If you haven’t heard about the new Nintendo Switch game, Animal Crossing, you must be living on a remote island. Actually, that’s the idea behind the game, which is more of a simulation using animated characters than a game. It’s kind of a combination of the Sims and Sim City. Each person has their own island which they build up in whatever way appeals to them. They also unlock certain features by building their island infrastructure in certain ways. There is no interaction with people from other islands unless the owner of one island invites someone from another island.
As simple as this may sound, this game is on a course that will make it the best selling video game of all time. And, it is not only in Asia that the game is popular. Its success has been replicated in every country in the world… except China.
Actually, for a while, Animal Crossing was as popular in China as in every other country. The sales were spectacular as the emergence of the game coincided with the Wuhan lockdown. It became a way for those quarantined to experience a parallel life in an idyllic world of their own making. They could even get together with friends and participate in shared activities. Then, clouds appeared in Eden.
Players in China began to find a way to use their islands as platforms to complain about or make fun of various government policies or government officials. One island in particular seemed to irk the Chinese authorities. That was when Hong Kong’s, anti-government protestor, Joshua Wong, posted pictures of his “Free Hong Kong, revolution now” island.
Shortly after this island appeared, game cartridges for this Nintendo Switch game disappeared from Taobao, the biggest online shopping site in China. In addition, all comments about and all screenshots from the game disappeared from social media. This was notable because these screenshots previously dominated posts. It was as if Animal Crossing never existed.
But the Nintendo Switch itself was still available. You just couldn’t buy it on Taobao. That’s because Taobao dealt in imported versions of the console. What’s the difference?The difference was that imported versions were not country coded. Imported consoles allowed people in China to play Animal Crossing. If you had a copy of Animal Crossing and tried to play it on the government-approved, country-coded Switch, sold on shopping site, Tencent, it simply wouldn’t play. You have to keep in mind that Nintendo had to agree to this blocking in order to sell consoles in China.
But Nintendo was always known for using country coding. Back in the days when their Wii games were popular in the U.S., I and many others brought back games we purchased there to play in Europe, only to find that they wouldn’t play. This ended up being a marketing disaster. At a time when Nintendo could have captured the European market, they lost the market with foolish country coding. People simply moved onto other consoles and that was the end of Wii in Europe. Now, no one is buying Switch in China unless they only want to play government approved games. You cannot bring back games from Japan or Korea in the belief they will play on your country-coded console, even when that console is selling for 50% the price of the imported versions.
When I had this country coding problem in Europe, I found a work around through a disk I purchased online that interrupted the booting process and canceled the country coding. Nintendo eventually figured this out and updated their firmware to block this process and seal their fate.
Chinese gamers are doing much the same to get around government restrictions. Although some writers on the topic claim that searching online shops with certain ‘secret’ phrases, such as “macho man picking tree branch” (the various interpretations of the same Chinese characters stops the search engines from blocking the search results), will get you to a shop that has a copy of the game or a foreign made console, others say getting these items isn’t at all difficult.
When I was in China, admittedly some years ago, there were always people on the streets selling copies of software or music CDs. I bought some simply because the price was so good. Some of them worked some didn’t. My guess is that these same people may have sites online that can only be accessed in certain discrete ways. It is well-known that many Chinese sellers buy large amounts of foreign products and stockpile them, and this is what seems to have happened with Animal Crossing. So, yes, the ability to play Animal Crossing persists.
Those who have problems getting the game in China have learned that if they set up an eShop account on an overseas store, they could get the game within minutes, and, assuming they had an international console, soon be building their island. In a digital world there are always workarounds. In China, if there’s a will, there’s a way. If there is a wall, there’s a way around it.
In the end, the loser in this battle is the Chinese government. In their overweening attempt to save face, they have lost face. To the world, they simply look silly and oversensitive. In attempting to control the use of the internet, they have, instead, created an alternate, underground internet that is becoming increasingly capable of circumventing all government regulations. If serious dissent begins, it will begin here and the government will only have itself to blame.