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China’s Gaming Crackdown: Concerns About 'STEAM' Ban Heightened

December 31, 2021

Chinese gamers became alarmed on Christmas Day when the popular Steam video game store was hit with intermittent outages, raising concerns that authorities had finally blocked it.

Concerns that the world’s largest video game platform Steam was blocked in China on Christmas Day have spread on social media as gamers complained about issues connecting to the website days after it kicked off its popular year-end sale.

Access to the store appears to be facing intermittent connectivity issues in different parts of mainland China, with some users saying they had no problems connecting. The government did not issue any announcements about Steam, nor did Valve Corp, the platform’s US-based owner.

“I was unable to open the platform through the local network, which returns the error code of 118,” wrote one user on the microblogging platform Weibo on Sunday, referencing the error for when a web page fails to load. The user added that the platform could still be accessed using a virtual private network (VPN), a common tool for circumventing internet censorship.

Many Chinese gamers have been expressing concerns that the global Steam platform would eventually be blocked by the Great Firewall since Valve announced three years ago that it was working on Steam China. That platform, which launched this year with the help of local Chinese video gaming partner Perfect World, remains accessible.

Chinese gaming communities have been discussing the issue since Saturday, when problems started for people trying to access “The website is suspected of encountering intermittent blocking, which means it is blocked part of the time and [based on] location,” a user posted to HeyBox, a Chinese-language online video gaming community. “It is similar to how GitHub is blocked in China.”

Microsoft-owned code-sharing site GitHub is another popular platform that has faced intermittent blocking in China. An outage in 2013 led to an outcry from programmers angry about being cut off from the important developer community for open-source software, and access was eventually restored.

The incident comes at the end of a year in which Beijing has instituted one of its harshest crackdowns on the video game industry. Its biggest move came in August, when it limited gaming time for people under 18 years old to just three hours most weeks – only between 8pm and 9pm on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and statutory holidays.

The National Press and Publication Administration has not licensed any new games for sale in the country since July. Domestic developers have also been told to ensure video game content adheres with China’s “socialist” values.

Since the connectivity issues began, some have speculated on social media about a possible domain name server (DNS) attack that might explain why some people still had access to Steam. Results from show packet loss from multiple Chinese cities was reduced on Monday, although it was still greater than servers connecting from outside China.

The global Steam store has long operated in a legal grey area on the mainland. Games sold in China are supposed to be officially licensed, which is not the case for all games on the global platform. Search results from a website affiliated with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) show is blacklisted as an “illegal domain name”. Calls to MIIT went unanswered on Monday.

While China has already blocked many of Steam’s social features – including discussion boards, workshops, markets, and broadcasts – Steam has for years been allowed to sell titles directly to consumers in the country using local payment options like Tencent Holdings’ WeChat Pay and Ant Group’s Alipay. Ant is an affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding, owner of the South China Morning Post.

Users in China contributed to about a quarter of Steam’s global revenue in 2020, according to research from Zhiyan Consulting. To maintain access to China, Steam has censored or blocked games in the past.

In March 2020, Steam blocked Chinese users from purchasing Plague Inc, a real-time strategy simulation game that allows players to create a pathogen to wipe out humanity. The game grew in popularity after the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. The game’s developer Ndemic Creations said it was informed that the title was deemed illegal by the Cyberspace Administration of China.

Still, if Steam’s global store is ultimately blocked, Chinese gamers would lose access to thousands of games not easily accessible through other means. Steam China currently shows just 103 titles available, a stark contrast with the nearly 110,000 available to Chinese users in the global store.

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