Skip to content
The Morning Dispatch: Why China Is Pressuring Video Game Developers
Go to my account

The Morning Dispatch: Why China Is Pressuring Video Game Developers

Plus: Vaccinations begin for long-term care residents.

Happy Friday! We hope you have a wonderful weekend heading into the holidays. If the Bears beat the Vikings, their playoff odds shoot up to 42 percent! (Editor: The Packers have secured a playoff spot and are currently the No. 1 seed in the NFC.)

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • A panel of outside experts voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to recommend the Food and Drug Administration issue an emergency use authorization for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. The FDA is expected to do so later today, clearing the way for additional vaccination doses to begin shipping early next week.

  • Another group of 38 state attorneys general sued Google on Thursday over its alleged monopoly power in the digital advertising market. The plaintiffs said they hope to join forces with the Justice Department’s similar suit against Google.

  • President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday announced his intent to nominate North Carolina environmental regulator Michael Regan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico to run the Department of the Interior. 

  • Initial jobless claims increased by 23,000 week-over-week to 885,000 last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday. More than 20.6 million people were on some form of unemployment insurance during the week ending November 28, compared to 1.7 million people during the comparable week in 2019.

  • Politico reports that hackers accessed the networks of the Energy Department and National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. A Department of Energy spokesperson said the agency believes the “malware has been isolated to business networks only, and has not impacted the mission essential national security functions of the department.”

  • Dominion Voting Systems sent a letter to former Trump campaign lawyer Sidney Powell demanding she publicly retract her “wild, knowingly baseless and false accusations” about the company and its voting machines. Many saw the letter as a precursor to legal action against Powell.

  • French President Emmanuel Macron has tested positive for the coronavirus, sources in his office announced Thursday. He plans to isolate for seven days but continue to work and preside over meetings virtually. Cedric Richmond, incoming senior adviser to President-elect Joe Biden, has also tested positive for COVID-19. Richmond was with Biden at a campaign event in Georgia on Tuesday, but the Biden transition team said Richmond was not, per CDC guidelines, in close contact with the President-elect, who tested negative for the virus yesterday.

  • Jen O’Malley Dillon—Biden’s campaign manager and incoming deputy chief of staff—walked back comments she made earlier this week in which she called congressional Republicans “a bunch of f**kers” and said Mitch McConnell was “terrible.” She said yesterday she “used some words that [she] probably could have chosen better.”

  • The United States confirmed 231,746 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 12.4 percent of the 1,867,192 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 3,005 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 310,434. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 114,237 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

China Exerts Pressure on Video Game Developers

If you’re not a connoisseur of horror video games (and we assume most of you are not!), odds are you didn’t notice the censorship controversy that played out this week around Devotion, a psychological horror game set in 1980s Taiwan. On the surface, it looked like a boring bit of inside baseball: On Wednesday, the Polish games distributor GOG.com announced it would be bringing Devotion to its online platform, then suddenly reversed course and canceled the release.

But the affair was actually the latest example of a much greater and more sinister trend: The Chinese Communist Party’s nasty habit of flexing its economic muscles to squelch content that offends its authoritarian sensibilities.

Devotion was the second major release from Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games, whose first game Detention—a period piece set in Taiwan during its decades of martial law known as the White Terror—established the company as a critical darling when it was released in 2017. Devotion, which delved into elements of Taiwanese folk religion and culture, was equally well received when it released early last year—at least at first.

Two days after its release, however, people playing the game made a discovery: A wall hanging in one of the game’s apartments referred to “Xi Jinping” and “Winnie the Pooh,” a reference to an unflattering meme about Xi that is an apparent sore spot for the Chinese autocrat.

The developers immediately patched the poster out of the game and apologized, saying they had included memes as asset placeholders during prototyping and hadn’t meant to make a political statement about Xi. But the damage was done: Chinese accounts bombarded the game with negative reviews on the digital store Steam until Red Candle pulled it from the platform entirely—first within China, then around the world. Red Candle was suddenly radioactive: Its official page was scrubbed from the massively popular Chinese social media website Weibo, and its two publishers both cut ties with the studio. One of those publishers, Indievent, later had its business license revoked in China altogether.

This week, the same saga played out a second time: GOG.com announced it was rereleasing the game on its platform, then mysteriously announced a change of course mere hours later. “After receiving many messages from gamers,” the company tweeted, “we have decided not to list the game in our store.”

China famously makes propping up its own propaganda and shouting down subversive voices online part of its official government business, and concerted “review-bombing” campaigns against games, movies, and other products exploit the algorithmic nature of online shopping to do real economic harm to game developers and other creators.

“This is fairly typical of Chinese behavior, to say ‘we don’t like something that you, a company or a government, has done, so we will mobilize groups to oppose it,’” Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, told The Dispatch. “In this particular case, a particularly useful tool is to post lots of bad reviews.”

By single-handedly turning a well-received game into an unsellable pariah, Cheng said, such campaigns—even when aimed at tiny developers like Red Candle—send a message to industry titans as well: “It’s also a message to Electronic Arts, and Bethesda Games, and everybody else in the gaming community: We will not allow criticism of the regime in your game.”

While putting this pressure on game developers and other creative types is bad enough, what’s even more concerning is the effect these hardball tactics have on the digital distributors without whose support modern games can’t thrive. Distribution platforms like GOG.com don’t care whether Xi superfans badmouth a game on their platform; they care very much, however, about being permitted to do digital business behind China’s internet-restricting “great firewall.” (GOG.com’s parent company, CD Projekt Red, just released its biggest game in years last week. That game, Cyberpunk 2077, is currently a smash hit in China.)

Couple this with the fact that developers increasingly rely on a handful of digital storefronts to get their games to players, and you’ve got a situation where China can effectively enforce an industry-wide moratorium on even the most innocently or tangentially anti-CCP content.

“You know, people might say, ‘well, it’s just games.’ Well, first off, the gaming industry is huge,” Cheng said. “It’s a global industry, and a global industry that touches populations at a young age. So you start shaping and molding now the audience of the future. … The Chinese think longer-term, right?”

And of course it’s not“just games.” China has used the same smashmouth tactics to set the bounds of acceptable speech in products from Hollywood blockbusters to NBA basketball, with the same weak-kneed acquiescence from Western companies pretty much across the board. The New York Times’ Ben Smith reported last week that senior Apple executive Eddie Cue, who oversees Apple TV, has told partners that “the two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China.” BuzzFeed reported last year Cue has instructed AppleTV+ content developers to “avoid portraying China in a poor light.” The Chinese market is just too lucrative to forgo, and businesses know China’s threats to take that market away are not empty ones. 

All of this is very bad; that’s plain. What’s less clear is what can be done about it. The economic relationship between the U.S. and China is in this respect totally asymmetrical: They ban subversive speech that runs afoul of the party’s sensibilities, while we don’t ban cowardly speech that acquiesces to such propaganda codes. You don’t need an MBA to see that the best way for companies to maximize access to both markets is to bend the knee. 

It falls to the incoming Biden administration to try to untangle this Gordian knot. One inauspicious sign: Biden is reportedly considering Disney executive chairman Bob Iger as his administration’s ambassador to China. Disney has been one of the nation’s most notorious China-appeasers over the last few years: This summer, the studio’s live-action remake of 1998’s Mulan thanked Chinese propaganda agencies in its credits for the film

Long-Term Care Residents Get Vaccinated

Florida and West Virginia were among the first states to begin vaccinating long-term facility staff members and residents this week ahead of the federal government’s CVS and Walgreens rollout, which is scheduled to begin nationwide on Monday. 

In Florida, the governor’s office selected a handful of long term care facilities in Broward County and Pinellas County to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week. “Our elders were some of the first in the United States to receive the vaccine,” said Mark Rayner, director of health care services at John Knox Village in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Rayner was among the community’s approximately 160 staff members and elder residents who received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday. He said a “couple of employees” reported mild symptoms, including achiness and low-grade fever. “We really had no side effects other than that,” he said.

John Knox Village is the only “Green House” model of skilled nursing care in Florida, a privacy-oriented elderly living community designed as an alternative to traditional institutional nursing homes. Rayner said that on a national basis, Green House communities’ COVID-19 infection rates have remained dramatically lower than those of institutional nursing homes given their individualized architectural layout.

“Our building is a seven story high rise with two homes, 12 on each floor—so it naturally separates the elders into smaller groups and with private rooms versus an institutional nursing home where you’ve got 60 people in one hallway, and then sharing rooms,” Rayner said. “We only had one positive case of an elder in skilled nursing contracting the COVID in our building, and that person is fully recovered,” Rayner said of the community’s roughly 1,000 residents. 

Most institutional nursing homes haven’t fared so well. Even though long-term care facilities residents account for only about 5 percent of all COVID-19 cases, they comprise roughly 38 percent of all COVID-19 deaths. Next week’s CVS and Walgreens rollout is a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for the nation’s roughly 3 million nursing home and long-term care residents who have spent months in isolation awaiting a vaccine. 

Roughly 35,000 long term care facilities will team up with Walgreens to receive either the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or the soon-to-be approved Moderna vaccine, and 40,000 have opted to work with CVS. “We will be administering all FDA-approved vaccines, as determined by federal and state local governments,” a Walgreens spokesperson told The Dispatch. 

Long-Awaited Sanctions on Turkey

The Trump administration imposed sanctions on NATO ally Turkey Monday for its 2017 purchase of  Russian-manufactured S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries, cracking down on Ankara’s burgeoning strategic relationship with Moscow. While the efficacy of its move is in question, the U.S. hopes to send a clear message to Ankara and other interested buyers: Don’t do business with the sanctioned Russian export entity, Rosoboronexport.  Charlotte spoke to a series of experts to gain insight into the sanctions’ aims and Ankara’s response.

Why is the U.S. government implementing sanctions now, three years after the S-400 system’s purchase?

The move follows considerable pressure from Congress, which included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021 explicit language to compel the president to impose such penalties. The measure passed both the House and Senate, though Trump has vowed to veto it for other reasons.

The NDAA is not yet law, of course. The State Department grounded these sanctions in the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which pursued punitive measures against Iran, North Korea, and Russia. As such, the department has emphasized that the actions are “not intended to undermine the military capabilities or combat readiness of Turkey or any other U.S. ally,” but rather “to impose costs on Russia in response to its wide range of malign activities” by signaling to other interested countries—like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and India—that Russia’s main arms-export entity, Rosoboronexport, is not open for business.

What was the Turkish response?

Ankara’s response to the sanctions has been two-fold. Erdogan’s government and the pro-government media have, unsurprisingly, downplayed their impact as “light,” and have even gone so far as to claim that reduced access to U.S. exports will advance Turkey’s domestic development of high-tech military systems. At the same time, Turkey’s foreign ministry has called on the U.S. to alter “the unjust sanctions” and reverse “this grave mistake,” threatening retaliation if changes aren’t made. 

These seemingly contradictory reactions stem, first of all, from the Turkish government’s desire to save face with its populace. If its bold move to purchase S-400 systems might result in damage to Turkey’s defense economy, Erdogan will make every public effort to deny the impact. But Ankara also perceives its transaction and growing partnership with Moscow as emblematic of its defense sovereignty, and resisting U.S. sanctions has morphed into “an issue of national honor,” according to Steven A. Cook, expert on Turkish politics at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

What are the sanctions’ symbolic value?

“The purpose of the sanctions is to tell the Turks enough is enough, because the number of [issues] that the United States and the Turks are now divergent on—like Northern Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean—has Congress fed up with Turkish behaviors,” Henri Barkey, a Lehigh University scholar, told The Dispatch

“The S-400 controversy is just one of a long list of issues that divide the United States and Turkey,” said Cook. “These include: Turkey’s unwillingness to join the battlefield to confront the Islamic State directly; attacks on American allies in Syria; support for Hamas; Turkish efforts to stir up trouble in Jerusalem; efforts to undermine the stability of Egypt, an American security partner; Ankara’s assistance to Iran in the evasion of U.N. sanctions; the detention of American citizens in Turkey; the arrests of foreign service national employees of the U.S. Embassy; Ankara’s aggressive posture in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean; human rights violations; and allegations that the United States supported the failed 2016 coup d’état.”

“The sanctions are valuable because they signal that Turkey is no longer immune to the consequences of its actions,” Michael Rubin, expert on Turkey at American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch.

Worth Your Time

  • Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has been one of the most interesting voices to follow during the coronavirus pandemic. In a piece yesterday, she makes the case for “hanging on for three more months.” While acknowledging that “quarantine fatigue is real” and “the costs of isolation are steep,” she argues that it would be a waste to let down our collective guard now with so much hope on the horizon. “We don’t yet know how much better things will get this spring, but we can already tell that the situation seems set to rapidly improve. We can see the brightening light at the end of the tunnel, if we can make it through this last, darkest stretch.”

  • We can neither confirm nor deny that Steve put us up to this, but if you’re interested in a list of the top 100 wines of Spain 2020, look no further than this top 100 wines of Spain 2020 list from James Suckling. “The strength of Spanish wines are those that sell for between $15 and $40 a bottle and show deft sophistication, unique character and wonderful drinkability,” he writes. “If you follow Spanish wines even slightly, you probably already know the top names who make superb and rare wines such as Vega Sicilia, Alvaro Palacios, Telmo Rodriguez, Pingus, and Artadi. … But many other wines from Spain offer terrific drinking pleasure and at reasonable prices, and this is what I focused on in this year’s list of the Top 100.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • The Supreme Court agreed on Wednesday to hear a case concerning whether the NCAA’s eligibility rules for student compensation violate federal antitrust law. In their penultimate Advisory Opinions podcast before Christmas break, David and Sarah discuss whether the NCAA should have the right to create a universal regime of amateur athletics. Stick around for a conversation about whether private employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccines, some hypothetical legal scenarios related to double jeopardy, and the culture wars surrounding Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller. 

Let Us Know

We’ve written a lot about the COVID-19 vaccines in recent weeks, have any of you gotten the thing? Do you know anybody who has?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

The Dispatch Staff's Headshot

The Dispatch Staff