China’s gaming regulations tighten: 26,000 apps purged and a new identity check from next month

Chinese authorities have long policed the gaming industry, and this year its loopholes in regulation are quickly closing up. With new identity checks coming into effect next month, Beijing is one noteworthy step closer to regulating the gaming industry as tightly as the internet is in the country.

Earlier this month, Apple removed 26,000 games from its Mainland China App Store amid a crackdown of unlicensed games in the country. A few months prior, Apple gave game publishers until July to submit a government-issued licence number.

China’s Android app stores have long complied with the regulations, which were introduced in 2016. The law requires game developers offering paid downloads or in-app purchases to get a license from one of the country’s censorship bodies.

Apple’s store in Hangzhou. China accounts for around one-quarter of Apple’s total revenues. Credit: Dezeen

It is not clear why Apple only began enforcing the law this year. The company dodged the rules by allowing developers to publish games while licenses were waiting for approval, which often took many months or saw indefinite waits while regulators shifted resources to clamp down on pornography, gambling, violence, and politically sensitive content online.

Gaming regulation in China

Beijing has been regulating the gaming industry since the 1990s to protect minors, discourage violence and criminality, and stamp out politically sensitive content.

Local rules mean game developers often have to redesign games for the China market, including putting flesh on skeletons, dying red blood green, and covering up skimpily dressed characters. A ban on video game consoles was only lifted in 2015.

An example of how a skeletal dragon in the game World of Warcraft was redesigned for the China market. Credit: Blizzard

The rules also moderate politically sensitive content. Last month, a popular mobile game was removed from Mainland China app stores after netizens discovered its musical director had written a song containing Morse code with a hidden Hong Kong pro-democracy message.

Depictions of China also come under close scrutiny, and even fictional storylines can come under fire from both authorities and gaming communities. A nationalist debate is currently ensuing about whether a game’s storyline, which takes place during the Mongol (at the time rulers of China) invasion of Japan, is disrespectful to China.

For many years, Beijing has also been trying to curb gaming addiction in the country. Gaming addiction was recognised as a mental disorder in 2008 and boot camps for addicted children can be found across the country. Chinese research has put the prevalence of addiction as high as 10-15%.

To tackle the issue, last year the Administration of Press and Publications (SAPP), the body in charge of regulating games, limited gaming for under 18s to 90 minutes of gameplay a day on weekdays, three hours a day on holidays, and expenditure limits of 400 CNY (US$57) a month.

Now from next month, a national authentication system will come into force which will require gamers to log in with their ID, as is needed for navigating much of the internet in China. The new system will help police minors, but also remove the anonymity which many treasure. Many gamers in the country are not fond of the restrictions the gaming industry faces and express disapproval online.

Taming the beast

Before the app purge, China had been Apple’s biggest mobile games market. App store intelligence company Sensor Tower noted that China’s iOS App Store generated an estimated $12.6 billion (33.2% of global sales) in 2019. Now, as of Q2 2020, the US has reclaimed the spot of the largest market for consumer games.

Nonetheless, the overall gaming market in China is becoming ever more lucrative, with game sales surging 22.3% in the first half of 2020. According to a recent industry report, there are now nearly 660 million game users in China, up 1.97% since last year. Several of the world’s largest gaming developers are based in the country.
Talking about the Apple purge, Todd Kuhns, marketing manager at AppInChina, a company that helps foreign companies distribute their apps in China, said: “This affects small- and mid-sized developers’ incomes the most, but due to the difficulties of acquiring a business licence, it’s devastating to the whole iOS game industry in China.”

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