In recent weeks, China has announced a series of measures to further regulate online entertainment, including a crackdown on so-called “fandom culture” and new curbs on online gaming. But a push in the state media last week against a popular role-playing game may suggest that momentum is building for action against offline activities too.
“Script murder,” or jubensha (剧本杀), is one of the latest obsessions of China’s Gen Z. The murder mystery-like role-playing game requires only a room, a table and a host with a variety of storylines and scripts from which players can choose. The excitement unfolds as each player is assigned a script with a different character, and must act out that character – either to the group or in private one-on-one conversations – until the original plot can be pieced together and the murderer unmasked.
The jubensha craze was driven by the popularity of the Chinese variety program “Who’s The Murderer” (明星大侦探), released on Mango TV in 2016, in which groups of famous singers and actors were placed in murder mystery scenarios for the enjoyment of television audiences – with a celebrity culprit exposed in each episode. The game now has a huge market in China. Countless Jubensha shops have opened across the country since 2016, and the game saw a sharp increase in popularity over the Spring Festival holiday earlier this year. A 2021 report by Meituan estimates that there are currently around 9.41 million consumers of script murder products, over 70 percent of them under the age of 30, with total sales of 15.42 billion RMB.
The rocketing growth of the jubensha industry has also come with problems. There have been complaints among various game publishers and shops about another sort of crime – the shameless pilfering of others’ plot lines. And there have been some concerns about the use of more violent and explicit content. But negative press coverage of jubensha since September may be the first clue that the industry is facing increased pressure in the midst of the government’s broader crackdown on the entertainment industry, and on youthful activities such as “fandom culture.” Some jubensha fans have criticized coverage in the state media, saying that it unfairly distorts public perception of the game.
On September 22, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in a post to its Weibo account that content on jubensha games has been increasingly violent, and has tended toward the supernatural. Resorting to typical official discourse on media and propaganda controls, the Xinhua post emphasized the need for jubensha scripts to show the “correct value guidance” (正确价值导向), as well as the need to spread “positive energy” (正能量) – though it attributed these opinions to unnamed “psychology experts” (心理专家).
The Xinhua reporter urged government action to deal with the use of supernatural and spiritual themes by jubensha shops on the basis of a visit to several such shops in central China:
The reporter recently visited several “immersive jubensha shops” in some cities in central regions. In one shop, the owner led the reporter into several live-action rooms, which were decorated as farmhouses, cemeteries and other scenes. The “cemetery” was lit up with blood red lights, and a number of props were placed inside. In one store, the owner showed the reporter scripts about “human demons,” “nightclub murders” and “people with possessed eyes.”
While the Xinhua post conceded that “positive energy” jubensha might help young people “release mental stress” and might also “enrich creativity,” it applied assumptions about the link between horror and intrigue and psychological well-being that were not necessarily supported. “[But] if the content is excessively terrifying and exciting, and if participants do not have a definite capacity to distinguish, and if minors for example become addicted to it, this will cause participants to confuse reality and drama, resulting in psychological problems,” the post said.
The Xinhua News Agency post was shared via the social media accounts of other major media, including the official Weibo account of The Beijing News (新京报) and the official Weibo account of Vista (vista看天下), a news magazine launched in 2005. These accounts have 45 and 25 million followers respectively.
Xinhua’s post implicating jubensha in psychological harm and the misguiding of Chinese youth in fact came the day after the game was oddly linked in several online reports to a Covid-19 case in the city of Harbin. On September 21, Extreme News (极目新闻), a “new mainstream media” (新型主流媒体) launched by the Hubei provincial CCP-run Hubei Daily Media Group (湖北日报传媒集团), ran a report with the headline: “Harbin Adds 1 Positive Case, Played Jubensha Three Days in a Row, Shopkeeper Says One Time Was for Three Hours.”
While the positive Covid case in question, Harbin’s first in more than seven months, visited quite a number of locations that became the center of the city government’s concerns over possible infections, the link to jubensha seemed ominous in the reporting. Even an image of the jubensha establishment in question was shared with the news report, which was reposted by Sina News and other sites.
The odd association prompted questions from Shanghai’s The Paper (澎湃), which asked in a headline on September 22: “Why Must We Be Concerned With a Covid Case Playing a Few Games of Jubensha?” (感染者玩几次剧本杀，有什么好关心的?). The commentary spoke out against the sensationalizing of the Harbin story around the jubensha detail, and against violations of the unfortunate victim’s privacy and safety, as their personal information, including name and photograph, were shared online, subjecting them to ridicule. “Tomorrow if it’s you who becomes the unfortunate victim of the virus, you too might receive the same sort of unjust treatment,” the writer said.
The next day, however, it was The Paper sensationalizing jubensha. In a lengthy feature story republished by Sohu and others, the news outlet told the story of a mother who claimed her son had indulged too much in the role-playing game, prompting her to seek psychological intervention. The story provided no source attribution for this ostensible case, though it did offer quotes purporting to be from psychological experts, like this unnamed director of a psychology treatment unit who makes the questionable leap from jubensha to symptoms reportedly observed in patients:
“Indulging in such offline games, or getting too deeply involved in them, can affect your health, especially psychological problems. On average, our clinical psychology department sees patients with psychological disorders due to jubensha every month, and these patients are depressed, or anxious, or have psychiatric symptoms such as hallucinations.”
Questioning State Media Psychology
Reported stories like this one, shared across social media, irked many netizens. Some, in the sleuthing spirit of jubensha, suspected a ploy by state media to use propaganda stories like these to distort public opinion on Jubensha. One user pointed to the absurdity of using so-called “psychological problems” as a justification in the media for greater control of entertainment by suggesting that work time should be more tightly restricted – considering that many people have psychological objections to going to work:
“So games easily lead to psychological problems, and so we must control them strictly. Jubensha leads to psychological problems, and so we must control jubensha strictly. Following celebrities leads to psychological problems and so we must clean up those enthusiastic fans. I think that since going from vacation time to work can cause psychological problems, we should look into restricting that.”
Another user concurred with the above argument. “Yes, as soon as I go to work, I feel murderous, so how should we characterize that psychological problem?” they responded. “I support the strict prohibition of work.”
In the comments under the news story from The Paperreposted at Sohu, users again followed to absurdity the argument that unfavorable affects justify prohibitions:
“Every year there are parents who leave their children in the car and suffocate them, suggesting that cars be outlawed. Every year, students commit suicide because they fail the college entrance exams, suggesting the abolition of college entrance exams is necessary. Every year there are wife-killers, suggesting that marriage be abolished.”
The backlash against state media moralizing over jubensha and its supposed harmful effects prompted Xinhua News Agency to disable comments on its original jubensha post.
Beyond the linking of jubensha with psychological problems, Chinese media have sought to contrast the game with alternative entertainment activities, suggesting these are more wholesome. On September 27, for example, a video posted by the National Business Daily (每日经济新闻), a daily newspaper published by the Chengdu Media Group, suggested China’s Gen Z is gradually shifting its interests from offline entertainment activities like jubensha to group activities such as camping out in nature, which offer comfort and relaxation.
The video, which was shared across many prominent social media accounts, including that of Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊), clearly contrasted jubensha with the healthy socializing provided by camping.
One user, however, gingerly poked a hole in this black-and-white contrast: “The vast majority of them are just playing jubensha outdoors,” they said.
The moralizing about jubensha in the Chinese media of late has been encouraged by the larger wave of greater government regulation directed at the entertainment industry, which has focused on cyberspace and such trends as fandom culture and online gaming. Despite talk of the need to protect China’s youth, these moves are primarily about ensuring that media and culture, including all manner of entertainment activities, align with China’s mainstream values (主流价值) – the values, in other words, of the Chinese Communist Party.
As one commentary on a WeChat public account responding to the jubensha report from Xinhua said on September 22, violence and the supernatural have long been a part of Chinese traditional culture, and the lines are a matter of debate, with many differing views among parents.
To be honest, words like ‘supernatural violence’ may sound terrifying, but actually the lines are very blurred. In the eyes of some parents, even cartoons like “Boonie Bears” are full of violent elements. The so-called Four Classic Chinese Novels are full of fighting and killing. Is the Journey West not about the supernatural? Is “bear” such cartoons are full of violent elements, for example, the four famous novels familiar to the Chinese, it is a fight to kill. Journey to the West, is not considered spiritual, water marsh is not violent? Is Outlaws of the Marsh not violent? Of the four classical masterpieces that unite traditional Chinese culture, none can be said to pass muster in terms of suitability for young people in China.
The notion of “positive energy,” said the commentary, should not be defined too narrowly, and the scripts of jubensha might serve to enrich people’s perspectives and exercise their reasoning faculties. “Everything has its advantages and disadvantages,” the author wrote. “Is killing with a stick really the best way to regulate?”