Forget WeChat and TikTok. China’s hold on the global videogaming market is the most pressing security vulnerability when it comes to Chinese consumer tech products.
Over the past 10 years, Chinese tech giant Tencent has invested in or outright acquired many of the world’s largest videogame companies, including Activision Blizzard , “League of Legends” maker Riot Games, Epic Games (“Fortnite”), Supercell (“Clash of Clans”) and the communications platform Discord. Americans spend far more time on Chinese-backed videogames than on TikTok and WeChat. While Chinese companies had been content to invest in established Western studios, Chinese developers are now creating enormous hits like “Genshin Impact”—the biggest ever global launch of a Chinese-made title.
Are Chinese videogames really a threat to U.S. national security? Yes—China is already using games to spread its soft power and collect data on U.S. citizens, as the current administration has highlighted. More insidiously, Beijing’s access to millions of gamers’ computers gives its spies an unrivaled opportunity to use games to conduct intelligence operations.
China’s political priorities are already showing up in the content moderation of games it influences. Last year, Blizzard banned a Hong Kong “Hearthstone” player who expressed support for the city’s independence in a postmatch interview. “Genshin Impact” players report that certain political terms have been banned from chat features, including “Hong Kong,” “Taiwan” and “Falun Gong.” More broadly, Chinese law requires Western publishers to form partnerships with Chinese companies like Tencent and NetEase to gain access to China’s large and growing gaming market. The same dynamics pushing Hollywood to hold its tongue on Beijing’s abuses will increasingly affect Western firms hoping to earn money from Chinese gamers.
It may not be long before we see the shutdown of a planned Tiananmen vigil or Free Hong Kong rally being organized on a U.S. server. It’s one thing for Hollywood studios to turn down provocative scripts, but it might boil Americans’ blood to witness China censoring speech in the U.S.