China has discovered LARPing, starting a kind of satanic panic

Live-action RPGs are all the rage in China’s urban centers right now, according to reports from the English-language state media website Sixth Tone. But after a surge in popularity in recent years, regulators are beginning to take notice of mature content in the genre. A story published on Wednesday indicates that city and provincial authorities have now begun to regulate content and require some retailers to remove certain materials from sale. The situation seems far more dire than even the darkest days of the Satanic Panic in the 1980s, when conservatives and even some media organizations in the US made unsubstantiated claims about the safety of playing Dungeons & Dragons.

At issue are “scripted murder” games, in which players dress up and play the parts in elaborate murder mystery games that take many hours to complete. Games can take place at home, using commercially available scripts; inside retail windows; or in more thematic private places.

“China’s scripted murder games are derived from the murder mystery of LARP games,” Sixth Tone’s Luo Meihan told Polygon via email. “We call it ‘assassination script’ because it is the direct English translation of the original Chinese word jubensha (in pinyin), or 剧本 (hyphen) 杀 (assassination). The original form of the game genre in China is basically similar to LARP.

“But as the industry has expanded, the game genre has developed to involve various types of storylines that engage players in an emotional or light-hearted experience, in addition to the process of solving a murder mystery,” Luo continued. “People can also sit down and have their respective scripts handy to jump into a story and follow the plot as one of the leads, often with the lead of [a] Dungeon master.”

According to Luo’s report, the southwestern city of Chengdu recently became the first Chinese municipality to “introduce new rules governing the mystery role-playing game industry.” The stated goal is to “promote the healthy and orderly development of the scripted entertainment industry.” Liaoning and Shanghai provinces in the north appear to be following suit.

Here are additional details from Luo’s original article for Sixth Tone:

The new rules for offline games, including “script murder” RPGs. […] and other interactive gaming venues now require local industry associations to post “red and black lists” of “good and problem scripts” that involve pornography, violence, and vulgarity, among others. Meanwhile, minors are not allowed to participate in games deemed unsuitable for their age group and are only allowed to enter gaming venues during weekends, national holidays, and summer and winter vacations.

As a result, some store owners are now selecting their selection to comply with government regulation. It’s unclear how this will affect independent game designers’ output within China, but the target market, like most markets within mainland China, appears to be huge. Sixth Tone’s analysis of an industry report indicates that the number of gaming venues has increased by 400% since 2018, with $2.8 billion in revenue last year alone.

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