In October of 2019, the professional esports player known as “Blitzchung” was being interviewed on a livestream discussing a match he had just won in Taiwan as part of a tournament for the game Hearthstone. Wearing a gas mask and goggles and speaking to the official Taiwanese Hearthstone stream, Blitzchung repeated a popular slogan of protesters in Hong Kong who had recently taken to the streets to protest China undermining the island’s independence: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time.”
Blitzchung, whose real name is Ng Wai Chung and who hails from Hong Kong, quickly found himself in the crosshairs of Activision Blizzard, the company behind Hearthstone. Blizzard shut down the stream, suspended and punished Blitzchung, and wrote a formal apology in Chinese on Weibo (but never released it in English). Blizzard declared Blitzchung to be in violation of player rules that forbid conduct that could be offensive or might harm the company’s image, banned him from competing for a calendar year, and demanded he forfeit thousands of dollars in prize money. Blizzard also fired the two streaming journalists who were interviewing Blitzchung and banned them from covering future Activision Blizzard events.
The “Blitzchung affair,” as it came to be known, highlights how video games pose unique challenges to free speech. Western companies complying with Chinese censorship demands—in this case, attempting to suppress advocacy for a free Hong Kong—as a cost of doing business isn’t new, but the role of video games as an important venue for speech and a central battleground for free speech remains underappreciated. Conflicts over free speech in video games go far beyond Hearthstone. Whether in the chat features of video games or in the narrative decisions made by video game designers, the censorship demands of countries around the world are increasingly shaping the digital entertainment consumed by the world’s more than three billion gamers. These demands create a difficult challenge for video game companies: balancing the need for business growth with a commitment to free speech.
The business of games, the business of censorship
Video games have been globalized for so long that their global reach can sometimes be easy to miss. Since the 1980s, a game has been as likely to have been made outside the United States as within it. Companies like Sega and Nintendo are Japanese, Ubisoft (which makes Assassin’s Creed) is French, Witcher developer CD Projekt Red is Polish, to name a few. For the most part, these companies reside in countries that respect values like free speech. But that is changing. A global investment push by the Chinese tech giant Tencent has made it a major player in the video game industry. Just last month, Tencent doubled its stake in Ubisoft. Activision submitting to Chinese censorship should be no surprise, since Tencent has a 5% stake in the company worth nearly $3 billion. Tencent also has large stakes in several other U.S. video game companies like Riot Games (acquired in 2011), Fortnite maker Epic Games (a 40% stake), and the chat service Discord. These investments give Tencent the power to enforce Chinese speech values on non-Chinese players at venues outside of mainland China, as in the Blitzchung Affair. Other authoritarian countries hostile to free speech are taking note and pursuing similar investment strategies, most notably Saudi Arabia, which just last month announced a $38 billion investment push into the video game industry.
The censorship power exerted by deep-pocketed authoritarian governments is a worry familiar to other creative fields, especially cinema. As documented in a 2020 report by PEN America, “Beijing’s censors have affected and influenced Hollywood and the global filmmaking industry.” Values deemed unacceptable by the ruling Chinese Communist Party are often either removed from production or edited out for distribution. In one prominent example, the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody, which depicts the life of a very gay Freddie Mercury had all references to homosexuality removed from the Chinese release. China has this power because their financial support keeps Hollywood alive in the era of global blockbusters. As a result, films about Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs are impossible to make at studios that do business in China.
Video games have, for the most part, escaped the same level of scrutiny over content censorship that movies have received. The lack of attention has given the Chinese government space to impose rigid restrictions on what non-Chinese game makers can do in the Chinese market. Most games go through a design process known as localization. When games are being made in one free country and published in another, localization is akin to translating a book: Idioms need to be altered, sometimes dialogue reconfigured to make sense for the scene in question. Localization, in other words, requires selecting what speech to put into a game and in what way, creating an easy opportunity for censorship. But China’s market is large enough—and budgets are small enough—that Chinese censorship often gets incorporated into games at the development stage, not edited out later for distribution. Some of the rules around what is prohibited are almost inexplicable to foreign audiences, like references to Winnie the Pooh (a stand-in for Chinese leader Xi Jinping) or small details of female character design. Even for gaming giants, these local restrictions can be so onerous they aren’t always worth complying with, like when Epic Games decided last year to halt production of its Chinese localization of the popular Fortnite game, citing the difficulties of adapting an existing project to cumbersome censorship demands.
China is not alone in imposing censorship on video games. Last year, the Russian government announced a plan to use neural networks to search for banned content in video games released in the country and censor them. The Russian government insists it is to identify child sexual abuse media, suicide, and drug use, but the censorship extends far beyond those topics. Over a decade ago, for example, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 featured a shocking scene where a player could execute civilians en masse at a Russian airport—a rather clumsy reference to the scourge of Chechen terrorism. Moscow demanded the scene be removed entirely from the game. Much like China, Russia is aggressive at erasing queer people and content from video games and has done so since its 2013 law criminalizing the positive mention of gay people around children. Other countries engage in video game censorship as well. India threatened and bullied the PUBG Corporation into pulling PlayerUnknown’s Battleground Mobile from the market, only allowing it to be reintroduced after major changes to content and gameplay. Meanwhile, Pakistan banned Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 for “painting the country in a negative light.” However, tracking censorship at a global scale is difficult: many developers do not wish to attract negative scrutiny from governments they need to appease for market access, and there is no feasible way to track the role of self-censorship at game developers.
The censorship conflicts in video games mirror similar dynamics on other tech platforms. Until last year, for example, Microsoft complied with censorship demands on LinkedIn before it shut down the platform, citing “a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements.” In China, writers have seen their words censored at the software level if it is deemed too sensitive. The social media app TikTok, while ostensibly an American version of the video app Douyin, nevertheless censors content in compliance with Chinese censorship laws. The app aggressively, but quietly, censors content deemed “political” according to CCP dictates. In 2019, teenage TikTok influencer Feroza Aziz used her makeup tutorials to draw attention to the ongoing genocide against Uyghurs in western China; TikTok prevented her videos from being shared. TikTok also restricts references to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Like every other creative industry dealing with demands from China, Russia, and elsewhere, the app also suppresses queer creators and limits the reach of creators who are overweight or have disabilities in an effort to keep “ugly” content from appearing on its main recommendation feed. TikTok also censored content about the democracy protests in Hong Kong, just as Activision Blizzard did. And just as worryingly, Chinese tech companies, from Alibaba to Tencent to ByteDance, have admitted to sharing user data with the Chinese government—so anyone who uses their services to push banned content might be registered in a government database.
Structural challenges to global free speech
One reason Chinese censorship has been exported so widely is the consolidation of media companies in the west. As Disney, for example, has acquired production houses and franchises like 20th Century Fox, Marvel, and Star Wars, executives at the company have grown increasingly unwilling to make films that might upset censors. Communication research has shown that media consolidation—which Disney represents most clearly but which applies equally to Warner Bros. Discovery, Paramount Global, and other large conglomerates—makes self-censorship to appease government demands more consequential and with more wide-ranging consequences. It should come as no surprise that the gay themes of Bohemian Rhapsody were edited out of the film for Chinese audiences, when the company responsible for distributing it was 20th Century Fox, a Disney subsidiary.
The video game industry is consolidating in a way similar to television and movies, which risks exposing the medium to the same self-censorship dynamics of the film industry. In just the last two years, Microsoft purchased ZeniMax Media (which makes Doom, Skyrim, and Fallout) and is attempting to acquire Activision Blizzard for a whopping $75 billion. In just the first six months of 2022, more than 600 video game mergers and acquisitions took place worth over $107 billion. The concentration of capital in a shrinking number of companies dramatically raises the stakes of any censorious government imposing speech restrictions on games by making those decisions ripple across the globe. And as China remains an enormous market many companies must tap into to continue growing, the ways Chinese censorship demands affect non-Chinese consumers and players will only become more salient.
China threatening U.S. companies with lost access to markets if they support free speech presents a difficult conundrum. In the economic reality of the 21st century, large companies need to grow in order to remain competitive—and it is more difficult to do that if they are unable to access a billion consumers in China. At the same time, what obligations do US-based companies have to uphold American values? In his annual letter to CEOs, Blackrock CEO Larry Fink often invokes the need for companies to have a “clear stated purpose [and] consistent values.” Can a company be profit-seeking and actively safeguard the values that define American culture, like free expression? The video game industry offers a clear example of this conflict and, at least so far, the results aren’t encouraging.
As a global medium, the risk to free speech in video games is global in scale—decisions made in one country will have ripple effects on how people experience games in other countries. This happened recently with the enormously popular mobile game, Genshin Impact. The developer, miHoYo, imposed a global language gag on the in-game player-to-player chat, in every widely used language, to forbid references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tiananmen, Falun Gong, and other words and phrases banned by China. Blizzard has made similar concessions in Hearthstone, censoring card art to appease Chinese authorities. Instead of making localization changes for the Chinese market, it is easier to concede globally to censorship. Despite the ongoing concern about Chinese financing for films, there is—still—relatively little outcry about Chinese financing for video games, even though it has already led to Americans in the United States being censored.
The necessity and limits of outcry
The challenge of protecting free speech in the video game industry has no easy answers. It is the result of structural pressures and a gap between corporate and democratic values. Shifting those values will not happen overnight, and they cannot be legislated into existence. Community pressure from gamers that demands full speech rights from the owners of game platforms and services can help to set a norm that speech rights need to be prioritized, not discarded, when localizing products.
There are no clearly defined norms and expectations around how speech is best defended in a globalized market, and gamers arguably have an opportunity to shape them. Facing a torrent of criticism from gamers, Blizzard navigated its way out of the Blitzchung Affair by reversing the most severe of its penalties, apologizing to players, and resuming normal operations as quickly as it could. Blizzard also reiterated a “no politics” stance for its livestreams, but avoiding politics does not mean politics are absent. When a repressive government demands silence, caving to that silence is not neutral—it is doing the repression’s work. Blizzard folding in the face of criticism points to the important role gamers play in shaping norms and unacceptable behavior: With enough negative media attention, and enough player unrest, game companies will be more willing to soften penalties or adjust policies. By carrying out direct forms of activism—boycotts, walkouts, live protests at gaming events, and persistent pressure on social media—players can hold companies’ feet to the fire when they behave undemocratically. However, public outcry can only go so far. It is unreasonable to expect coordinated player response for every instance of misconduct—ultimately, such an expectation places a higher and higher onus on players, while absolving the company of developing agency over its own policies.
While government regulation might seem like an appealing way to safeguard speech rights in gaming, at least in the United States, it would be a difficult sell. Directly imposing speech requirements on companies is unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court has established that companies have the right to restrict speech in their workplaces, products, and services. In fact, people rely on those restrictions to limit online speech the government is unable to, like hate speech.
Government officials do have an important role to play in placing public pressure on companies that comply with censorship demands. In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, Senators Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Ron Wyden joined Congressional Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Tom Malinowski, and Mike Gallagher to send a letter to Blizzard in 2019 condemning the company for sparking the Blitzchung Affair. Massive player backlash and an employee walkout showed unequivocally that the company lacked allies supporting its decision to punish a non-Chinese player outside of China for endorsing the Hong Kong democracy protests. While the effort involved was enormous, outside pressure can be effective in setting boundaries for appropriate conduct in the video game industry.
In sharp contrast to the video game industry’s submission to Chinese censorship, Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has seen its leading companies suspending sales in Russia, suggesting that the industry is perfectly capable of taking a principled stand for human rights when enough popular sentiment is behind them. Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony were early voices in boycotting sales in Russia to protest their latest round of violence against civilians. Other video game makers followed suit, effectively freezing out Russian consumers and players from the global game market. The response to the Russian invasion also illustrates the stark differences in the industry’s challenges in China: A dramatic and illegal invasion is a different context than routine business, where it is difficult to maintain public outcry over the compromises necessary to operate in a local market. It can be hard to make an individual act of censorship, especially one that takes place during localization, into an urgent issue worthy of sustained public outcry. And this is a challenge inherent to defending speech globally, as it can be difficult to feel an urgent threat.
In the meantime, there is a window for a combination of consumer outrage and corporate frustration over speech restrictions to take root. The severe disruptions of the Covid crackdowns in China have led to an historic drop in confidence for doing business in that country. Losing the promise of easy, double-digit returns might open up more space for businesses to feel comfortable resisting demands for censorship. But this is a narrow window, one that may not last much longer.
Joshua Foust is a PhD student studying strategic communication at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Media, Communication, and Information. His website is joshuafoust.com.