The murders are scripted. The money is real.
In cities across China, young people are flocking to clubs to play a game that translates to “scripted homicide,” where they become different characters and spend hours solving fake murders.
This macabre entertainment is expected to generate more than $ 2 billion in revenue this year, in an account. The growing popularity has sparked some concern from Chinese government officials about their sometimes gothic or gory content. It has also led to a proliferation of clubs and competition for compelling new scripts that players and owners say have become, well, ruthless.
“There is a huge demand for good scripts that is just not being met,” said Zhang Yi, 28, a Shanghai resident who has played more than 90 games in just over a year. “The script is the basis of everything in this game.”
Scripted homicides, known as jubensha in Chinese, require players to come together as a group to discuss a fake murder or other crime. Each player is assigned a character from a script, including the one who plays the murderer. Then, they engage in an elaborate role-play, asking questions of the host and the other, until they determine which of them did the act.
At a club in Beijing, for example, players go down to a fantasy martial arts school where they don dresses and take on roles like a peach fairy or a dragon. The script offers character backgrounds, relationships, and potential storylines. The plot develops as players go around the table, speak in their character, cling to the script and the host. Ultimately, they vote on who they think the murderer might be. (In this particular game, it was the kung fu student training on top of a mountain.)
A successful scripted and dramatic homicide offers laughs, tension, and maybe even tears. “They’re going to cry,” said Poker Zhang, who owns a scriptwriting business in Chengdu City. “The players cry a lot.
Thrillers may be imaginary, but they offer a real alternative to young Chinese people who are spending more and more time on their screens.
The country’s billion internet users spend much of their time on their phones, sparking public and government concerns about excessive screen time. The government’s concerns about children in particular led it to restrict video game time for minors.
The games also provide opportunities for young people to mingle freely, which may be rare in China, according to Kecheng’s Fang, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The games provide “a participatory experience and a way to socialize, which many young Chinese people miss,” said Dr Fang. “They lack participation in civic affairs, community engagement and meaningful socialization.”
For Ms. Zhang, the Shanghai gamer, scripted homicides have become one of her main ways of meeting people.
“I have met people who I spend all weekend with now,” she said. “We meet every week. It replaced a lot of other activities in my life.
The pandemic briefly threatened the industry, say its adherents. But scripted homicides came back stronger than ever when travel restrictions stranded young people in their hometowns and left them looking for distractions.
“I couldn’t leave Beijing for two months,” said Gong Jin, 20, a veterinary student. “I was bored, so I often played script murder. “
Now, Ms. Gong works in a club part-time. “I shed tears every time I play,” she said. Much of the fun, she said, comes from matching players with a part of the script that will “touch you and resonate with you.”
Jubensha has become so popular that Chinese authorities have become concerned about them. The state-run Xinhua news agency accused the games of potentially distorting reality, calling them “confusing” for young players.
In a post on Weibo, China’s social media platform, Xinhua noted scripts should show “remedial value advice” and radiate “positive energy”.
Undercover officers recently played more than eight hours at four clubs sheltered in Shaanxi province. They confiscated 16 “illegally published” scripts that contained “bloody and horrific” material.
Scripts are similar to video games, television and movies, “and therefore are subject to content censorship,” Professor Fang said. “Especially since the government seems eager to set a high moral standard, it is paying attention to the so-called ‘gory and horrible’ content of the game.”
This type of repression is not new to authoritarian governments, said Joseph Laycock, associate professor of religious studies at Texas State University, and author of “Dangerous Game” on the history of role-playing games.
“These fantasy games carry a sort of radical autonomy within them,” said Dr. Laycock. “Because if you can imagine the world differently, it gives you the opportunity to question things that were previously unchallenged. “
Role-playing games have been popular in China for years. But scripted homicides took off around 2015, when reality shows with names like “Lying Man,” “Seduction Dinner” after that “Who is the murdererCelebrities playing thrillers showed. Naturally, spectators wanted to play too. Clubs started to open, fans poured in and a new hobby took off.
Last year, the number of script murder companies registered in China stood at around 6,500, an increase of more than 60% from the previous year, according to state-run media, increasing competition.
The decoration of the rooms and the quality of the hosts make it possible to distinguish one club from another. But each club really lives and dies by the quality of its scripts. Bai Lu, owner of a club in Beijing, said, “The investment in accessories and offline functionality is not as high as our investment in scripts.”
Club owners buy scripts from a variety of locations, from industry exhibitions to websites like Xiaoheitan, an online mall that connects script distributors and club owners. Some scripts can reach 40 pages.
A “retail” script that can be sold to any number of clubs can cost around $ 80, said Wang Yihan, 28, who owns four homicide clubs in Shanghai and also writes and distributes the mysteries. A “city-limited script,” which can only be sold to a handful of clubs in the same city, can sell for around $ 300, she said.
An exclusive script, she said, for a single club can cost up to around $ 900.
“Good scripts are extremely rare,” Ms. Wang said.
A lot of people are eager to create their own script.
When Ms. Wang worked as a host, she received a popular script that she thought could be better. “I made five full pages of changes to it,” she said. “I was constantly thinking about how to best evoke the emotions of the players. “
It worked. She made around $ 3,100, she said, and it became one of her club’s best-selling scripts.
The pursuit of scripts can lead to real crimes, Ms. Wang and others said. “Scripts are constantly copied, pirated and sold for pennies on the Internet,” she said. “This is the biggest problem club owners face.”
On the Chinese online sales site Taobao, a bundle of 3,000 scripts can be purchased for around $ 2.
The hack is causing some club owners to praise the attention government officials are increasingly paying to the company. Ms. Wang and others openly call on government regulators to step in and clean up the industry, prevent corruption among script distributors, and protect material from theft.
“Creation is inherently difficult,” said Ms. Zhang, in Shanghai, “and piracy has taken a heavy toll on the industry.”
Liu Yi and Christophe buckley contributed reporting and research.