In the past few days, news from the south-western city of Chengdu has swept the internet. A 22-year-old student was admitted to hospital after playing a game of jubensha (“script killing”). So terrified had she become that she felt dizzy and numb. Doctors concluded she had suffered a brain haemorrhage. The terse report in state-run media rang alarm bells. On Weibo, a microblog, more than 140m people viewed a hashtag referring to it. Thousands posted comments. The concern of many was not the fate of the woman but of jubensha.
Despite lockdowns, the number of venues for playing it has risen from fewer than 3,000 in 2019 to tens of thousands. A Chinese firm, iiMedia Research, estimates fans spent $2.7bn on the game in 2021. From a survey of internet users it concluded that, by 2021, jubensha had become the third most popular offline pastime after the cinema and the gym.
The game is what is known outside China as “live action role-playing”, or larping. Larpers dress up as the characters they play and remain immersed in those identities as they interact with other players to achieve specified goals: solving a murder is a common one. Venues have several rooms. Participants choose a script and occupy a room decorated to match the theme (spooky music optional). A game can last for hours. One attraction is that jubensha helps as an ice-breaker when dating.
The government is worried, for several reasons. One is that no formal mechanism exists for censoring the scripts. They are circulated in samizdat form, without going through the normal publishing process. There has been much hand-wringing in state media over the danger this poses of players being exposed to “harmful” content such as sex, violence or supernatural horror. Some Weibo users asked which script the hospitalised woman had been using so they could play it too.
You do not need to be Sherlock Holmes (who features in some jubensha scripts) to work out that when the government publishes bad news linked to a form of entertainment, a clampdown is likely. In January Shanghai became the first Chinese city to publish regulations governing jubensha scripts. They set out ten types of prohibited content, such as any that “propagates” sex, violence or superstition or that “threatens national security”. Scripts must be submitted to local officials. On June 27th the central government banned anyone under 18 from visiting jubensha venues except at weekends and during holidays. It required venues to register online and provide details of their scripts.
Many players fret about how this will end. “Could it be that they want to create politically correct versions about beating landlords?” asks Ashley Miao, a businesswoman in Shanghai who loves the mental exercise involved in jubensha. A Weibo user with more than 14,000 followers put it more bluntly: “If you want us to become North Koreans, just say so.”