched in North America and Europe to general acclaim and overwhelming demand in November 2004, Blizzard moved quickly to localize and launch World of Warcraft in China (where hundreds of thousands of gamers signed up for and participated in the open beta).[11] Rather than dedicate a portion of their development team to localization, Blizzard hired Shanghai-based company The9 to handle translation, IT infrastructure, and customer support in China.[12] Following an advertising blitz that featured Coca Cola, the Taiwanese girl band S.H.E., and Olympic gold medalist Liu Xiang, WoW launched in China on June 7, 2005.[13] The game was a hit, reaching 1.5 million active players within the first month, according to numbers released by The9—an unprecedented number for a Western-developed MMORPG in China.[14]

While much of the Chinese version of WoW would have been recognizable to non-Chinese players, the Chinese government imposed various restrictions, demands, and bureaucratic headaches upon The9 and Chinese players in the name of “cultural harmony.” Most onerous to serious gamers were the “anti-obsession” measures imposed on online games in order to curb video game addiction (a feature that frustrated Western parents would have likely paid for, had Blizzard offered it). After three hours of consecutive play, the player’s abilities were halved—making it difficult, if not impossible, to progress. After two more hours, the player’s abilities dropped to zero. Players had to remain offline for five consecutive hours to reset the timer.[15] In addition to policies designed to limit players’ time in online games, the Chinese government found issue with some in-game representations of bones, skulls, and undead characters. The ensuing bureaucratic brawl over censoring those features of WoW would ensnare the game’s first and second expansions in a web of red tape that ultimately ended the relationship between Blizzard and The9 and put the Chinese version of Azeroth—the virtual world of World of Warcraft—in a yearlong time freeze.

WOW1

A distinctly unharmonious Undead player character and bone pile in the non-Chinese version of WoW.[16]

The government censors objected to depictions of Undead (re-animated corpses, skeletons, and zombies) in the game and delayed the launch until September of that year while The9 modified the offending game models and icons, adding skin to the bonier members of the Undead and replacing the skeletons left by dead players with oversized gravestones.[17] These objections did not emerge from any traditional Chinese aversion to depictions of skulls or zombies, but rather from the Communist Party’s efforts to promote “cultural harmony” in video games and other media as part of then-President Hu Jintao’s efforts to repress social discontent.[18] In their anthropological report “A Hybrid Cultural Ecology: World of Warcraft in China,” Silvia Lindtner and others note that while “the government promotes ‘harmony’ as a core cultural value,” the word is “laden with meaning and its interpretation varies widely depending on the context in which it is used.” Furthermore, the authors reported confusion on the part of Chinese players about the reason behind these changes (one player that they interviewed found the gravestones scarier than the skeletons).[19] The game’s second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, featured the Undead more prominently and, not surprisingly, proved even more challenging to release in China.

A forced policy review of Wrath of the Lich King’s content delayed the expansion’s release. The expected delay of a few months stretched over a year as World of Warcraft ignited a bureaucratic turf war between Chinese agencies over jurisdiction of online games. The General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) twice rejected the application for Wrath of the Lich King’s publication, citing “skeletal characters and an attack on a player city—the Battle for the Undercity quest—as problematic.”[20] As player numbers plummeted, Blizzard dropped The9’s contract, awarding it instead to the Shanghai-based company NetEase. The transition resulted in the game being offline in mainland China for most of June 2009, during which time many players switched to playing WoW on Taiwanese realms or moving to other MMOs entirely.[21] While the servers were down, the Chinese Ministry of Culture (a different state bureaucracy) approved the censored game’s release, deeming the censored models sufficiently “harmonious.” Although the Ministry of Culture approved the game, GAPP still opposed its release, and, in November 2009, suspended their review of the game, ordering a freeze on payments and account creation, and alleging that NetEase illegally collected profit while the game content underwent review.[22] According to Michael Wines of the New York Times, GAPP historically handled censorship of published materials like DVDs or books, while the Ministry of Culture handled film and performing arts. WoW, as both a publication and a multimedia work, “fell between the cracks.”[23] The game finally received GAPP approval to re-launch The Burning Crusade in February 2010 and Wrath of the Lich King in August 2010, ending nearly two years of turmoil, and finally bringing the Chinese version of Azeroth mostly up-to-date with the rest of the world.[24]

WOW2

A patriotic Undead warrior and harmonious pile of dry goods on the Chinese version of WoW.[25]

The history of WoW in China reveals both the challenge of adapting Western cultural products to the often-capricious standards of the Communist Party of China bureaucracy as well as the financial rewards for making those sacrifices. One key difference between the WoW localization efforts and the Blitzchung scandal lies in the scope of Blizzard’s actions and the extent to which Western gamers saw their own values and freedom at stake. By tweaking only the Chinese version of WoW, Chinese players alone felt the impact—players elsewhere in the world were largely oblivious or indifferent to the changes. As Blizzard seeks to create a truly worldwide eSports empire, the decision to punish a competitor sent a message to players across the world, not just to those in Hong Kong. As companies seeking growth look to China (and past its abuses), Blizzard’s experiences provide a cautionary tale for both capitalists and consumers, albeit one that will likely be ignored in pursuit of profit.

 


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/10/hong-kong-protests-china-state-media-foreign-forces-extradition-bill

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/10/08/an-esports-player-spoke-out-support-hong-kong-protests-he-was-suspended-year/

[3] https://playhearthstone.com/en-us/esports/news/23179289/hearthstone-grandmasters-asia-pacific-ruling

[4] https://www.reddit.com/r/worldnews/comments/dewc98/blizzard_suspends_hearthstone_player_for/,

[5] https://www.reddit.com/r/hearthstone/comments/dey8bh/i_play_hs_everyday_i_climbed_to_legend_several/

[6] https://www.reddit.com/r/hearthstone/comments/dfag8e/stepping_down_from_the_mod_team/

[7] https://www.reddit.com/r/hearthstone/comments/dg62jv/admirable_steps_down_from_grandmasters_cast/

[8] https://news.blizzard.com/en-us/blizzard/23185888/regarding-last-weekend-s-hearthstone-grandmasters-tournament

[9] https://qz.com/1723666/blizzard-banned-hearthstone-player-for-hong-kong-protest-support/

[10] https://www.kotaku.co.uk/2019/11/05/hearthstone-developers-wish-blizzard-had-handled-hong-kong-controversy-differently

[11] Scott Andrews, “WoW in China, an Uncensored History, Part 1,” WoW Archivist, published January 17, 2014, accessed April 20, 2018, https://www.engadget.com/2014/01/17/wow-archivist-wow-in-china-an-uncensored-history/. The WoW Archivist blog is written by gamers and amateur historians whose documentation of the game proved immensely useful in my research. I highly recommend their work for those interested in the nitty-gritty details of WoW history.

[12] The name “The9” nods towards the eight traditional Chinese arts and places video gaming among them as the ninth. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 136-137.

[13] Andrews, “WoW in China, Part 1.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Luke Plunkett, “WoW Finally Returns To China, With A Little More Censorship,” Kotaku, August 7, 2009, https://kotaku.com/wow-finally-returns-to-china-with-a-little-more-censor-5331872.

[17] Andrews, “WoW in China, Part 1.”

[18] Maureen Fan, “China’s Party Leadership Declares New Priority: ‘Harmonious Society,’ Washington Post, October 12, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/11/AR2006101101610.html.

[19] Silvia Lindtner, Bonnie Nardi, Yang Wang, Scott Mainwaring, He Jing, and Wenjing Liang, “A Hybrid Cultural Ecology: World of Warcraft in China,” in Proceedings of the 2008 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, (2008): 377-378, https://dl-acm-org.colorado.idm.oclc.org/citation.cfm?id=1460624. This article combines anthropology, human-computer-interaction studies, and sociology to describe the technological and social systems that enable and complement World of Warcraft-playing in China in the late 2000s. For those interested in a lengthier anthropological account of WoW, check out Bonnie Nardi’s delightful book My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft (University of Michigan Press, 2010).

[20] Andrews, “WoW in China.”  Michael Wines, “Chinese Agencies Struggle Over Video Game,” New York Times, November 6, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/07/world/asia/07china.html?_r=0.

[21] Subscription data shows a drop in WoW subscribers and a rise in Aion (a Korean MMO) subscribers that begins during this month. Randy Olson, “MMORPG Popularity, 1998-2013,” published November 12, 2014, http://www.randalolson.com/2014/11/12/mmorpg-popularity-1998-2013/. Andrews, “WoW in China.”

[22] Andrews, “WoW in China.”

[23] Wines, “Chinese Agencies Struggle over Video Game.” Cultural critic Henry Jenkins’s argument that video games are “The New Lively Art” articulates a media-studies approach to studying video games as serious forms of popular culture and, indeed, as art: http://web.mit.edu/~21fms/People/henry3/GamesNewLively.html.

[24] Andrews, “WoW in China.”

[25] Plunkett, “WoW Finally Returns To China.”  For more interesting screenshots (from a more recent version of the game), check out this Reddit post: https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/49x7m0/chinese_wow_censorship_comparisonlots_of/

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