The hit Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons has become a virtual meeting space for Hong Kong protesters
The latest entry in Nintendo's Animal Crossing franchise is a hit in China, where it isn't even officially available. Gray market games are common in the country, but local ecommerce platforms have taken exception to the family-friendly Animal Crossing: New Horizons and started removing listings on Friday.
Why? No official reason was given. But Chinese Animal Crossing fans are blaming one person in particular for the takedown: Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong.
It turns out that the game's customizable islands have become rife with political decor, both in mainland China and Hong Kong. And on Thursday, Wong tweeted in support of Hong Kong protesters creating protest art inside the game. The game has recently become a virtual space for Hong Kong protesters to meet without breaking the city's social distancing rules during the Covid-19 pandemic. Screenshots of customized virtual islands that take aim at Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam have gone viral on Twitter.
Soon after Animal Crossing started disappearing from Chinese platforms, Wong, who is secretary-general of the local Demosisto party, tweeted that he received a flood of emails and Instagram messages from angry players.
Protesters' move into Animal Crossing is a kind of virtual continuation of months of pro-democracy protests that started in Hong Kong last summer. The protests were initially triggered by an extradition bill that would have allowed authorities to send Hong Kong residents to be tried in mainland China, prompting fears over prosecution for political crimes. Behind the mainland China's Great Firewall, the months-long protests were first met with heavy censorship from the authorities and then misinformation campaigns.
The events have spilled into gaming before, with games popping up that let you play as a protester or let you punish them, depending on where your sympathies lie. In an event that caused anger both in Hong Kong and the US, Blizzard banned esports player Blitzchung for shouting out a protest slogan during an interview after winning a Hearthstone tournament.
While some mainland players blame Wong for the takedown, it's not clear that protest art in Animal Crossing is the reason for it. China has strict rules for game approvals, and only three Nintendo Switch games are approved for sale in China so far. Animal Crossing isn't one of them.
But while Chinese gamers can only buy three Mario games from the mainland Nintendo eShop, official Chinese Switch consoles can still play physical game cards from abroad. So like many other games, Animal Crossing cards have been smuggled in by scalpers and sold on popular Chinese ecommerce sites such as Alibaba's Taobao, often at much higher prices.
Searching on Taobao today, though, shows that listings for Animal Crossing: New Horizons are gone. Abacus reached out to Taobao and Tencent, Nintendo's official partner for the Switch in China, and will update if we receive a response.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)
Hong Kong protesters aren't the only ones filling their islands with political pixel art. Chinese players have also been filling the game with their own content ranging from Covid-19 quarantine jokes to communist propaganda.
Local media in Hong Kong speculated that the game might have gotten into trouble for insulting the country's leaders or commenting on China's fight against the coronavirus pandemic, an issue that has already become politically sensitive in video games. But on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, some users still seem convinced Wong is the likely culprit.
It's worth noting that players probably won't stumble across this art, because the new Animal Crossing doesn't allow you to visit islands run by random players. You only can visit islands belonging to anyone on your Nintendo Switch friends list, or you can visit other players if they share a temporary code with you.
That means unless players have people of radically differing political viewpoints on their friends list -- or unless they deliberately seek out codes shared by players with "protest" islands -- it's unlikely that a mainland Chinese player with a Xi Jinping shrine will naturally encounter a gamer with Hong Kong protest banners.
But many players seem less interested in politics and expressed frustration that it's getting in the way of their gaming.
"There is no unsuitable element in the game itself. It's just fishing and catching insects," one Weibo user posted. "You have to show some confidence."
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