China's practice of censoring anything that could be perceived even remotely critical of the Chinese Communist Party and its policies, or its leadership for that matter, is nothing new, so while Steam has been accessible to gamers in China for years, it's existed in a legal gray area and with significant parts of the platform blocked. Well, no more! Valve has finally taken a stand against Chinese censorship of its products by partnering with a Chinese company to make a President Xi-approved version of Steam. So thank you, Gaben, and godspeed. You're doing the lord's work now.
Before I begin, I hope it's clear I was being sarcastic there, about my right to speak freely about my government without fear. Allow me to demonstrate. Trudeau? Your falling-down-the-stairs party trick and your skill as a makeup artist are the best things about you. And O'Toole? You don't even have that going for you. Now, I don't even necessarily believe those things, but what's cool is I can say them without getting disappeared. So in summary, any support I might appear to show for government censorship is ironic, satirical, or some combination of the two. Back to the topic at hand then.
Beginning February 2021, gamers in China will have the option of using an official Chinese beta version of Steam, which raises an interesting question: why would the want to do that? I mean, clearly very little if any effort is being put into blocking the existing version of Steam, and given that almost 18% of Steam users selected Simplified Chinese for their language according to Valve's own data, it's safe to say that a huge portion of their player base is in China. Does the Chinese version, then, offer some kind of compelling advantage for Chinese users? Let's find out.
That's Steam all right. But the community features, forum, guides, and Steam Workshop, so basically anywhere that user-generated content could be shared, are gone. So it's Steam, just, relatively speaking, devoid of content. Did they really change the Steam logo to red for this?
Whenever you see something like that you gotta go, "Who's idea was this?" you know? Which leads us to the same question we started with: why does this exist? Well, for a variety of reasons, depending on the party involved. For Valve the answer is pretty straightforward. The allure of the almighty yuan has clearly become too much for them to ignore. I mean, Gaben's gotta pay for a sick new crib in New Zealand somehow. And as for the Chinese government, well, for that we need some context.
Most gamers probably haven't thought about it, but like music, TV, and film, the Chinese government isn't too happy when Chinese citizens have access to unregulated or unapproved media, and that includes games. So if a game has been officially released in China, there are often differences compared to its Western counterpart.
Let's look at "World of Warcraft," for example. The Chinese client has had plenty of model and texture changes to appease the National Press and Publication Administration, most of them centered around removing any sort of gore, blood, or bones.
Now, while these things aren't specifically banned in China, there are a number of vague regulations that you have to follow in order to get your game officially published in China. You can't promote cults or superstition, there's no endangering social morality or national cultural traditions, and there's no opposing opinions allowed on the constitution of the People's Republic of China. And that's just to name a few.
Some of these rules are arguably good, or at least well-intentioned. Any sort of loot box or gambling system, for example, has to have transparency around drop rates for every available purchase, and minors also have a limit on how much time and money they can spend on a game. But when it comes to cracking down on expressing opinions on government policy, it's kinda hard to justify it with the classic, "Won't someone please think of the children?"
So as we alluded to before, Steam and the majority of content available on the platform has been residing in a bit of a gray area for many years. Currently, you can access it despite the Great Firewall of China, but a handful of games have been blocked outright and the entire community discussion page is inaccessible. One of the most notable titles missing from the store is "Battlefield 4," which was banned for discrediting China's national image and threatening national security. You can still see the DLC packs for the game, but the core game itself is nowhere to be found.
The bottom line is basically anything with a chance of painting China or the CCP in a negative light is banned, full stop. Nudity, memeing government officials, offering a platform where players could potentially voice dissenting opinions? Banned, banned, and banned.
After years of work and regulation, then, the beta for Chinese Steam, known locally Steam Platform, has launched, and while Valve and their Chinese business partner Perfect World has stated that they have no intentions of taking away the current version of Steam, the thing is: that's not really up to them. Which brings us back finally, then, to what's in this for the Chinese government.
Even if Valve's intention was to keep full-fat Steam available within China, the Ministry of Culture can at any moment simply close off access to it with their government firewall. Presumably the only reason they haven't done so already is that gaming, like Korean superstars BTS, is kinda popular in China, and the CCP knows that turning the heat up slowly is much less alarming to the frog being boiled.
What does this slow and steady approach look like then? Well, if you're already using Steam in China and you want to swap over to the government-approved version, good news! You can transfer all of your games. That is, the government-approved games that are in the Steam Platform client. Right now that's roughly 50 approved titles, although there are more on the way.
So the plan then is to continue to add more games so that when the time comes to flip the switch and turn off global Steam, the outrage will be much more easily overwhelmed with the usual propaganda toolbox. After all, if I'm a "Dota" enthusiast, what do I care if my neighbor wants to play "Animal Crossing"? I don't play "Animal Crossing."
So the bottom line then is that if I'm a gamer in China and every other overreach by the CCP doesn't already piss me off for some reason, I am pretty mad right about now, not just because I could lose access to potentially hundreds or thousands of dollars' worth of content that I've paid for, but also because of the impact that this could have on the Chinese indie game development industry. It's just beginning to show what it can achieve, and as we know, extra bureaucracy and approvals almost never catalyze innovation. So let us know in the comments below: if you're a gamer in China, are "CS:GO" and "Dota II" enough to entice you to move to the official Steam Platform approved by the government, or are you already looking in investing in a good VPN?
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