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>Chinese Agencies Feud Over Regulation of WoW

>As Chinese fans of World of Warcraft (WoW) lament the series of shutdowns ordered by the Chinese government, rival agencies continue to squabble over regulatory control of Activision Blizzard’s online gaming juggernaut.

The Chinese government’s carefully crafted, buttoned-down facade belies the bureaucratic turf war currently being waged by its Ministry of Culture and its General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP). The two agencies have been vying for control of online gaming oversight since June 2009, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight.

World of Warcraft was launched in mainland China in 2005 and began steadily building momentum among China’s notoriously hard-to-crack gaming community. (Of the top ten online games in China, World of Warcraft is one of only three not produced in China and is the only U.S.-produced game.) Despite the steady accumulation of users (WoW China now boasts a roster of over 50 million individual accounts), Blizzard flew under the radar and operated relatively free of censorship or restriction from Chinese Authorities.

That all changed in June 2009 when Activision Blizzard partnered with provider Netease in order to increase Activision Blizzard’s royalties from Chinese revenues. When Netease submitted an application to the Chinese government for permission to relaunch WoW, the Ministry of Culture quickly approved the game while the GAPP dragged its heels. After the Chinese State Council issued a statement supporting the Ministry of Culture’s claim of regulatory authority, Netease relaunched the game in September. Predictably taking the Ministry’s end-run as a slap in the face, the GAPP subjected WoW to increased scrutiny and ordered Netease to shut the game down on November 2 pending further revision of the game’s content.

Historically, the GAPP has enjoyed oversight of publications such as books, DVDs and online games. The Ministry of Culture, on the other hand, has typically scrutinized the performing arts, including audiovisual works. The State Council recognized the potential for administrative overlap with respect to online games and attempted to revise the roles of the agencies in 2008. The GAPP was given authority over pre-release approval of online games, while the Ministry of Culture was assigned the task of policing the games once they went online. The technical issue currently appears to be the appropriate classification of WoW as an existing or new game, in light of the previous changes in content and the switch to a new hosting service.

The GAPP and the Ministry have continuously exchanged fire in the press since the most recent shutdown of WoW, each claiming that the other has overstepped its bounds. As the conflict drags on, it becomes more apparent that each agency sees WoW not so much as an actual violation of China’s content regulations, but more as an opportunity to expand that agency’s sphere of influence.

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November 2009