The geopolitics of video games

Holiday greetings. If you’re one of the world’s 3 billion video gamers, you already know that game consoles are the perfect gift, so perfect that retailers are struggling to keep up with the demand this holiday season. The delays, not to mention the global semiconductor chip shortage, have affected the production of almost all digital gadgets. Long before Black Friday, retailers had to warn consumers that many consoles could sell out quickly, leaving many buyers disappointed. But the world of video games faces more threatening geopolitics than supply chain disruptions.

Last year, the gaming industry’s revenue was estimated at $ 159.3 billion, an increase of 9.3% from 2019. The boom is not just due to the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has forced people to stay at home: game studios are producing increasingly sophisticated entertainment.

It’s no surprise that Chinese giants like Tencent have started to pay considerable attention, especially to successful Western studios. In fact, they buy a lot of it. In a single day in July, Tencent acquired two game companies: one British and one Swedish.

It may seem like nothing but business, but many video games include strong political content, even if their sole purpose is to entertain gamers. The games offer endless variations on the combats between good and evil. Unsurprisingly, many espouse Western values ​​such as democracy and free speech, simply because their creators live in societies where these things are taken for granted.

China’s growing interest in video games is making a lot of money, but that’s bad news for the global gaming industry, especially when it comes to artistic freedom. “Chinese companies investing or acquiring businesses here are perfectly reasonable. But the fact that the Chinese government can force them to cooperate under the National Intelligence Act of 2017,” said Per Stromback, spokesperson for the Swedish gaming industry. , a professional association.

The law broadly states that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the intelligence work of the state in accordance with the law”.

What if they don’t want to? The state can demand it. This may explain why the longtime sponsor of a competition for video game creators withdrew this year.

A source close to the contest organizers told me that the sponsor was concerned that the winning entry might offend Beijing and did not want to be held responsible for the content of the game – or the consequences in the Chinese market. Video game studios acquired by Chinese companies are also feeling pressure to adjust their content to Chinese values.

This spring, the Chinese government attempted a rather unconventional method to standardize global video games. He introduced a motion to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which regulates products ranging from photographic film to car seats, to approach video games in the same way.

The application only concerned technical standards: ISO does not deal with artistic content. But Beijing clearly intended video games to be treated as a technical rather than an artistic product. This could lead member organizations, like China, to use the international body to file complaints against video games it disapproves of.

The Swedish gaming industry rebelled against the move, using its influence gained from Sweden’s disproportionate success in the market. “We said, ‘Video games are art. Regulating them in the same way as light bulbs would reduce the freedom of creators, “” Stromback told Foreign Policy. “A successful export of video games requires freedom of expression. “

The Swedish games industry has encouraged ISO members to vote against China’s regulatory motion. The motion was defeated, but Beijing’s efforts caused anxiety across the industry.

One country’s industry association even said it was prudent to consult with Chinese owners of a member company before voting against the motion. Meanwhile, the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, the US regulator that controls acquisitions for national security reasons, had already launched an investigation into Tencent’s takeover of Sumo, the British video game studio acquired in July. .

Even those who don’t play video games should be concerned about authoritarian governments that care about the industry. Because most officials in authoritarian countries aren’t exactly skilled gamers, video games are a rare corner of the Internet where people residing in those countries can voice ideas that could get them in trouble offline.

“If I were a dictator, I would definitely want to keep the video game industry under tight control,” said Erik Robertson, a longtime video game creator who leads the biennial Nordic Game conference.

The acceleration of the geopolitical confrontation is particularly acute for the video game industry, with its fictional wars, heroes and villains of various nationalities. Beijing’s recent restrictions on the time minors can spend playing video games – part of a broader crackdown on tech giants – have not undermined the global power of Chinese companies.

On the contrary, the reduction in playing time means that companies cannot rely solely on the domestic market. But the Chinese tech industry remains cautious not to upset the government. In September, for example, the Chinese Gaming Industry Association announced that its members would boycott “politically harmful” content, among other content deemed harmful or inappropriate.

Video game makers around the world must now try to guess what constitutes politically harmful content. It’s easy to see where this will lead: Creators will play it safe for fear of displeasing Chinese authorities and potential buyers, which will certainly result in less exciting content.

Assassin’s Creed II protagonist Ezio Auditore said at one point, “Wanting something doesn’t give you the right to have it.” Auditore lives in Renaissance Italy, but an authoritarian regime might view his commentary as a reflection of contemporary geopolitics.

This could, for example, be interpreted as a reference to the fact that China does not have the right to take Taiwan. Imagine the agony of video game makers as they attempt to create new versions of Assassin’s Creed, and even other games, without offending the overzealous sensibilities of Chinese officials.

What if players in authoritarian countries felt that their corner of the internet was no longer a vestige of freedom? The past few months show that the 21st century gaming industry is about to be put to the test.

In fact, those who plan to spend the holidays battling various villains might start to assess how the market is changing by quietly spreading messages regarding the plight of Uyghurs, Taiwan, or Peng Shuai.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray area threats. She is also a member of the K. National Preparedness Commission.

Warning: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy and is published by Special Syndication Agreement.

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