In recent weeks a theory has begun to spread online, proposing that Chinese tech giant Tencent are pulling Sony’s strings into censoring sexual content from Japanese games on PlayStation consoles.
We took a closer look to see if we could get to the bottom of this.
Modern History, 2013 to 2020 ~
Most recently in the western industries we had seen the likes of Anita Sarkeesian condemn any portrayal of female sexuality as harmful, despite no evidence to support it, and no matter the context. We also saw Japanese games being censored, especially with sexual content.
Even after “the GamerGate years,” there had been an increasing trend of sexual content being censored in video games [1, 2]. This was also along with with outrage and demands for censoring “offensive” content in general [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].
In late December 2018, Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan Asia President Atsushi Morita stated the then recent spate of censorship of anime-styled sexual content on PlayStation 4 games had been “to meet global standards.”
Square Enix later stated “the Ethics Department is actually a group within the company that evaluates game content to make sure it is aligned with the anticipated age ratings standards across the globe.”
This censorship was also the reason for Kenichiro Takaki (the creator of the fan-service heavy Senran Kagura series) to leave Marvelous. Later he founded Honey ∞ Parade Games, which is still a subsidiary of Marvelous.
While there were still projects in development under Takaki for Marvelous (such as Kandagawa Jet Girls), Marvelous would later have tech giant Tencent become its largest shareholder.
Tencent has been reportedly trying to increase their influence outside of China- including the western market- and aim to have at least half of their revenue come from outside of China within the near future. The call for industry veterans for “blockbuster” projects reflects their efforts in trying to break into the triple-A gaming scene.
Tencent’s expansion into western markets seems to be partially motivated by a decline in domestic growth, due in part to strict regulations on video games by Chinese authorities [1, 2, 3]. In 2018 Tencent lost an estimated $20 billion USD in market value, after the Chinese Ministry of Education recommended fewer game approvals.
Though its goal of fifty percent revenue from non-Chinese sources is only halfway there, with Tencent reporting only 23% of its online revenue was from outside of the country.
Along with the aforementioned Marvelous (add as of January 2020) Tencent has 100% ownership of Riot Games, 80% of Grinding Gear Games, 40% in Epic Games, 29% in Funcom, 5% in Activision Blizzard, 5% in Ubisoft, 5% in Paradox Interactive, a “major investment” in PlatinumGames, and others.
On May 30th, a post was made to the video game board of 8Chan, enthusiastically claiming to have “found the smoking gun” that proved censorship on PlayStation was due to Tencent.
“The news about Tencent and Marvelous both depressed me and seriously pissed me off. But reading over one of the articles I noticed an interesting tidbit in it which mentioned in passing that Marvelous and Tencent had cooperated before (I will bring this up in the infodump). This set off alarm bells in my head and kicked my digging autism into high gear. I spent the past few days going through my materials, searching for the information that fills the gaps, and assembling a timeline and paper trail to piece together a coherent motive behind Sony and Marvelous’ actions over the past two years.
Also, there is an extremely important detail near the end of my dump that you need to pay very close attention to. Believe me, you’ll know exactly which detail that is when you get to it.”
The Chinese government announced it would end its ban on foreign game consoles in January 2014. In May 2014, Sony announced they would be bringing PlayStation to China. This was done by “partnering with the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Group in two separate ventures into the Chinese market.”
The Shanghai Oriental Pearl Group is a subsidiary of the Shanghai Media Group, and touted by Wikipedia as “one of China’s largest media and cultural conglomerates, with the most complete portfolio of media and related businesses.”
The 8Chan post claims that “being a large business like Tencent they are effectively another branch of the CCP. Any large company disloyal to the CCP [Communist Party of China] would not be allowed to exist for very long.”
Apart from the Chinese government’s long history of human rights abuses, their social credit system further enforces obedience. Much like how a financial credit score can be used to determine if someone can be trusted to pay bank a loan, the social credit score’s objective is to determine someone’s “trustworthiness.”
“Good citizens” are rewarded (better terms on bank loans, travel applications approved quicker, etc), while those who act “poorly” are punished (cannot travel by train, losing access to the best schools, etc). It is hard to imagine individuals within major Chinese corporations having a poor social credit score.
The Head of Program Economy and Technology at Merics (Mercator Institute for China Studies) Mirjam Meissner also stated in a 2017 report explained how the system not only affects businesses, but foreign companies operating in China. Whether this applies to how the companies operate outside of China is unknown.
“The system will create strong incentives for companies to make their business decisions and operations comply not just with laws and regulations but also with the industrial and technological policy targets laid down by the Chinese government.
Foreign companies active on the Chinese market are planned to be integrated into the system and treated the same way as their Chinese competitors. Foreign companies will also be subjected to the full extent of industrial policy guidance.”
[…] “From an international perspective, it is important to note that government documents referring to the Social Credit System do not discriminate between Chinese and foreign businesses. The same is true for private and state-owned enterprises. Implementation will show whether this principle will remain unchanged. It is, however, likely that foreign businesses active on the Chinese market will be fully integrated into the system and treated the same way as their Chinese competitors. Simultaneously, foreign companies will be subjected to the full extent of industrial policy guidance.”
After several delays [1, 2, 3], the PlayStation 5 proceeded to launch on March 2015. The 8Chan post claims that the console struggled to take off, citing then head of Sony Interactive Entertainment Andrew House.
“We are still challenged somewhat with a censorship regime that we have to work with. This can be time-consuming,” House told Reuters in September 2015, “I don’t think it has been a kind of a rocket launch start.” Though he added he still saw “tremendous potential for gaming as an entertainment medium in China.”
The 8Chan post proposes that it would have been “extremely unlikely” that Sony would have been able to convince the Chinese government to ease their censorship laws. This supposedly resulted in a new strategy.
Sony announced their China Hero Project strategy in March 2017. The press release via DualShockers described it as follows:
“The name of this mid-term software strategy is called ‘China Hero Project’. This project was initiated in mid-2016 in order to locate and support developers with creativity and the ability to accomplish remarkable content for the PlayStation family. Over 400 product plans or demos had been provided during the whole registration period but only 10 of them reached the end of the project.”
The games revealed during the press conference and beyond would “represent the highest level of Chinese developers.” Even we here at Niche Gamer have reported on China Hero Project games (such as Boundary, and F.I.S.T.).
The idea was that Sony would provide support (“in terms of tech and funding” as DualShockers puts it), and “present these Chinese games to other regions, even before they’re fully completed.” The homepage for the project reads as follows.
“‘China Hero Project (CHPJ)’is a program based on PlayStation platform, which strongly support Chinese funded game developers (mainly start-ups) to enter the whole Chinese and global market, committing to’ create a successful game works (=star) worldwide’ and ‘cultivation and development of Chinese game industry’.
The project is supported by partners such as Epic Games, Inc., CRI Middleware, Digital Hearts HLDGS., Silicon Studio,Streamline Studios、WACOM、 Unity Technologies (Shanghai) Limited, who look to further increase on Chinese console game market, and provide development techniques of game engine, middleware etc. and debug services in order to improve the quality of game for Chinese game developers. In addition, Whiz Partners provides financial support for CHPJ.
A key point of view for the program’s target enterprise and team is that the project and team should not only be applicable to development in Chinese market, but also in global market.”
The 8Chan post drew attention to two partners- Epic Games and Whiz Partners. Tencent has 40% ownership of Epic Games via shares (as of March 2013).
The anonymous user proposes that “This can only mean that Tencent is heavily involved in Sony’s China Hero Project. And it also means that Tencent has had its tentacles around Sony since at least early 2017.”
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has stated he has greater control over Epic Games than Tencent. When asked if a situation akin to the Blizzard-Blitzchung Free Hong Kong incident [1, 2, 3, 4] happened to Epic, if he would sever ties with a controversial “influential figure.” He stated it “will never happen on my watch as the founder, CEO, and controlling shareholder.”
Nonetheless, the 8Chan theory proposes that Tencent would have a sizable control over the China Hero Project. As one of the largest tech company in China- with both it and Alibaba being in the top 10 or even top 5 of the most profitable companies in the world [1, 2] it is not an impossible theory.
The post then focuses on Whiz Partners [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]. Due to the official website’s spartan appearance, the poster claims “this group seems to be a Japanese equivalent of the antics the banksters get up to here in the west.”
We estimate the user assumes Whiz Partners is an intentionally “low-key” business for malicious or nefarious purpose, such as a shell corporation. Our own research found no such evidence to this theory.
In July 2016, Whiz Partners announced [1, 2] their involvement with the China Hero Project, along with initial partners “Epic Games Inc., CRI Middleware Co., Ltd., Hearts United Group Co., Ltd., Silicon Studio Corp., and Unity Technologies (Shanghai) Limited.”
The project is again described as developing blockbuster titles for PlayStation via Chinese developers (and an investment fund), while contributing “to the growth of China’s family entertainment industry and ultimately influence the global gaming market.”
Whiz Partners also linked to announcements by CRI Middleware (known for their audio and visual software as CriWare), and the Hearts United Group. Both of these are “portfolio companies of Whiz Asia’s operating fund Whiz Asia Evolution Fund.”
The post also points out that “the CRI Middleware announcement is especially interesting, because it highlights that CRI Middleware is a partner of Shanghai Oriental Pearl Media, the same group that Sony initially partnered with to bring the PS4 to China.”
As aforementioned, both Shanghai Oriental Pearl Media and Tencent are sizable tech and media based companies in China. “That makes two Chinese conglomerates that have their fingers in the ‘China Hero’ pie,” the post states.
On August 2nd, the China Hero Project posted a press release [1, 2] ahead of the ChinaJoy Chinese games convention. While it discusses the games coming from the project, the post draw attention to the about section at the end. When translated into English (via Google Translate) it reads as follows:
“‘China Hero Project’ is a PlayStation® platform that vigorously supports all Chinese game developers, mainly start-ups, to the Chinese and global markets and is committed to ‘creating successful game works worldwide ( = Star)’ and ‘Cultivate and Develop China’s Game Industry’ plan. An important point about the target companies and teams of the plan is that it should be not only applicable to the Chinese market, but also projects and teams that can develop in the global market.”
Drawing attention to the last sentence, the anonymous poster compares it to the statement on the project’s homepage; “A key point of view for the program’s target enterprise and team is that the project and team should not only be applicable to development in Chinese market, but also in global market.”
The anonymous poster claims that this is the “missing piece of the puzzle” and proof that “Sony’s censorship was implented [sic] primarily on behalf of Tencent, China, and the CCP through the China Hero Project.”
The crux of the poster’s argument seems to be the interpretation that the project is seemingly ensuring that international developers will meet China’s standards. “An important point about the target companies and teams of the plan is that it should be not only applicable to the Chinese market, but also projects and teams that can develop in the global market.”
However, this can be interpreted to mean that the games created should have international appeal (or as much as they can under Chinese media laws). Rather than a “smoking gun,” the post has thus far only highlighted that large Chinese corporations are involved with the China Hero Project.
Then again, western industries have censored their work to appeal to and sell their works in China. As we had mentioned in a prior article, NBA Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey showed his support for the Hong Kong protests, resulting in the Chinese government refusing to broadcast NBA games in China.
South Park‘s “Band in China” episode also mocked entertainment companies such as Disney attempting to appeal to Chinese government censors.
There is also an extensive list of actions companies have taken to avoid upsetting the Chinese government in the last few years. Including the denial of Tibet and Taiwan as independent nations (even referring to Taiwan as its own country by accident), and mentions of the Tienanmen Square Massacre.
The list also included giving cloud and smartphone encryption keys to Chinese authorities, removal of intentionally pro Hong Kong comments and works, and firing employees for supporting the Hong Kong protests.
YouTube also recently apologized for an “error” causing Chinese language comments mentioning certain phrases to be automatically deleted; “共匪” or “Communist Bandit,” and “五毛” or “Wu Mao” (the nickname of the Chinese government’s hired commentators and trolls).
Gamers are no stranger to this either. The most prominent incident was in 2019, when pro-Hearthstone player Blitzchung was suspended by Blizzard Entertainment for his support of the Hong Kong protests, firing the casters, and their overall handing of the entire debacle [1, 2, 3].
Recently a Chinese Alpha build of Steam was leaked, revealing it limited user’s playtime during certain hours, had unskippable health warning screens before every game, and that users names and avatars were currently censored.
Chinese moderators for Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord also asked users to report any users saying anything in the in-game chat that violated Chinese law. War Thunder has also removed the Taiwanese flag from the game, despite it being historically accurate.
Back in late 2018, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege had a patch to make the game appropriate for release in “Asian territories”– removing sexual, violent, and gambling based content such as models and icons. After review bombing and community outcry, the patch was rolled back.
However, what of Tencent? Have Tencent ever forced video games outside of China to be censored? According to the anonymous post, they have.
Tencent, Marvelous, and Kenichiro Takaki
The post addresses how the corporate staff of Marvelous changed between 2017 and 2020. The poster takes issue with Standing Statutory Auditor Ken Sato. He worked at Sony from 1968 to 2006, with a senior roles for six years. “This man is most certainly the censorship officer for Sony,” the poster claims, “given his euphemistic title.”
As such, claiming Sato would be involved with censorship due to his past is unlikely on the current evidence alone. An auditor’s duties could involve reviewing anything from financial statements, to produced works to see if they are “appropriate” for sale in certain markets.
The poster also casts doubt on the current company President Shuichi Motoda. The issue is that since May 2018, Motoda was a Special advisor to Tencent Japan. The poster claims “he was already getting cozy with the CCP’s funny money for several months before shit the fan in September 2018 when Sony’s censorship went into full throttle.”
In addition, the poster draws attention to how Kenihiro Takaki sounded less keen to work on games for PlayStation. In February 2019 [1, 2] Takaki sounded eager to make Senran Kagura games for Nintendo Switch, rather than the PlayStation (two months after Sony’s “global standards” comment).
“This isn’t something limited to PlayStation platforms,” Takaki stated, “but more like something affecting all media in general, on a worldwide scale. I always thought this would happen. But it happened a bit faster than what I expected, so I’m worried about how things will go from now on.”
Less than two months later (March 26th, 2019), it was announced that that Takaki had left Marvelous. In an interview between Famitsu and Takaki in 2019, he confirmed his reasons for leaving was indeed the censorship.
“The biggest reason is, the censorship of sexual expression that has been a big topic since last year, and the changes in that situation. Even before that, there had been minor changes, but recently, it became like ‘that is not allowed, this is not allowed, probably not allowed’ and a lot of things were suddenly not allowed. I never thought of leaving Marvelous, or changing styles of my job before, but at a certain time period in last year, I felt like a thread in me was cut all of sudden.”
The poster assumes that there was more to Takaki leaving; such as how Marvelous announced working with Tencent for a mobile Story of Seasons game two days after Takaki left.
The poster theorizes that Takaki left not just because of restrictions on sexual content, “but because of Tencent’s involvement with those restrictions, as well as Tencent’s increasing involvement with Marvelous in general.”
Is it True?
The poster’s theory is not entirely a “smoking gun” as it was claimed. However there is a lot of suspicion around nearly all parties involved. Marvelous and PlayStation both became reluctant to produce anime video games with sexual content after some involvement from Tencent.
However, nothing proves that Tencent were commanding Marvelous or PlayStation to censor. Especially considering that Tencent had to go through a proxy (Epic Games) that they only owned 40% of.
In addition, PlayStation games have not censored blood, gore, or sexual content in non-anime styled games. The PlayStation 4 has hosted games outright banned in China, such as Battlefield 4 which “smears China’s image,” and is “cultural invasion;” according to the state-run China Military newspaper.
However, we have found an incident where Tencent may have demanded censorship on a company it owned, and a situation where Sony censored on behalf of the Chinese government.
Riot Games (who are entirely owned by Tencent), were accused of censoring any mention by players of the Uyghur Muslim Chinese re-education camps in the in-game chat of League of Legends, along with several other terms and phrases.
Ryan Rigney, Riot Game’s Communications Lead later claimed that the banned terms were in error. “Sometimes our system bans really weird words for no good reason.”
While Riot Games is based in the United States, it would make sense Tencent’s social credit score would be harmed by one of their games allowing discussions that harm the Chinese government’s reputation.
On February 24th, the 2020 Sony World Photography Awards had removed photos of the Hong Kong protests from the list of finalists. When one of the entrants, David Butow, asked why his photos had been removed, he stated he was told that “it was something like it was politically sensitive… there were concerns about the political nature of the work.”
The contest is sponsored by Sony, adding yet more questions if a person financially invested in a group invested enough to demand censorship. Quartz notes in their article that “China makes up 13% of Sony’s total sales, according to the latest available company filings.”
There was also earlier this month, when PlayStation removed a backdoor in the Chinese PlayStation Store, after players worked out how to access foreign PlayStation Stores and buy the games not approved for sale in China. It would stand to reason that PlayStation would lose their licence to operate in China if they did not comply.
It is possible that if a Sony subsidiary acted in a manner that reduced its social credit score, this would also harm the credit score of Sony and other subsidiaries. For example, factories that produce Sony goods may have more limitations placed on them.
We have Tencent, a Chinese company that have seemingly agreed to obey Chinese law within its own borders. We have Marvelous, a company who began to censor their more risqué games after they began to work with Tencent.
Finally we have Sony, a company that has censored games on its platform, and is willing to stand by while clearly political censorship occurred in a contest it sponsors.
We do not have a smoking gun. Without seeing exactly how much Tencent invested into the China Hero Project (via Epic Games), or a deeper understanding of how Tencent handles the media it produces, we may never know.
We do have someone shot in the PlayStation household(anime-style games with sexual content), where Tencent’s associate Epic Games was at some point. Tencent had been living in the China house, where lewd content was frowned upon. Houses not part of China were derided frequently, and even agreed to change to appeal to China.
Over at the Marveous house, they began to not allow those sorts of games in (even turfing out games they once cherished), shortly after Tencent had visited and became part of the household.
There is no smoking gun, but we have suspicious characters who have evidence and past actions casting doubt on them. How much influence does Tencent or the Chinese government have over PlayStation?
Does the Chinese government care what a Chinese company does overseas? Would Tencent be able to force their will through Epic Games via their 40% ownership?
What would the Chinese government gain if Anime-style games with sexual themes were censored in the west? What would Tencent? Why would Sony willingly censor games on their platform; generating bad PR and giving incentive to buy the games on other platforms if possible?
Whether it be by Tencent or PlayStation, was it motivated by ideology? Profit? Attempting to avoid the scorn of an outrage mob? Avoiding the scorn of the Chinese government?
Intrigue abounds and further evidence is needed. There is only one thing for certain; this whole affair is a real “Pooh-dunit?”