China's efforts to control its sprawling entertainment industry are expanding to include so-called script murders, a billion-dollar game sector that has groups of players solving fictional murder mysteries either in person or online.
Participants in a script murder — or a jubensha in Chinese — adopt characters' personas, then spend hours together, online or in person, solving fictional murders using clues scattered throughout scripted scenarios.
Creators of the most popular games have become celebrities, and competition to develop the next hit is fierce. Games can cost between $15 and $60 to play. According to the Chinese market research firm iResearch, around 40% of players are 26 to 30 years old.
The games provide "a participatory experience and a way of socializing, which is missing from the life of many Chinese young people," Kecheng Fang, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, told The New York Times.
But the wild world of script murders has attracted the attention of China's government, which takes President Xi Jinping's position that the Chinese Communist Party must control all aspects of life. To that end, the government has cracked down on the tech industry, video games and effeminate male celebrities.
On October 27, authorities sent notice to owners of script murder clubs, asking them to inspect their offerings and "resolutely resist scripts that violate laws and regulations."
The request came after the state-run Xinhua News Agency called script murders "confusing" for the young players who become immersed in the scenarios, "resulting in psychological problems."
The September 22 Xinhua commentary also criticized the games as violent. "There needs to be correct values in these scripts," the article said, adding that some of the content was too scary, such as plots featuring "human demons," "nightclub murders" and "people with possessed eyes."
In April, the state-run China Youth Daily published an article calling for industry regulation. "The freedom to write whatever they want has made the industry a breeding ground for pornography and violence," it said.
Script murder games originated in Europe and the United States in the 1930s. They emerged in China in 2015 when the online media platform Mango TV aired the South Korean show "Crime Scene," which is based on real-life murders. A year later, Mango TV premiered "Who's the Murderer," inviting Chinese celebrities to solve script murders.
That show launched the current craze. According to a June report from the Meituan Research Institute, script murder game clubs in China have multiplied from about 1,000 in 2017 to 45,000 by April 2021.
In 2019, the script murder game industry generated $1.6 billion in revenue, a 68% increase from 2018.
iResearch listed script murder as the third most popular form of entertainment for Chinese people, after watching movies and participating in sports. In a report released in April, the company predicted that the revenue of the script murder game industry would reach $3.7 billion, or 23.9 billion RMB, in 2022.
Social aspect a draw
Jiaqi Qu, 29, a public relations professional in eastern China's Jiangsu province, told VOA Mandarin that she enjoys the excitement and sense of accomplishment the games bring.
"I love the process," she said. "If it's a good script, you will be surprised every step of the way, and that brings out a sense of accomplishment if you figure out who's the murderer."
Arrow Zou, 23, a scriptwriter and owner of Just Play Media Co. Ltd., told VOA Mandarin that for a six-person script to resonate with players, "each and every character must feel that 'I'm the main character.' You can't have any marginal characters." VOA Mandarin is using the English version of Zou's name as he prefers.
There are many types of scripts, he said. Some are focused on reasoning techniques, others on emotions. "Those who come to play emotional stories often are here for social purposes," he told VOA Mandarin, because each game requires four to 10 players.
Qu told VOA Mandarin that she knows many people who enjoy the social aspect of script murders. "This is a really easy way to start talking to someone, as you all have to complete a project together," she said. "We usually have a meal together after finishing the game, so it's a great way to get to know people outside of your social circle."