Video game use is skyrocketing all across the world, and China continues to gain ownership of game developers and companies. That means, behind your child’s favorite video game is the Chinese Communist Party’s attempt to influence and also steal your private data. On this episode, we talk about China’s increased interest in international gaming, how they harvest user data, use game stories to change historical context for learning, and why it’s imperative that parents and gamers take an active role in curtailing what’s played online.
Tim Doescher: Now, Michelle and I have been doing Heritage Explains for over four years now. Man, it has been incredible to see this thing grow. When Michelle, John Popp, came up with this idea and offered me the chance to be a part of it with her, I was immediately in. I was just exhilarated at the thought of producing excellent, creative content in a way that reaches beyond normal podcasts.
Doescher: Now, each week, we try to turn complex policy issues into stories that resonate with everyone. The reason we're still doing it, now four years later, is because of you, our dear friends. You continue to partner with us in listening, downloading, rating, leaving comments, both good and bad comments, John Popp, and most of all, sharing us with other people. So, I just wanted to thank you for sticking it out with us, growing with us and supporting us through these last four years. Now, on to the episode.
Doescher: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Tim Doescher and this is Heritage Explains.
Doescher: Remember that audio? Well, thanks to the folks at Retro SFX, we're listening to the groundbreaking video game at the time, GoldenEye 007. When I used to be a gamer, this was the only thing I wanted to do. Get friends together, sit in the basement, stay up way too late, eat junk food and play GoldenEye. I know, I'm showing my age. I'm not even sure if people even remember what GoldenEye is anymore.
Doescher: Since then, things got a lot more complicated with gaming. Everything went online. And some people, like me, stopped gaming. But way more people started playing than stopped. It was like a rocket ship launch and I got left behind. Now, for many, online gaming is less about playing with your friends in the basement, but being fully immersed in another world. We no longer insert a cartridge into a game console. We now connect to WiFi, store a credit card, buy games and then spend money while playing the games in order to gain an edge on the competition. A lot has changed, but one thing hasn't changed. Sometimes all the gaming fun gets in the way of family time. Remember this viral clip?
Audio: We've been waiting all day for you to come down and do story time. No. I'm not getting your Xbox. No. We're tired of you and the Xbox. Track, get back here. Give me that Xbox. Give it to me. Get back here. No. Get back here. No, no. Stop. Stay back. Stay back. Get back here. No, no. Stop. Get him. Take this. No, give me my Xbox. What are you doing? Oh my god. Oh my god. Get in the house. It's done. Finally.
Doescher: That's audio taken from a video portraying, allegedly frustrated parents shooting their kids' Xbox with a shotgun and then hammering it with an ax. That's right. You heard it. Now we obviously do not in any way condone that behavior and want to discourage parents from behaving this way. I mean, there are so many safety concerns that abound from that clip, but we wanted to use an extreme example to demonstrate the tension between parents and kids when it comes to video games.
Doescher: A parent's role should be to guide children with a healthy balance of screen time, chores, studying, school, church, et cetera. Those are fundamental parental duties. It ain't always pretty, but we do the best we can. But there's another concern creeping into the basement, forcing parents to take on another role. How about pseudo national security advisor? Have you heard of Tencent? They're a Chinese company that continues to buy stakes in hit games like League of Legends, Call of Duty, Arena of Valor. And as of recording this episode, Tencent just partnered with Sony to acquire a large 30% stake in the massive game Eldon Ring. And they're only beginning. Here's a recent Bloomberg report.
Clip: Tencent executives to say that they're going to focus their strategic priorities are going to be international games, cloud software and WeChat video.
Doescher: So there you have it. The Chinese communist party through Tencent will continue to invest in our games and our clouds. Why? What could they possibly have to gain from video gamers? If gaming continues to be more online focused and China continues to pour money into it, we have to pause and discuss this threat, especially given what we know about how China is using social media apps like TikTok and how they've taken a huge stake in Hollywood. And of course all the drama with the NBA.
Doescher: These are all cultural influences from China, but now through video games and social media, there's a significant concern over data security, app store security, spyware, and how China will use that against us. So on this episode, we go gaming and we ask Jake Denton about China's strategy. He works in the tech policy center here at Heritage. We are also joined by our friend and senior fellow here at heritage Mike Gonzalez. Mike and Jake are going to give context to the greater strategy and discuss ways parents and other gamers must come awake to this reality.
Doescher: China is making moves to influence and control the largest, most popular video game developers in the world in order to gain influence in American culture and also use otherwise innocent platforms to gain our personal information. Jake and Mike, I want to thank you for coming in here. This is one of those issues that is kind of easy to grasp onto, but then once you start digging, you realize how complex it is. So to have the big guns in here means a lot. So again, thanks for being here. Jake, I wanted to start with you for those folks who are not hip to the gaming culture. Just what games are we talking about here? What kind of games are they?
Jake Denton: Yeah, it's interesting. People would think this is somewhat of an isolated issue, but when you look at Tencent and their market holdings, they're essentially touching every single game that your child may be playing, or maybe that you're playing, whether it's a mobile game, like super cell. So that's Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, very simple, not a lot of story there, but then you get kind of bigger. You look at League of Legends, that's Riot Studios. Valorant as well. They own a hundred percent of it. And while there's not necessarily a story behind it, they're monitoring the messages which we found out a few years ago that the Chinese police actually have access to every single message that comes across a Tencent platform.
Doescher: Wait. So we're talking about millions and millions... I mean maybe, I mean, don't want to say billion, but so many people play these games.
Denton: There is essentially no chance that your child does not have a Tencent at least minority owned game in their gaming library.
Doescher: Geez. Wow. Okay. Now, okay. So you mentioned China. Get just back into this a little bit here. What are they up to with these video games?
Denton: And so there's a lot of concerns you can have with this. You can look at a lot of these games are narrative based, right? You log on, play a campaign, you get a story. It's kind of replacing the traditional movie experience. And then it's something as in-
Doescher: So it's like a Zelda kind of game where you have a bunch of different things that you have to do in order to get to the end.
Denton: It absolutely can be. So it's-
Doescher: That's for all the older people who don't know what these games are.
Denton: So essentially there's two options in the modern market. You have the online based game where you're playing a matchmaking type of role where it's head to head. You're playing people around the world. You're just logged in, you're going at it. And then there's kind of the offline experience where you're playing a story. You're just kind of like a character in your own movie. And so my concern that I kind of outlined in the article, you either have the narrative game where they can now influence the storyline. And the article kind of covers this Ubisoft development that they're kind of looking to sell a larger share of the studio. And Tencent is one of the main suitors. Ubisoft has history based titles, largely covering American history, things like Assassins' Creed, and they run exactly the narrative of American history and then tinker with just a little bit of the nitty gritty kind of finer details.
Denton: But when you have a studio gaining more and more stake in something like an Ubisoft, you have to start kind of worry what those details might be. So I outlined their... And one of the multi-player games, Rainbow Succeeds, a few years ago-
Doescher: That's a huge one.
Denton: One of the fan favorite games. They actually altered one of the most popular maps to get rid of skulls, gambling paraphernalia, things of that nature, because it wasn't going to be compliant in China. And because these games are intended to be competitive across the marketplace, they want all the maps to be universal. So if they're trying to sell to a Chinese market, you're going to get the Chinese product. We don't really have content rules. So they're just usually China's.
Doescher: Well, we did this a couple years ago when we started shining the light, it was a huge episode that we did because nobody was really talking about it. We saw that China is influencing, what's being made in Hollywood. Mike, you were in here. You kind of exposed what was happening there, made a bunch of waves on it. And I think people came awake to that. But I don't think that we quite understand just how much and how much power is put behind influencing here. Maybe Jake, you can talk this a little bit. Is this to open up the market so they can be more profitable? Or do you think that this is more because they want to influence American culture?
Mike Gonzalez: I personally don't think they're too worried about making more money. I think it does largely have to do with exerting more influence and kind of shaping the narrative. They're under complete control now of the minds of these children at a very influenceable age. So I go for the more nefarious, they're looking to influence rather than profit.
Doescher: Talk a little bit about your concern with data capture.
Gonzalez: So the growth of eSports as not only a concept, but a market in itself has necessitated these game studios, developing deeper anti cheats that can make sure the playing field is level, because they're playing for millions and millions of dollars at these competitions. And so what we've found is that it is a race to the most pervasive anti cheat you can possibly get. So that the integrity of the game is upheld.
Doescher: Wait. What is anti cheat? I mean that's a guarantee-
Denton: So anti-cheat is predominantly used in multiplayer games. So you log into Call of Duty. Name your favorite shooting game or something of that nature and people because it's an online based game can download things on their side that their opponent can't see. so whether that's like having your gun snap to someone, instead of having to aim your computer will do the competitive part for you. And so they want a level playing field. They want to make sure that the experience that you are getting in the game is the same as everyone else.
Denton: And so they develop these things called anti cheat, which you install next to your game. So you download the game, you download the anti cheat. And traditionally what happened was that when you launched the game, the anti cheat would launch. So it's isolated into that one game experience. Tencent comes around and they have League of Legends and they have Valorant, the two biggest games in the world right now. And they develop this thing called Vanguard and it's this new kernel level anti cheat software and you know, kind of get into the nitty gritty of what that means.
Denton: But essentially it means it's always on. It's not isolated to your one game experience. It is on from the moment you turn on your computer. Before your screens are even really showing anything, the anti cheat is turned on. It's at the very foundation of your computer. And you look at a company like Tencent and their history with not notifying players of data breaches, monitoring messages, sending them to the Chinese police. You're just taking them at their word and face value that they aren't scraping anything. They're inside your computer from the moment it is turned on. And it's all just so you can play the game. And if you look at through any other lens than video games, you would never in a million years, allow for your kid to have this on their computer. Right. But it's because it's a game and you want them to play with their friends, you let them install this anti cheat software. And now you've got a spyware on your router basically.
Doescher: Allowing them to play with fire basically. Mike, get in here because you said in a prior episode of Heritage Explains, "The communists understand very well that culture stands upstream from policy and from politics. And if you seize the culture, you've gone a great way towards impacting the population." Talk more broadly, Mike, about how China plays this game. We say they play the long game. And of course you've seen these moves happening for years as you've covered it. Just talk a little bit more about that.
Gonzalez: Yeah, I mean basically the Chinese communist party has been Gramscing now for a very long time. By that, I mean followers of Antonio Gramsci, they believe that you have to seize the pinnacles of the culture and hold on to them. And in there you can start molding how people think you can start molding what Gramsci and they would call the hegemonic narrative, the conceptual super structure of America, how people view the world, how they interpret reality. So basically Gramsci said, communist could take over society in one of two ways. The war of movement or the war of positions. The war of movement, it's just a revolution, guns shoot a lot of people, put them under coercion, on the threat of death. Or war of positions, which just take over the pinnacles, the commanding heights of the culture and mold how people think and make them consent to your views.
Doescher: Just stay on that track for a little bit because we refer to China as a boa constrictor, very slow. And like you just explained, they take the long way, they take the long route, but the influence is very real. It's very effective. Do you think Americans are waking up to the serious threat of the Chinese communist party?
Gonzalez: I think finally it's come at the same time that Americans have woken up to the threat of Marxist within, woken up to the threat of BLM, the BLM organizations. That's the reason I devoted my last book to this issue, BLM the Making of a New Marxist Revolution because Americas are now, the scales have fallen from our eyes after 2020. The same with China. I think we're be finally... And it's happening I must say more among conservatives as a certain division, which I hate seeing by the way, in which liberals hate Putin more and Russia more and conservatives put the emphasis in China.
Gonzalez: They're both bad. They're both bad actors. They both hate the United States. They both try to block us in everything we try to do. But China, with the reason why a lot of people say that China is more of a threat, and Russia's really more gas station with nukes is that China does play this long game, has a lot of money behind it, which Russia does not. And in things in terms of buying the NBA, not buying it actually, but buying the favors of the NBA was some coach says something about the freedoms of Hong Kong being extinguished. And he's made to a issue in anthropology, or nobody can say anything about [inaudible 00:17:44] or Tibetans or just the suppression of rights for China's 1.4 billion people.
Doescher: Yeah. So I was thinking about this as we put it together, Jake, in reading your piece. It really is a come awake piece folks and I'll link to it. I wanted to focus on the parents aspect of this, which is one of the main thrusts, Jake, that you mentioned. It seems like we're now as parents, your job is to raise your kids in the morally right way to go. Whatever that moral compass is. For me, it's my faith. I want my kids to have a great solid upbringing in morality, but I never really thought that we would also have to raise our kids to counter the threat of the Chinese communist party as well. And now parents have that responsibility with these video games. Talk a little bit more about some of the best way for parents to counter this.
Denton: Yeah, it's an interesting dilemma because in many ways the kids are more aware of how their computers work. They have a more sophisticated understanding of the tech than their parents do, but then the parents are supposed to regulate their online behaviors and it's like, you can't really expect the parent to now catch all the way up to these kids in the level of sophistication. It's one of the few areas where the roles are reversed. The kids are normally teaching the parents how the computers work.
Denton: And so they're naturally going to find themselves in tricky situations online, whether it be through the video games or social media and the parents are kind of left flatfooted in many instances. And so I think what's important is for them to get a sense of that level of infiltration by the CCP or the idea that there are bad actors online. And obviously we talk about it a lot about social media, don't talk to strangers and who could be there behind the screen, but then your kids go and download random games and you have no idea there could be a state actor that put out this guide to how to play a better game or whatever it may be.
Denton: And so I think parents really just need to do a better job of explaining to them the threats that can exist online and that it extends well beyond their kind of personal safety. And that data is an extension of that. And allowing these games onto your computer without really scanning them, reading the forms, doing your due diligence, who's to say they haven't compromised your wifi router. And now your parents' banking information is compromised. And so the kids are unfortunately now in a situation where their lives are intertwined with the internet. And I think parents kind of owe it to them to give them a better risk assessment. What does it mean to play online games every night? What are you getting yourself into?
Doescher: And maybe Mike, you jump in here. You've got kids, you know the drill here, training up a kid in the right way. I'm thinking to myself, as you mentioned, there's two different kinds of infiltration here. And this isn't the guns knocking on your front door, kind of infiltration, which means that also is a great way of explaining to your kids. You have the power here. You can choose to not play this game. You can choose to not believe what you're being told. Mike.
Gonzalez: Yeah, it's a real battle. I mean, I have three kids. It's something you must fight almost on a daily basis, but you must fight it. You have to limit screen time. You just have to set limits on screen time and stick by it. No is a perfectly reasonable word to use with your children. We're not engaged in a contest, a popularity contest as parents. We're engaged in a contest to bring them up as virtuous as possible. And it's the payoff will not come for 30 years.
Gonzalez: Some of us may never see the payoff, but it's a generational payoff. You raise your kids right. Not only your children are going to be right. Your grandchildren are going to be right. So saying, look, you have this X amount of time for screens and you have this X amount of time for reading an actual book with pages that you flip. This is a battle. And I'm going to say in my household is mostly Mrs. Gonzalez waging this battle. But I do give an assist once in a while, but that must happen. And it's not a battle to win. It's not a war that you're going to win. It's a daily battle.
Doescher: China is infiltrating kids' video games with propaganda and spyware. Jake Denton is the author. I'm going to link to this, Jake. I really appreciate the awareness here of this situation and showing more light onto the threat of the Chinese communist party. And Mike, I'm going to link to your book as well, BLM the Making of a Marxist Revolution. Folks, it tells the story. It tells the story of this infiltration that is happening here in America. And so guys, I just wanted to thank you for coming in today and being a part of this discussion.
Denton: Thanks for having me.
Gonzalez: Thanks, Tim.
Doescher: Wow. What a great conversation with Mike and Jake. I'm so glad they were able to come in. Now, if you want more context on what they talked about, go a little deeper, head over to the show notes because I've linked to the articles that built out this episode. Also hit that like button. Share the podcast with your friends and family. Leave us a comment. Send us an email at managingeditorheritage.org. It's a laundry list of things and we so appreciate you doing them all. Michelle's up next episode. We'll catch you then.