Top gaming developer Ubisoft has been forced into something of a humiliating climbdown, after its plans to adopt one of its leading titles for the Chinese market provoked an outright rebellion from its players.
Tom Clancy’s “Rainbow Six” is generally recognized as one of the best tactical warfare games ever released. It’s a couple of years old now, but still has a devoted community, and is noted for being popular as an online multi-player game; it’s the latter aspect which keeps the game alive, and so upsetting them would be a poor move both financially in terms of public relations for Ubisoft. Yet early on in November, they did exactly that.
As per the statement that was released on Ubisoft’s own website, several alterations to the game were proposed; alterations that were deemed as necessary to fit with China’s comparatively strict censorship laws. They weren’t small alterations either; although the company promised that the core of the game wouldn’t change, much of the aesthetic was to be drastically altered. Icons that showed played or skulls were to be removed. Blood splatters were to be removed. All sexual content was to be removed. Even the in-game playable slot machines were to be removed in fear of them blocking access to the Chinese market.
Having the ability to sell the product in China would obviously be a major plus for Ubisoft; there are millions of gamers in the country, and the potential for earnings is obviously significant. Had Ubisoft made changes to the game purely for the Chinese version, that would have been unlikely to raise an eyebrow. However, they proposed to alter all versions of the game, creating one global, streamlined and somewhat sanitized version.
In a country where moral standards are upheld tightly, and subversive content is heavily clamped down upon, it’s not hard to see why some of that subject matter might be banned. Even in Western countries, restrictions are placed on excessive violence and sexual content, which is likely to get any game an R rating. Explicit use of knives or sexual activity are prohibited on Chinese television, and games are viewed no differently.
The reason for the ban on slot machines is less clear. It seems unfair to lump the subject of gambling in with sex or violence as if it was somehow equally taboo. Especially online, the gambling and slot game industry has made every effort in recent years to become more inclusive to potential players. We’ve even seen the launch of Roseslots.com, an online slots website designed specifically for female players, as the industry looks to break the stereotype that it’s only an activity for men. Some point to the Chinese ban on gambling as the probable cause, however to say gambling is completely banned in China would be inaccurate. Macau is the most lucrative place to gamble in the entire world (having overtaken Las Vegas), and the gambling industry that exists there looks set to make it the richest place on Earth by 2020. Macau also happens to be in China.
Ubisoft was expected to make the changes with 2019’s first major content update; a forced download which players would be unable to avoid if they wished to continue playing the game online, or to enjoy future developments within the game. As the new maps and added features are a vital part of what keeps the game fresh, it seems unlikely many, if any, players would avoid the download, and therefore they’d have been left with the censored game whether they wanted it or not. Social media and comment forums like Reddit were ablaze with feedback by furious gamers, and the developer was left in no doubt as to how its players felt. After trying to ride out the storm for several weeks, they finally relented, releasing a follow-up statement in December.
In that statement, Ubisoft confirmed they had been ‘closely following’ the feedback from their community, as well as having internal discussions with the programmers responsible for the game. Following that process, they decided that the best option was to ensure that the “experience” for their players remained as close to the ‘original artistic intent’ as was possible. In short, the amendments were cancelled, and the game would remain as it was. Whilst the move was a dubious one to begin with, they should at least be credited with doing the right thing when it became clear that the move was deeply unpopular.
What’s less clear is what this means for Ubisoft’s planned launch in China. The game can’t be launched there in its current format. So sensitive are the Chinese to what they see as subversive content that they sentenced Tianyi, a Chinese author, to ten years in prison for writing about homosexuality. There doesn’t seem to be any chance that they’ll turn a blind eye to a video game with content they disagree with when they don’t have to.
Quite why China was even considering allowing the game to be released there is unknown; even without the blood splatter or the knives, ‘Rainbow Six’ is a war game where people get shot and blown up, and die horribly. Is a knife really more offensive than a bullet? Is a deathless unpleasant because there’s no visible blood? These are questions for the censors and, presumably, also Ubisoft. It may be that they release a China-only version of the game; probably not their ideal solution, as it will double the workload of programmers whenever updates or bug fixes need to be performed.
Equally, it may be that they just call off the whole thing. One of the biggest negatives for Ubisoft during the period of complaints was that they were seen as bowing down to what many people consider to be an oppressive censorship system that silences minorities and those with disagreeable political opinions. That’s not an area that any company would want to find themselves in; especially one who, presumably, would really rather just focus on making excellent video games.