While China-bashing is all the rage right now (much of it deserved given the country’s abhorrent human rights practices), it’s sort of amazing what a difference a year makes. While the current focus of ire towards the Chinese government seems focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and a few mobile dance apps, never mind the fully embedded nature of Chinese-manufactured technology in use every day in the West, late 2019 was all about China’s translucent skin. Much of that had to do with China’s inching towards a slow takeover of Hong Kong and how several corporate interests in the West reacted to it. Does anyone else remember when our discussion about China was dominated by stories dealing with Blizzard banning Hearthstone players for supporting Hong Kong and American professional sports leagues looking like cowards in the face of a huge economic market?
Yeah, me neither. But with all that is going on the world and all of the criticism, deserved or otherwise, being lobbed at the Chinese government, it’s worth pointing out that the problems of last year are still going on. And, while Google most recently took something of a stand against the aggression on Hong Kong specifically, other companies are still bowing to China’s thin-skin in heavy-handed ways. The latest example of this is an admittedly relatively trivial attempt by Activision to kneel at the altar of Chinese historical censorship.
The debut trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War has been blocked in China, and subsequently edited everywhere else, after featuring around one second’s worth of footage from the Communist government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989. When the game was first announced last week, a trailer running for 2:02 was released to the world and hosted on the official Call of Duty and Xbox YouTube pages, along with major trailer sites like IGN and Gamespot.
On August 21, however, the videos on Call of Duty and Xbox’s YouTube pages were replaced with a much shorter, 1:00 version. This isn’t an additional trailer, it’s a replacement, which we know because…the original 2:02 video we embedded in our own story is no longer working, having been marked as “private”.
So here’s the, ahem, tik-tok on this. Activision, which also owns Blizzard, releases a new trailer for a new Call of Duty game. That trailer includes a single second of an image from Chinese protests against the government from three decades ago. The Chinese government, true to form, flips the fuck out and bans the trailer entirely. One imagines there were also threats of banning the game entirely, but that is yet to be confirmed. Activision then, seeing the Chinese government go full carpet bomb over the trailer in its country, decides to try to out-carpet-bomb the carpet bomb by doing a delete/replace of the offending trailer worldwide.
While we’re talking about a mere video game trailer here, the implications aren’t as insignificant as they might seem. Games are a subset of culture and commerce. While much of the discourse over how companies do business in China is overstated to say the least, what Activision did here is something different. Indeed, it could probably be best summarized as: Activision allowed the Chinese government to censor the company’s art throughout the world.
And, sinophobia aside, that is a very dangerous precedent to set. That it was an action taken on a trailer for a game called Call of Duty: Cold War, in fact, is probably proof that the universe is not without a sense of irony.