The rules of harmony

Video game censorship in China

Tabea De Wille
rules of harmony

Tabea De Wille

rules of harmony

Piertommaso Bottura

Piertommaso Bottura

Tabea De Wille is a lecturer and the director of the Localisation Research Centre at the University of Limerick in Ireland. She has previously worked in localization, primarily in video games localization.

Piertommaso Bottura lives in Beijing and works as a localization project manager at Cheetah Mobile. He previously worked as a game translator for Oasis Games. He has a master’s degree in multilingual computing and localization.

The rules of harmony

Video game censorship in China

Tabea De Wille
rules of harmony

Tabea De Wille

Tabea De Wille is a lecturer and the director of the Localisation Research Centre at the University of Limerick in Ireland. She has previously worked in localization, primarily in video games localization.

Piertommaso Bottura
rules of harmony

Piertommaso Bottura

Piertommaso Bottura lives in Beijing and works as a localization project manager at Cheetah Mobile. He previously worked as a game translator for Oasis Games. He has a master’s degree in multilingual computing and localization.


ultural adaptation, age rating and legality of content are core issues video game publishers need to consider for localization. However, rules, regulations and preferences differ from country to country.

Video game policy in China

An important concept in Chinese culture is that of “Harmony” or the creation of a “Harmonious Society,” which is considered a priority by policy makers even today. This goal is reflected in the approach to censorship of and control over harmful content. Most notoriously, it has resulted in the Great Firewall of China as a means of controlling online content.

The Interim Provisions on the Administration of Internet Culture, issued in 2011 by the Ministry of Culture (Zhang 2012) include a number of contents to be forbidden:

  • 1)those opposing the basic principles established in the constitution
  • 2)those endangering the unification, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state
  • 3)those divulging secrets of the state, harming national security or impairing the honor and interests of the state
  • 4)those inciting the enmity, discrimination of nationalities, jeopardizing the unity among the various ethnic groups, or violating the customs and habits of minority nationalities
  • 5)those spreading cults or superstitions
  • 6)those disturbing social order and destroying social stability
  • 7)those inciting pornography, gambling, violence or instigating a crime
  • 8)those insulting or libeling others, violating the lawful rights and interests of others
  • 9)those endangering social moralities or fine national cultural traditions
  • 10)other contents prohibited by laws and administrative regulations or by the state

While some elements are stated quite clearly, others like “fine national cultural traditions” are open to interpretation, which adds an element of difficulty for publishing games in China.

Gaming consoles

The Detailed Implementing Rules for the Opening of the Cultural Market in the Free-Trade Zone in Shanghai, China, issued in 2014, states that foreign game console manufacturers and vendors require approval by the Department of Cultural Administration prior to producing and selling games and gaming consoles.

Games submitted for approval should include content that respects intellectual property; is beneficial to the propagation of science, arts and humanities knowledge; and is beneficial for the healthy growth of the young. It should not include gambling features such as slot machines, coin withdrawal and roulette.

The Circular of the Ministry of Culture Regarding the Permission for National and Foreign Enterprises to Manufacture and Sell Gaming Consoles published as an addendum in 2015 by the Ministry of Culture reaffirms and further specifies that content should respect intellectual property rights, embody the national spirit, include content that is healthy and uplifting for intelligence, education, motion sensitivity and physical training.

While language-related requirements were initially not strictly applied, they seem to have become more stringent in recent years. Games had their applications rejected because they used some English acronyms that are commonly used in localized versions such as “HP” and “KO”. The device itself as well as the instructions should be in the national common language (Simplified Chinese).

Online games

Unlike console games, which occupy a modest share of the market, online games have traditionally been important in China. The popularity of these products combined with the authorities’ deeply-rooted concern over internet addiction made online games a priority target for regulators. Consequently, besides the sets of norms that regulate internet services and internet culture, some official documents that address online games specifically have also been issued.

In 2010 the Temporary Measures for the Regulation of Online Games provided instructions on the governance of online games and discussed, among other things, what authorities are responsible, the application and evaluation criteria for enterprises and content limitations, and issued a ten-points list equivalent to the one presented above.

A more recent document is the Ministry of Culture’s Notice on the Monitoring After Release as a Part of the Strengthening of the Norms on Online Games Regulations, which was issued on December 5, 2016. As suggested by the name, the document focuses on operations and specifies several requirements and limitations related to in-game purchases and luck-based features. At point five it is demanded that game updates, the introduction of new virtual items, modifications to virtual items’ function and their validity in time as well as upcoming limited-time events must be published in a visible location on the official website or within the game itself; including the items’ names, their characteristics, price, exchange ratio, validity period, purchase methods, and so on. Point six is of interest as it touches upon luck-based and gambling-like mechanics, a recurring topic in internet and gaming regulations:

The enterprise operating an online game that provides virtual articles and other services based on random drawing shall not require users to directly spend real or virtual currency in order to participate. The enterprise operating the online game should publish on the official website of that game or on the random drawing interface the name, attributes, content, quantity and draw rate of all virtual items and other services. The information about the random drawings that are published must be real and effective.

Furthermore, the results of the drawings must be published on the official website of the game and maintained available for inspection for 90 days. The operating enterprise is required to offer alternative ways to obtain the articles available as prizes of luck-based functions. The alternative articles and services should have equivalent attributes and should be obtainable via item exchange or direct (not randomized) purchase using virtual currency.

However, despite the normative hurdles this document also recognizes videogames as a cultural product with the potential to enrich society.

Implementation case studies

Case study: Civilization IV

The 2005 strategy game Sid Meier’s Civilization IV (without any expansions or patches) was developed by Firaxis Games and published for Windows by 2K Games. The game was released in China in 2007 in partnership with CEASIA (中电博亚). Although Civilization IV is now a rather old game it remains a valuable example of the reaction to ambiguous restrictions on content. The franchise also enjoys a good level of popularity in China.

Changes were focused on the political and cultural nature of the game’s content and is primarily text-based, although some graphical elements were also affected.

The original version of the game included two leaders for the Chinese faction, Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), first emperor of China, and Mao Zedong (毛泽东), first chairman of the People’s Republic of China.

In the Chinese version the former was renamed to Tai Gong (泰公) which translates as Duke of Gong. Mao Zedong, a much more sensitive character, was removed from the game altogether and replaced with a character absent in the original version: Tang Gong (唐公), which translates as Duke of Tang.

The name of the civilization itself was changed to the “Civilization of Nine Ding” (九鼎文明). “Nine Ding” refers to a legendary set of nine tripod cauldrons forged in ancient times and passed down as a symbol of power. What is interesting about this choice is that politically relevant elements have been avoided by utilizing a concept from a remote era, while maintaining the overall cultural identity. The “Civilopedia” (an encyclopedia within the game) states that all the features of this civilization should be considered entirely fictional.

Mongolia (in Chinese Menggu, 蒙古) was renamed Wala (瓦喇), which is the Chinese name for the Oirats, an ethnicity associated to the Mongols and once situated in the westernmost regions of Mongolia. The leader of the Mongolian faction Genghis Khan was also changed into the Oirat leader Kho Orluk (和鄂尔勒克). We can assume that Kho Orluk was preferred to Genghis Khan, since during his conquests he led his tribe westward and unlike Genghis Khan, never invaded China.

One very distinctive feature of the franchise is the quotations that accompany newly researched technologies that allow the players to advance. Here the most notable changes were made to the “Communism” technology. Its name was changed into “National Welfare Doctrine” (国家福利论) and the quotation was reduced in order to remove any reference to communism.

Original: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Chinese version: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.”

The hammer and sickle symbol that originally identified the technology was replaced by a more generic picture and the description was also altered to be more generic.

In the “Rifling” technology, the original quotation by Mao Zedong was replaced with a quotation by Confucius.

Original: “Political power grows out the barrel of a gun.” -Mao Zedong

Chinese version: “In order to do a good job, an artisan needs good tools.” -Confucius

During the localization for the Chinese market, the Confucian religion was renamed into “Religion of Reason” (理教). In the original version, the sacred building for Confucianism was the “Kong Miao” literally meaning “Confucian Temple,” while in the Chinese version this was changed into “Altar of the Religion of Reason.” The Confucian temple and the Confucian monastery were also renamed according to this principle and the description in the Civilopedia was replaced to be more generic and highlight its fictional nature. Interestingly, Confucianism was removed from the game, while a quotation by Confucius himself was actually introduced into the game, as previously seen.

Taoism, another Chinese religion featured in the game, did not undergo similar changes. We can speculate that the rationale behind this decision was the fact that Confucianism has been traditionally closer to power and government and therefore could trigger the reaction of the censoring bodies. Another plausible reason could be the fact that the status of Confucianism as a religion is debatable. In fact, it is often considered primarily a philosophy and a doctrine related to governing. It is possible that the changes made were meant to avert controversies over the topic.

Case study: World of Warcraft

The fantasy World of Warcraft (WoW) by Blizzard Entertainment has been one of the few Western games to become highly popular in China. The game was released in China in 2005 and has been heavily modified by the publishers. Some of the most notorious changes to the game include skeletons, skulls and bones being removed or replaced with different elements; the color of blood being changed to green; and open wounds being sewed up. Graphic representations of body decay were replaced by more “normal-looking” textures and in some instances pieces of flesh were replaced by flour bags or loaves of bread.

We cannot automatically assume that censorship would be considered negative by players. To gain insights into the reception of changes we have analyzed discussion threads on forums and Q&A platforms by searching for keywords, collecting a total of 120 comments and categorizing the relevant contributions. Although this is not a large corpus, it is still quite sizable if we consider that many other similar discussion threads were likely censored and removed, especially if they were negative toward the censorship. Players often try to circumvent censorship by using alternative terms to discuss the censorship of games which required additional diligence in the data gathering process.

13 comments expressed an openly negative opinion on the changes and found the localized version to be less appealing. “Haha this is so ridiculous, if it’s really harmonized to this point, I won’t play anymore,” one comment stated.

24 comments expressed criticism of the censorship through the use of irony and ridicule. One example: “Because in this world there are certain countries and territories that don’t allow people to bleed red blood, they think that’s against society and that a rotten green color is aesthetically better.”

Four comments expressed practical problems caused by graphical changes, such as mission objectives becoming impossible to identify because the description had not been modified accordingly. “Once I was doing a quest, and I had to go pick up bones from the ground,” one commenter wrote. “I searched them for a very long time then the guy next to me told me that the pieces of bread in the corner were the bones.”

17 comments pointed in a totally different direction, expressing their preference for the “harmonized” game content. While some users did find the original models scary or repulsive, some others appear to genuinely prefer the new models. This is an important indicator of the fact that, at least in some instances, the localization process was able to provide enjoyable alternatives to the original elements. “To be honest, some pictures look better after being modified,” one player wrote.

19 contributions represent the players that reacted with pragmatism and sometimes even indifference. The dominant attitude here is that censorship was acceptable, if necessary for the game to go live. Some players appear to consider the changes to be irrelevant. One wrote that “these things are the inevitable trend of the Chinese servers; the fact that they let Wrath of the Lich King go online is already good for us. I guess complaining is useless, if you are absolutely loyal to the original version you can play on the foreign servers.”

17 comments in the corpus express a more general criticism about censorship practices. Although these contributions are also based on the discussion over modified in-game elements, they tend to develop a principle-oriented take on the subject. “Why, as a Chinese citizen, is it so complicated to play a game?” one lamented.

Finally, the largest group we have identified includes 28 comments that discuss the use of censorship as a political and economic tool. Although these comments can’t by any means prove that such practices have been actually used and to what extent, they provide interesting insights on how the players perceive and understand the gaming industry in the larger picture of society, the interactions between the parties involved and the motivations that caused the game to be modified before being received and played by them.

“It’s only about foreign games; the local ones don’t get modified,” one player wrote. “I used to play Zhu Xian and an ability summoned three enormous skulls and that was not harmonized.”

Thus, the rules and regulations around content in video games in China are complex and often difficult to grasp. While many players are critical of changes, others view them in a positive or pragmatic light.

Research in this article is based on the dissertation titled “Videogames Censorship in China” written by Piertommaso Bottura as part of the MSc in Multilingual Computing and Localisation at the University of Limerick.