A Taiwanese games company has had its latest release pulled from mainland China, after players noticed subtle references mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping, including comparing him to Winnie the Pooh.
Red Candle Games released Devotion, a first-person horror game set in 1980s Taiwan, on games platform Steam on 19 February.
The game quickly went viral after players spotted so-called “easter eggs” and publicised them. However online discussion has since been censored.
An “easter egg” is a hidden message or joke in a computer game, normally only picked up by some players paying close attention.
Red Candle Games has apologised, saying it will refund offended users.
Taiwan is an island that is for all practical purposes independent, but China sees it as a rebel region and insists that other countries should not have diplomatic relations with it.
Taiwan’s current president has sparred with Beijing over the island’s political future. In January, Xi Jinping said Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with China.
One of the easter eggs in Devotion is a poster containing the words “Xi Jinping” next to “Winnie the Pooh”, in an ancient style of writing. Winnie the Pooh has been censored on Chinese search engines and social media since 2017, after bloggers began comparing Mr Xi to the children’s story book and film character.
Gamers have also spotted an old newspaper in Devotion that refers to an individual who has received a prison sentence, nicknamed “baozi” or “steamed bun”.
“Steamed bun” is another sensitive term in China, as social media users have used it to refer to the president and evade government censors.
Red Candle Games confirmed that Devotion had been removed from Steam China on 23 February, and issued an apology, saying the poster with the Winnie the Pooh reference had made it into the game by accident due to a technical issue.
It said that it was aware some players may have been offended by the images, and said that it was in touch with Steam to ensure that such players could obtain a full refund.
“The whole team of Red Candle Games bears the responsibility of this awfully unprofessional mistake,” a statement on Monday said. “It is not Red Candle’s vision to secretly project extensive ideology, nor is it to attack any person in the real world.
“We sincerely hope that this ends with Red Candle, and please do not take it out on all of our innocent partners.”
Chinese online censors are trying to scrub references to the game and its hidden messages.
Searches for both “Red Candle Games” and “Devotion” in Chinese on Weibo are showing no results.
What’s On Weibo, which tracks content on the site, said that over the weekend posts containing the hashtag #Devotion were racking up hundreds of millions of views.
But on Monday, a search of the hashtag #Devotion showed only four posts, none of which refer to the game.
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Posts that mention the game’s title in English, which the censors are often lax in censoring, show that China-based users are receiving messages on Steam saying that the game is “no longer available” to play in their country.
Meanwhile Red Candle’s account on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo service has been suspended, preventing the company from publicising its game in the mainland.
In Taiwan, where social media is not government-controlled, thousands of social media users are joking about the easter eggs.
Some on Facebook are posting pictures and gifs of Winnie the Pooh, and others are showing printouts of the offending poster.
Gaming in China
The episode has raised questions as to whether Steam will be the latest overseas online platform to be blocked in mainland China.
Technically, Steam has not gained official approval to operate in the country, but it remains accessible. Some 30m people are estimated to use it in China.
The platform allows China-based users to download and play games that have not received official authorisation.
Over the last decade, the government has banned games if their content is considered to be violent, or anti-Beijing. However many recent releases have never made it to China anyway because of a years-long backlog of games that regulators are yet to examine.
The top media regulator has also just announced that it will not be granting any new licences to gaming companies until the backlog is cleared.
The result is that wildly popular games such as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, both of which were released in 2017, remain neither banned, nor authorised in the country.
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