In the midst of a broader push to regulate online entertainment late last year, China announced new curbs on a popular role-playing genre called “script murder,” or jubensha (剧本杀), citing the possible deleterious influence of violent and supernatural content on young people. But in recent months, jubensha has been resurrected by local authorities in some areas, albeit with a decidedly political plot twist – indoctrination in the history and ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Script murder” is a role-playing mystery game that typically offers a number of storylines and scripts from which players can choose – all involving, as the name suggests, an act of bloodshed. Each player is assigned a script for a character they must act out, and as the game progresses the original plot is gradually pieced together and the murderer unmasked.
Jubensha has been hugely popular in China in recent years. In a 2021 report, Meituan, the Chinese shopping platform, estimated that there were just under 10 million consumers of script murder products, more than 70 percent of them under the age of 30. That year, the game brought in estimated total sales of 15.42 billion RMB.
“Script murder” was criticized strongly by the Party-state media last year. A report by the official Xinhua News Agency in September, shared across social media, characterized the game as a potential trigger for psychological problems among youth. But the game’s popularity among young people has also appealed to local propaganda departments. In stark contrast to the wave of moral denunciation back in the fall, jubensha has now been praised by the state media as an innovative tool of ideological and political education for Chinese youth.
Earlier this month, the official journal of the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) profiled a neighborhood event in the city of Suzhou where a “red” (红色) culture tour had been planned in the form of a script game. Inspired by the form of jubensha, the red tour used live-action interpretation, role-playing and other techniques to allow participants to experience the story of the Party’s revolution.
There was no murderer, and no mystery. The event was enacted in Suzhou’s Wusa Neighborhood (五卅路街区), named in honor of the May Thirtieth Movement (五卅运动) of 1925, in which 13 people taking part in a Communist-supported demonstration in Shanghai’s International Settlement following general strikes were gunned down by British colonial police. A combination of “major and minor scripts” (大小剧本) were acted out by participating residents, the major script unfolding across the neighborhood while the “minor scripts” involved indoor jubensha-inspired board games themed around the 1925 movement and its anti-imperialist spirit.
The recent event in Suzhou is not an isolated example of the recasting of jubensha to advance the goal of patriotic education.
Earlier this month, CCTV News, China’s state-run broadcaster, reported that the local propaganda office in the city of Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, had funded and released a script game – once again, minus the murder – called “The Rebels” (叛逆者). The game, themed around the Chinese Civil War, commemorated the glorious and honorable deeds of the Communist Party through the story of the so-called “Five Martyrs of Beiping” (北平五烈士). These men, who operated a secret broadcasting station in Beijing in 1947, were reportedly executed by the Kuomintang in the capital city of Nanjing in October 1948, shouting (according to legend), “Long live the Chinese Communist Party!”
Given the dangers of “historical revisionism,” and with laws on the books protecting China’s heroes and martyrs, the deeds of the five martyrs could not be altered or subjected to artistic license. Therefore, participants in the Nanjing script game were cast as characters working in close proximity to the men, or otherwise involved with them. “By taking on the roles of those who were around the martyrs over two or three hours of the game, people can feel the cruel and treacherous circumstances of the struggle [at the time] and the sacrifices that the martyrs made for the revolution,” a project team member for the script game told CCTV.
Since last year, when the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) led a campaign to clean up entertainment culture, jubensha scripts dealing with crime and the supernatural have been in the government crosshairs. But the medium of the guided script drama has been enthusiastically guided toward uplifting and patriotic narratives that conform to the Party’s mainstream values.
CCTV News reports in September 2021 that it had joined forces with the China Animation Comic Game Group (中国动漫集团), a state-run enterprise, to launch the “Fengyun Drama Club” (风云剧会), a campaign expressly intended to “guide the ‘script murder game’ industry toward healthy development, promoting positive energy values among the youth.”
“Positive energy” is a term generally referring to the need for uplifting messages as opposed to critical or negative ones – and particularly the need for content that puts the Party and government in a positive light. The CCTV campaign has reportedly gathered more than 500 jubensha scripts with patriotic themes dealing with CCP history. These have been submitted by authors and screenwriters in the mainstream film and television industry.
Enter the notion the “positive energy script” (正能量剧本).
“Using family [values] and patriotic sentiment around the Party’s struggle over the last century as our core values, combined with the powerful promotion platform of CCTV to attract outstanding creators, the pull of positive energy scripts in the industry can be expanded, so as to guide the ecology of the script murder game industry in a health direction,” the report from CCTV News concluded.
But while local propaganda officials have worked hard to incorporate “red elements” into this popular form of entertainment, not everyone has welcomed the change. Under a hashtag on Weibo for the introduction of more “positive energy” themes into the jubensha genre, responding to proposals from some delegates during the annual National People’s Congress in March that more be done to restrain the trend, many internet users expressed their reservations.
“They need to understand where power can intervene and where it cannot,” one user wrote.
Another user put it rather more bluntly, if rhetorically. “Am I playing this game so I can have the same experience as watching propaganda during CCTV’s annual New Year’s Gala?”