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In Search of Erotic Games, Chinese Users Turn to Steam

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This article by Tony Xu was originally published by TechNode. It has been re-posted here with permission.

Porn is hard to come by in China. All major porn websites are blocked by the country’s Great Firewall, the censorship tool that basically made the Chinese internet a local network. Police forces around the country make frequent arrests of individuals who produce and distribute porn, and content platforms are routinely censured or shut down by regulators. An individual from the central China province of Hunan was sent to prison for four years and fined 400,000RMB (around 57,870USD) for running two small websites that hosted pornographic content.

Even sexually suggestive content has faced increasingly stringent oversight. A set of standards for live-streaming platforms released by a provincial government this January, for instance, prohibits female live-streamers from wearing overly revealing, flesh-colored, or figure-hugging clothing.

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Yet one kind of sexual content is easily available: games. Steam, the world’s largest digital game distribution platform, is one of the few large Western content platforms that are not blocked in China. Chinese users can easily purchase erotic games on the platform with Alipay and WeChat Pay, the top two payment tools in China.

In the erotic game Nekopara Vol. 1, which is part of a five-title visual novel series distributed on Steam, players can be owners of “catgirls” — anime girls with cat ears dressed in maid outfits. These catgirls want to be petted, and respond to such actions by moaning with pleasure and jiggling their breasts.

Also featured in the game are bath scenes that contain some nudity as well as sexually suggestive conversations. For instance, during a scene where players clean her ears, a catgirl by the name “Chocola” says: “Deeper! Chocola loves it when you go in deeper, meow~.” Within the same scene, another catgirl named “Vanilla” moans: “You’re so skilled with your hands … M-Meow … You’re such a pervy pastry puffer … Nnghhhh!” At a certain point in the plot, the “catgirls” will have sex with the player.

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Valve, the developer of Steam, had tolerated erotic games for years with only minor restrictions, but the access to sexual content that Steam provides is becoming an increasingly conspicuous “blemish” in China’s internet space. Last month, the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications (NOAPIP) started an eight-month cleanup campaign to further intensify the crackdown on pornography. Steam is still functioning normally in China with most of the erotic games available for purchase, though a for-China version of Steam, which was announced last year, could potentially complicate the current situation.

A haven for the erotic

Games in the Nekopara series are by no means the only erotic games on Steam. Titles with sexual content number in the hundreds and appear in genres ranging from visual novels to dating simulators and role-playing games.

Although most sell poorly due to low quality, more polished titles can sell upwards of half a million copies. Titles in the Nekopara series, for instance, have sold more than 2 million copies globally as of April 2018, according to a Twitter post from the developer of the series, Neko Works. The price of each title ranges from 4.99 to 9.99USD.

While games in the Nekopara series available on Steam do not feature explicit sexual content — only suggestive conversations and bath scenes — Neko Works have created downloadable content (DLCs) that add sex scenes to them. Although the DLC scenes still contain mosaic that blurs out the genitals, they contain a number of explicit images and animations.

Screenshot of a scene in “Nekopara Vol. 3” with the DLC installed. (Image: Neko Works)

DLCs of Nekopara have been available on other digital distribution platforms such as Denpasfot and DLSite since the release of the first game in the series. They also became available on Steam in December — although based on observations by TechNode, users in China are not allowed to purchase them.

Even without purchasing the DLCs, players in China have been able to access the adult content via the numerous links provided in the games’ review sections. The Chinese review rated “most useful” for Nekopara Vol. 1, for instance, contains direct links to the DLCs for three games in the series. Other Chinese language comments detail the installation of the DLCs and offer assistance to those who encounter issues during the process.

Chinese users are open about the reasons for their purchase, referring to titles in the series as games where players get to mate with cats and describing the gameplay as a “first-person shooter experience.” Some of them have lauded the way Nekopara treats sex scenes. “Nekopara is different from other erotic games where sex scenes are related to rape, harassment, and prostitution,” commented a Steam user by the handle “Cheesebacon.” “Sex scenes in Nekopara feel comfortable and cathartic… that’s why I strongly recommend this game.”

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Others recommend the game but admit they are unsettled by the incestuous overtones of the relationships between the male character and the cat girls. “In the first half of the story I was treating the catgirls as daughters… so when the male character started having sex with his cats, I felt genuinely bad,” a Steam user named “NoManEntry” wrote in his review for Nekopara Vol. 1.

Nearly half of all reviews for “Nekopara Vol. 1” and more than half of all reviews for “Nekopara Vol. 2” and “Nekopara Vol. 3” are in simplified Chinese, suggesting that a considerable percentage of the game’s owners are from either mainland China or Singapore. In addition, links to DLCs are almost exclusively shared via Baidu Wangpan, which is primarily used in mainland China, indicating that the majority of users commenting in simplified Chinese are from mainland China.

The success of Nekopara is by no means an anomaly on Steam. Erotic titles such as HuniePop and House Party have sold more than 500,000 copies and 200,000 copies respectively, according to the Steam sales tracking website Steam Spy.

“Nothing to do with Chinese laws”

All games published in China must apply for a license from China’s top content regulator, the State Administration of Press and Publication (SAPP). However, because Steam is a US-based company without an official Chinese server, it is not required to follow Chinese regulations, said He Jing, an intellectual property lawyer at the Beijing branch of Merits & Tree Law Offices.

“Steam is legal in China, but a better way to put it is that its operations have nothing to do with Chinese laws,” He told TechNode.

This “immunity” to Chinese laws and regulations also applies to erotic games or games that contain sexual content on Steam. As long as the actions of Steam are within the boundaries of the law of the country where it is based, there’s no legal reason for Chinese regulators to punish the platform, He said.

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Regulators cannot fine or shut down Steam, but they can lock it out of the Chinese internet with the Great Firewall — just like Facebook and Google. Steam’s community feature, which contains functionalities such as forums and user profile pages, for example, has seen intermittent availability since late December 2017. Initially, users could circumvent the restriction by changing local files, but according to user posts on the non-official forum SteamCN, the only effective workaround since August 2018 has been VPNs.

If regulators were to strictly apply the laws, developers of erotic games who are Chinese nationals or within Chinese territory could potentially be charged with Article 366 and Article 367 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, He told TechNode. According to Article 366, those who “produce, duplicate, publish, sell or disseminate pornographic materials” for profit can be sentenced up to life imprisonment, depending on the severity of the violation. Those who do so without the purpose of profiting could still face up to two years in prison.

The status quo is likely to change with Steam China, a China-specific platform that will only contain games that have received licenses from SAPP.

Announced last June, Steam China is the product of a partnership between Valve and Chinese game developer and publisher Perfect World. It was most likely created with the purpose of protecting Valve’s interest in the country, said Daniel Ahmad, an analyst at game research firm Niko Partners.

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When platforms get bigger, they tend to get pressure from the Chinese government to fall in line with regulations, Ahmad said. Steam is reaching this stage, just as Facebook and Instagram did before they were banned. Having established Steam China, in the eventuality that the international version of Steam is blocked or affected in other ways, Steam will not lose their entire presence in China, he explained.

While developers of regulation-compliant titles could benefit from an officially approved entry in the Chinese market, makers of games that feature drug use, nudity, or violence are not likely to put effort into censoring their games to comply with Chinese regulations, Ahmad said. Erotic games, which revolve around sexual content, will have no chance of appearing on Steam China.

Chinese users apparently do not want to be sidelined from the original Steam platform to a censored version. Under the only post from the official Weibo account of Steam China, which wished users a happy Chinese New Year, commenters have expressed their dissatisfaction.

“My suggestion for you is to cancel your account as soon as possible,” said a user who goes by the handle “I’m so sweet.” “Happy New Year! Don’t come here!” another user named “jianzhi yaowan” commented. Both replies received more than 1,000 upvotes.

Walls coming?

Valve allows censored erotic games on Steam but previously required developers to use mosaics to cover characters’ genitals or to blur out sex scenes. While developers can create patches that remove mosaics, they are technically not allowed to provide links to them on Steam.

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However, Steam’s policy toward erotic games underwent some substantial changes last June, following heated discussions ignited by the platform’s warnings to the developers of several erotic games to censor all sexually suggestive scenes or be removed from the platform.

Outraged by Valve’s “threat” to developers, users of the platform started a wave of protest on Steam’s built-in community forum as well as on Reddit. Three weeks later, Valve issued a statement, allowing everything onto the platform and excluding only games that it considers to be illegal or “straight up trolling.” The new policy applies to all countries where Steam is available, including China.

“What’s considered acceptable discussion / behavior / imagery varies significantly around the world, socially and legally. Even when we pick a single country or state, the legal definitions around these topics can be too broad or vague to allow us to avoid making subjective and interpretive decisions … As we mentioned earlier, laws vary around the world, so we’re going to need to handle this on a case-by-case basis,” Valve said in the statement.

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The statement explained that the platform would contain games that people find offensive, but added that it did not mean the platform approves or agrees with what those games try to convey. “We believe you should be able to express yourself like everyone else, and to find others who want to play your game. But that’s it,” Valve said in the statement.

While already-released erotic games still contain mosaics of some sort, developers could launch new titles mosaic-free under the new Steam policy. This is the case for the two upcoming erotic visual novels from Neko Works.

However, just as with the DLCs of Nekopara, users with mainland China IP addresses who try to access the Steam Store pages of these next two titles are greeted with a “This content is not allowed in your country” message, indicating that Steam’s new guidelines are either not fully implemented in China or have been adapted to meet Chinese regulations.

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Valve did not reply to TechNode’s request for comment.

Nor does the platform’s new policy seem to apply to titles that have attracted widespread controversy. Just two months ago, Valve made the decision to bar from Steam a game called Rape Day, in which players can rape women in a zombie apocalypse.

“We respect developers’ desire to express themselves, and the purpose of Steam is to help developers find an audience, but this developer has chosen content matter and a way of representing it that makes it very difficult for us to help them do that,” Valve’s Erik Johnson wrote in a statement on Steam.

TechNode
TechNode is a leading international technology media platform in China. Started in 2009 by Dr. Lu Gang, TechNode began as one man’s attempt to tell the world about what’s happening in China’s tech and startup ecosystems. See more at http://technode.com/