Digital Activists Take Aim at Video Game Companies Over China Censorship

By Dell Cameron on at

A leading U.S. digital rights organisation is joining the battle against top video game companies that might seek to censor gamers for expressing support for Hong Kongers who’ve been protesting Chinese influence over the past 27 weeks.

On Thursday, Fight for the Future launched the website Gamers for Freedom, a tool to help gamers send a message to video game companies that would rather preserve access to China’s consumer market than allow players to openly support ongoing pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The site features a petition, as well as information on which video game developers have issued statements explicitly in favor of free speech, and which have not. It also recommends alternative games for those who wish to participate in boycotts.

The conflict between gamers and developers largely ignited after Activision Blizzard, the maker of games such as Overwatch, Diablo, and World of Warcraft, suspended a professional Hearthstone player from Hong Kong. Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai appeared in a gas mask on a Taiwanese cast and called for the liberation of his city.

Activists are recommending players ditch Blizzard titles and pick up those made by developers such as Immutable, which has expressed support for gamers’ free expression, including those wishing to support Hong Kongers. Screenshot: Fight for the Future

Blizzard’s response has drawn criticism from gamers across the globe. Citing a vaguely worded policy against conduct that brings players “into public disrepute” or otherwise “damages Blizzard’s image,” the company removed Blitzchung from the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters competition and rescinded his prize money, the equivalent of roughly $10,000.

The fallout was swift. As #BoycottBlizzard trended worldwide on Twitter, collectible game card legend and Hearthstone commentator Brian Kibler issued a statement calling Blizzard’s response “incredibly harsh” and announcing he would no longer be involved with the Grandmasters competition.

“The heavy-handedness of it feels like someone insisted that Blizzard make an example of Blitzchung, not only to discourage others from similar acts in the future but also to appease those upset by the outburst itself,” Kibler wrote.

As Polygon first reported, other gamers decided to punish Blizzard by attempting to get one of its products banned in China: They turned the Overwatch character Mei-Ling Zhou, who is from Xi’an, China, into a pro-Democracy meme that quickly went viral. A small group of Blizzard employees also staged a walk-out at the company’s Irvine, California, headquarters on Wednesday, per the Daily Beast.

Around 12 per cent, or $173 million, of Blizzard’s second-quarter earnings came from the Asia Pacific region, according to figures released by the company.

“Blizzard has engaged in blatant censorship, and should act immediately to revoke its ban of Ng Wai Chung, restore his tournament winnings, and repair its relationships with the livestream casters,” said Dayton Young, product director at Fight for the Future. “No gamers should be punished for expressing their views on politics and human rights. And no game company should ever ban or penalize players for advocating for their own political freedom.”

Added Young: “Gamers deserve to know which companies are willing to engage in censorship on behalf of authoritarian regimes and which companies will defend basic freedom of expression, so we’re calling on all game developers and publishers to make a public commitment to support the rights of their customers, employees, and fans.”

The Hong Kong protests, which have grown increasingly violent in recent weeks, were triggered in March by a proposed law to extradite people to mainland China and Taiwan. The demonstrations were estimated last month at around 1.7 million strong and have swelled amid allegations of Hong Kong Police Force misconduct. Economic and social inequality are also a driving force.

Featured image: Fight for the Future