China’s Latest Task: Harmonizing Social Games

The Chinese government appears to be expanding its control over the games industry, this time setting its sites on social games and networks, according to a guest article on TechCrunch.

When the government gets involved and censors certain content, commenters refer to the game as being "harmonized," as happened with Mafia games during the Summer. But apparently social games are taking a closer look at actions and changing language in their games in an attempt to stay a step ahead of the Chinese censors. For example, players of the popular Happy Farm now pick their neighbors crops, not steal them:

Five Minutes, the developer of the smash hit Happy Farm (the first SNS farm game), confirmed that the terms had been voluntarily changed in an interview with BloggerInsight. This comes as the government is "considering specific social gaming laws and regulations, to be enacted as early as next year … to end the chaotic market conditions," according to ChinaNews, which scooped the story on Wednesday last week.

The article says that the government has gone so far as to spread doctored news accounts to damage the reputation of popular social games like Happy Farm.

And the threat of regulation is prompting some developers to be proactive to stay ahead of the government:

Although the SNS landscape is splintered, the government is determined to maintain control. There is no Facebook, no single dominant social network for all of China: the top 3 are Qzone, Kaixin001, and RenRen (see chart).  When it comes to games, Qzone and Kaixin001 develop everything in-house with games inspired from Facebook, while Renren has a mostly open API so it can tap into outside developers to copy games for them. All have keyword lists and teams responsible for the instant removal of “objectionable” content.

Platforms have borne the responsibility for game regulation until now, but developers may soon become practiced in self-censorship too. The new regulations will likely be similar to those for MMORPGs: a list of “do’s and don’ts” for Chinese social games, according to an industry insider. This could include age ratings or a requirement that social games be suitable for players of all ages.

The article concludes with a warning to Western game developers hoping to tap into the Chines market:

The China market is seductive, but outside game companies should proceed with caution. Foreign developers would be wise to cultivate political ties and partner with or build a local studio, as Popcap Games did. Also, be sure your games promote "harmonious social values" — Mafia Wars need not apply.

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