China lifts console ban … somewhat

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Gaming giants wise to proceed with caution

Twitter, Facebook, GoogleDocs, YouTube. All are banned and blocked in mainland China. But there’s hope: in January, a 14-year ban on gaming consoles was lifted.

Shocked? I was. Not by the lifting of the ban, but by the news that China had a ban on video game consoles to begin with. A central question surged within: since when?

Let me take you back to the year 2000. The Chinese government imposed a ban on consoles to “protect Chinese youth from wasting their minds on video games.” Officials originally cited concerns about violent imagery and subsequent moral decay in their youth.

Myself, having played mostly westernized video games for the last decade, having seen the mature nature of games like Grand Theft Auto become almost commonplace, having been privy to the outlandishly sexual and uselessly violent stylings of games like Call of Juarez and God of War, maybe a ban on this type of game isn’t such a bad thing.

Still, imagine it: no Halo, no Metal Gear Solid, no Call of Duty. Personally, I weep for anyone who is denied the chance to don the persona of Cmdr. Shepard and play the epic Mass Effect trilogy. Yet for more than a decade, China’s ban has been in place.

That’s not to say that China doesn’t have its fill of video games. Thanks to the restrictions on consoles and the popularity of Internet bars and online gaming with China’s youth, the PC gaming industry is the largest in the world, to the tune of $13 billion annually.

There have been a number of reasons speculated as to why the ban has been suddenly lifted. According to an article from the BBC, an unnamed official is quoted as stating that it will allow foreigners and tourists to “feel at home.” Some market analysts feel it is the rampant piracy of video games in China, as well as its grey market of illegal imports, that spurred this policy’s reversal. Still others speculate that, with the surging popularity of PC gaming, the original intent behind the ban may have lost some of its impact.

Whatever the motivation, now that the ban is lifted, one might think that the powerhouse trifecta of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft will flood the country’s store shelves with Wii Us, PS4s, and Xbox Ones. Slow down. The Chinese government has a few caveats attached to its ban lift that seem to scream, “Not so fast.”

The largest of the caveats is that this new freedom isn’t a China-wide free-for-all for video game companies. Only consoles manufactured in Shanghai’s Free Trade Zone (a 29-square-kilometre region stretching along eastern Shanghai) and only those consoles and games that pass inspection may be sold. So Microsoft or Sony would need to open a plant in that zone and that zone only before their consoles could be sold in the rest of China.

Doesn’t sound so hard. These companies have money, right? Well, riddle me this: with China having the largest population on Earth – dwarfs the population of the U.S. by more than a billion people – could any company produce enough consoles for the demand? Combine that with the prospect of trying to usurp into a PC-dominated culture that’s 180 million gamers strong, a move by Microsoft, a nudge by Nintendo, or a saunter by Sony into China doesn’t seem feasible or sensible.

The Chinese government is also quick to emphasize that this is a temporary reprieve, a testing of the console waters, if you will. This means that companies will want to be very careful about how they infiltrate this market. Going too hard too fast could potentially be devastating if they should suddenly find the carpet pulled out from under them and the ban reinstated.

For now, though, it is a promising market. Microsoft and Sony will continue what they’ve done for the last decade: creating smaller, cheaper, portable video game devices that are moulded to China and its regulations.

When he’s not teaching high school, St. Albert Catholic High School alumnus Derek Mitchell can be found attached to a video game console.

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