Video Games Are China’s Next Soft Power Grab

A highly anticipated release based on 'Journey to the West' shows the evolution of both an art form and a conduit of Communist Party influence

Video Games Are China’s Next Soft Power Grab
Sun Wukong in Black Myth: Wukong. (Game Science/Maxsun)

In August 2020, Hangzhou-based developer Game Science released the first trailer for their upcoming action-adventure video game, Black Myth: Wukong, in which players take control of Monkey King Sun Wukong, the shapeshifting, cloud-surfing, demon-hunting antihero of the 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” Within a day, the impressive trailer — which showed the simian facing off against the armies of heaven with his signature, size-adjustable magic staff, the Ruyi Jingu Bang — attracted more than 10 million views on the Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili and another 2 million on YouTube, garnering the undivided attention of leading video game publications like IGN, PC Gamer and more.

Unlike most game developers, Game Science did not share its trailer with any of these publications before putting it on the internet. This may be because the footage wasn’t meant to promote the game, which was far from finished and years away from being published. As journalist Khee Hoon Chan wrote in video game magazine Polygon in March 2023, this was instead designed to attract new employees. Although the quality of Black Myth seemed to rival that of the biggest and best-looking games out there, Game Science’s staff consisted of less than 30 people — a fraction of the overworked, underpaid legions deployed by global giants Ubisoft, Nintendo or FromSoftware, the company behind the genre-defining and punishingly difficult Dark Souls franchise, whose dark fantasy setting, epic boss battles and cryptic storytelling serve as the primary source of inspiration for Black Myth.

According to Chan, many of Game Science’s employees previously worked at the Chinese technology conglomerate Tencent, whose gaming division is known mostly for free-to-play mobile games with in-game microtransactions, including — not incidentally — a project based on “Journey to the West.” Dreaming of making a large-scale, big-budget console game that would do Wu Cheng’en’s timeless story justice and stand shoulder to shoulder with AAA games made in Japan, Europe and the United States, they left Tencent to open their own studio, starting a journey of their own that would change the Chinese game space forever. (The video game equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters, AAA is an informal term for highly anticipated games from big and mid-level developers with large teams and larger marketing budgets.)

It worked. Black Myth: Wukong is set to release on Aug. 20, 2024, and it isn’t the only blockbuster game currently in development. The sheer number of ambitious, technologically sophisticated, narrative-driven single-player titles set to come out of China — such as Daba: Land of Water Scar, Swordsman Love: The Story of Xie Yun Liu, Where Winds Meet and Phantom Blade Zero — shows that the Chinese video game industry is attempting to climb to the level of its Japanese and Western counterparts. Such an ascent, if successful, could help Beijing obtain something it historically has not enjoyed to the same degree as the United States: soft power.

Though often discussed in connection to the Belt and Road Initiative and its accompanying bilateral aid programs, Chinese soft power extends far beyond economics and infrastructure, encompassing everything from the performance of Olympic athletes to the promotion of Chinese language schools and exchange programs with foreign universities. Arts and entertainment — including film, television and video games — stand out for their, as of yet, untapped potential. While American films like “Kung Fu Panda” and video games such as the World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, a Chinese mythology-themed expansion, have enjoyed great success in China, it has proven far more difficult for Chinese entertainment to achieve the same with international audiences, possibly owing to the fact that the majority of them are steeped in local cultures and dialects. Video games, using the universal language of gameplay mechanics, could fill a void that China’s film industry has left open.

Politically, Chinese premium games like Black Myth also promise to elevate the international standing of China’s gaming industry and — by extension — its society as a whole. “Driving the development of games like Wukong is the nationalistic sentiment, promoted by Chinese state propaganda, that ‘we Chinese are as good as (and maybe better than) foreigners, so whatever foreigners achieve, we can achieve as well,’” Yanchen Zhang, a doctoral student in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona, tells New Lines.

If a central effort in achieving President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation and international status is, as the chairman once put it, “telling Chinese stories well,” then the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could not have hoped for a better ambassador than Black Myth, whose imminent release is awaited by millions across the globe.

And while the government is not directly involved in the creation of games like Black Myth — or, for that matter, the popular mobile game Genshin Impact — it still plays a crucial role in their development. The Chinese government exercises control over the gaming industry by distributing permits to game developers, thus determining the number of games that can be produced at any given time. Considering the limited number of permits (according to Chan, it’s currently capped at around 1,200), as well as the growing but ultimately unknown number of AAA games currently in the works, one could argue that the CCP has an active and growing interest in promoting premium games at the expense of mobile titles.

Present-day developments in the Chinese video game market can be traced to the start of the century, to 2000, when the CCP banned foreign video game consoles and censored depictions of violence and sexuality to protect the mental health of China’s youth. The absence of PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo consoles restricted Chinese game developers to PCs, browsers and phones. Though imposed for public safety reasons, the restrictions also made economic sense. Browsers and phones have far less processing power than consoles, making games for these platforms cheaper to produce as well as market. Most browser and mobile games can be played for free, with all revenue coming from in-game purchases of additional costumes, weapons, levels and other assets, making them more lucrative than console games as well.

The ban was lifted in 2015, in a move also seen as economic, albeit one that was about the potential profit made from creating and exporting Chinese games. At the time, the Ministry of Culture said future games would be subject to government censorship. Despite past restrictions, China remains a highly lucrative market for both Chinese and American video game developers, with sales of nearly $42 billion in 2023: a 13.95% year-on-year increase. (China has accounted for roughly 10% of the revenue that the developer Blizzard earned from World of Warcraft, according to company reports, while the game’s 2016 film adaptation, according to the BBC, grossed over $156 million in the five days of its Chinese release.)

While the majority of mobile games are mainly played in China and other East Asian countries, some have turned into global hits, the most successful among them being Genshin Impact, a free-to-play, anime-inspired, open-world role-playing game that lets players team up to fight monsters and solve puzzles. Released in 2020, the game — created by Shanghai-based studio miHoYo — earned over $3.5 billion in its first year, beating the American game Fortnite. During its first two months, nearly 70% of the game’s monthly revenue was generated outside China, with an estimated 20% coming from the United States, according to a December 2020 report from data analytics firm Sensor Tower. Because of its international popularity, Genshin Impact has become an unlikely source of China’s persuasive soft power, building bridges between Beijing and the West and painting China as a country to love rather than fear.

“Although controversially borrowing from the Japanese game series Zelda and incorporating elements of Japanese culture, Genshin Impact contains a large number of Chinese cultural elements,” Song Tang, a doctoral candidate in Asian studies at the University of Oxford, wrote in The Diplomat in February 2023, explaining how players can learn about the Chinese language and culture, but “in a relaxed and casual way.” The game’s role as a conduit of soft power is not lost on Chinese citizens, with Weibo and Bilibili users flocking to posts that showcase positive reactions from Western players: “A post went viral on a foreign forum,” one video discussed by Tang announces. “Foreign players are blown away by the beauty of China.”

Nor is the popularity of Genshin Impact lost on members of the CCP, whose Ministry of Commerce included miHoYo in its 2021-2022 List of Key Enterprises and Key Projects of Cultural Export. “Foreigners who play this game will feel that China is not a closed country,” Zhang Weiwei, a professor at Fudan University, said in a 2023 interview cited by Tang, “not a backward country [but] a country with a very high level of culture and a very high level of modernization.”

Given the international success of Genshin Impact, as well as the amount of money and resources China invested in its video game industry following 2015, it might come as a surprise that by 2021 the Chinese government had once again started imposing restrictions on the sector. In addition to regulating the amount of time minors can spend playing online games — one hour per day on Fridays, weekends and public holidays — the CCP, rallying behind an editorial in state media outlet Economic Information Daily that labeled games as “spiritual opium,” passed laws moderating the use of loot boxes. Also known as “gacha” after Japanese toy vending machines, loot boxes are a controversial and key part of video games: They can be purchased by players with real money and contain potentially valuable assets. Used in Fortnite, Genshin Impact and countless other mobile games, they are as lucrative as they are addictive and unethical, with parents and lawmakers likening the practice to a form of gambling.

Although Chinese restrictions on loot boxes are far from unique, following in the footsteps of those introduced by other countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, the sheer size of China’s mobile game market translated into significant financial losses, with Tencent stocks plummeting 10.3% and the Chinese gaming market as a whole shrinking by roughly $100 billion, adding to the economic woes caused by the country’s ongoing housing crisis.

But while critics have described the regulations as an obstruction to the development of China’s video game industry, they actually signify more of a strategic pivot. As doors for cheap, loot box-based mobile games closed, the path to prestige, narrative-driven games like Black Myth: Wukong opened.

The reasons for this pivot are political as well as economic. As Chinese citizens become wealthier, player preference naturally gravitates from free-to-play mobile titles toward “premium” console experiences with improved graphics, cinematic presentation and refined gameplay, which should perform well in a market that’s become oversaturated with Genshin clones. On top of this, where Chinese developers did not possess the skill or knowledge to produce such premium experiences in 2015, years of outsourcing by Japanese and Western companies have now prepared them to make games of a similar quality.

Premium games like Black Myth demonstrate that Chinese game developers are not only capable of crafting state-of-the-art computer graphics and photorealistic lighting effects but also applying those technical feats to inventive character designs and Hollywood-level presentation. They create virtual worlds bursting with style, atmosphere and — last but not least — numerous Chinese landmarks, including the Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing, the Guanyin Pavilion in Tianjin and Maijishan Grottoes in Tianshui, to name just a few.

As far as soft power is concerned, narrative-driven games also offer greater opportunities for storytelling based on Chinese culture and history. The Wind Rises in Luoyang, a forthcoming, Dark Souls-inspired action-adventure game developed by Keyframe Studio, is set in the era of the Tang Dynasty during the reign of Empress Wu Zhao (690-705 CE). In Three Kingdoms Zhao Yun, a strategy game by Zuijiangyue Game, players assume the role of a real-life military general during the late Han dynasty. “Journey to the West,” the source material of Black Myth: Wukong, is perhaps the single most influential text in all of Chinese literature. Sun Wukong in particular has evolved into a transcultural archetype, inspiring a variety of modern-day action heroes, from Japan’s Son Goku (“Dragon Ball Z”) and Monkey D. Luffy (“One Piece”) to America’s Aang (“Avatar: The Last Airbender”). “Journey to the West” remained beloved inside China both before and after Mao Zedong’s rise to power, with communist literary critics casting the Monkey King’s defiance of the Jade Emperor and his court of deities as a “victory of the proletarian revolutionaries.” Inside China, Black Myth follows a wave of live-action films and animated TV shows adapting Cheng’en’s classic text for modern audiences.

The CCP’s interest in popular video games is so great that it could even be dialing back on censorship. Although games like Black Myth are unlikely to offer commentary on sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square massacre or Beijing’s occupation of Tibet (as per state mandates, any reference to these events is automatically turned into asterisks in the in-game chat of Genshin Impact, regardless of whether the player is based in China or abroad), they feature a level of violence that far exceeds anything seen in Chinese games from previous years.

“The fact that Wukong passed censorship with a lot of gore, among other things, suggests it benefited from the double standard of Chinese censorship,” Yanchen says, explaining how some films and TV shows make the cut because they are in the interest of someone who is high ranking in Chinese officialdom.

Some of the dialogue in Black Myth, shared in subsequent trailers, also seems to go against the values the CCP wishes to instill in its citizenry. “Thou shalt kill, lest feuds instill,” a Buddha-like figure tells Wukong, urging the player to buy into the power fantasy provided by their antihero avatar. “Thou shalt speak the untruth, to inspire and seduce. Drench in fine wines, to soothe your mind where emotions entwine.”

More than any other Chinese AAA game approaching release, Black Myth indicates that China’s investment in soft power is paying off. As the Belt and Road Initiative connects Beijing to various developing countries inside and outside East Asia, games like Black Myth promote Chinese culture and history in the West. Once again, the Monkey King does the impossible.

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