Japanese electronics behemoth Sony has announced that it has suspended online services for its PlayStation Store in China, with no guarantee of a reopening date. While the company didn’t give any specific reasons other than “system security updates,” many people believe that the abrupt closure was caused by a social media user on Weibo, who reported to the country’s top content regulators that some Chinese gamers were downloading unlicensed games from overseas services via a back door (such as an unofficial download channel).
Sony’s statement (in Chinese), published on Weibo in the early morning of May 10, said that the online store, which is the go-to digital storefront for Chinese owners of its flagship console PlayStation 4, was temporarily closed due to “security updates” on its system. The closure appeared to be specific to mainland China, as other parts of the world did not see any service disruptions in the past few days.
So far, the company hasn’t unveiled more details about the updates, nor has it said when the service will return.
Given that the suspension was sudden and regional, it has prompted a great deal of speculation about the trigger. The prevailing theory among Chinese gamers seems to be that the move was in connection with a Weibo post made in late April. In the since-deleted post (in Chinese), a Weibo user named @森里萤四 (sēnlǐ yíng sì), who claimed to be an avid fan of Microsoft’s Xbox series, a major player in the home console business, shared a screenshot of a complaint he lodged with the publishing bureau under China’s Communist Party Propaganda Department, in which he alleged that some PlayStation 4 players were able to switch to overseas services using a backdoor service and buy unlicensed games.
The person also cited a few examples in the complaint, including the first-person shooter game Doom and the racing game Gran Turismo 5, saying that these products contained inappropriate content featuring violence and obscenity. “I strongly urge the authorities to take a look at the issue immediately and prohibit such practices entirely!” he wrote.
Among Chinese gamers, using backdoor hacks on their consoles to buy foreign titles is a common practice to get around China’s strict censorship of video games. In 2015, China scrapped its 15-year ban on foreign-made gaming consoles, allowing industry giants such as Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft to enter the market. But in the following years, the video-game industry in China remained an area under close scrutiny, where all titles available on these consoles need to be approved by Chinese censors before their official releases in the country.
Due to the restrictions on video games, while Chinese gamers have been allowed to purchase Sony’s console PlayStation 4 legally since the ban was lifted, many of them have still opted to buy devices sold in other countries from the gray market in order to play games unavailable in the country. Meanwhile, owners of legal consoles can buy backdoor hacks online to achieve the same goal. On Taobao, China’s biggest ecommerce platform, vendors can be found selling such programs for a fee as low as 5 yuan ($0.71).
In light of the store’s closure, the Weibo user who brought the issue to the regulator’s attention has received a torrent of criticism online, mostly from PlayStation 4 players who believe that the whole ordeal was caused by his complaint. “Chinese people don’t deserve to play video games. We are unable to produce good games. This person is such a piece of s**t,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). Many also raised concerns that the person’s behavior was a product of China’s unique snitching culture, where authorities often encourage citizens to tell on people who engage in illegal activities. “Seems like I have to live in constant fear that maybe one day someone will snitch on something that I like,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).