Some months ago, a small, troubling and sometimes hilarious scandal hit the Steam charts. Independent Taiwanese developer Red Candle, creators of the well-received Detention, had just released their cult-themed horror game Devotion. Despite a similar warm reception from critics, the game’s Steam reviews took a sudden, massive dive and it became apparent that gamers from China were review-bombing the game. The insult? A hidden, perhaps unintentional, reference to a popular meme that compares Chinese president Xi Jinping to a certain rotund cartoon teddy bear. The story blew up for a week, Red Candle apologized and removed the offending graphics, and the Western gaming media had a good laugh about how sensitive Chinese gamers are.
But: the review-bombing of Devotion was never about Winnie the Pooh. Like just about everything between China and Taiwan, it was about Taiwanese independence and, ultimately, about China’s international soft power.
Western journalism on the topic has focused on the Winnie the Pooh meme. That’s not surprising, since the idea that the most innocuous cartoon character irritates one of the most powerful men in the world is hilarious. But this emphasis on the childishness of taking offense from a meme reduces a complex political reality Funny, but inaccurate.
This focus also feeds into the Western belief that the main political issue with China is censorship: it’s a shocking example of government overreach into an innocuous joke. How Orwellian. Such a thing could never happen in the Enlightened West. Inside China, however, it wasn’t the meme that was shocking, it was what surrounded the meme and what else people read into the details of the game.
Dick Page, Ph.D., is an anthropologist of Chinese gaming culture. He lives in Taiwan with his family.