Chinese gamers are using a Steam wallpaper app to get porn past the censorship

0
24

Online porn is banned in China, so people there have to get creative to access it. Steam is one of the few popular global platforms still available in the country, and its community features, international high-speed servers, and an increasingly hands-off approach when it comes to sexual content have made it an inevitable choice. created. Chinese users now make up at least 40% of Wallpaper Engine’s global user base, MIT Technology Review estimates.

Last year, users in China suddenly had to use VPN services to access certain Steam services. As the reviews show, they are now concerned that they will soon lose this rare community, either due to the moderation of the platform content or the possibility that China will block Steam altogether.

An open secret

Developed by a duo from Germany and first released on Steam in October 2016, Wallpaper Engine allows users to swap out their static wallpapers for something more dynamic. Most of the user-submitted wallpapers in the software’s Workshop are harmless: anime characters, cyberpunk cities, landscape drawings, and movie posters. But it’s not hard to find NSFW content in between either: about 7.5% of the more than 1.6 million contributions are labeled as “mature.” These are often naked anime characters in suggestive poses and sexual positions, and sometimes pornographic photos and videos of real people.

Despite Wallpaper Engine’s success as probably the most “played” non-game software on Steam, its erotic side has rarely been reported in English except for a short article in the gaming media Kotaku and sporadic discussions on social media. But within Chinese online communities, it was an open secret among gamers and game publications since it was released.

“It was at least two or three years ago when this went viral,” said Zhou, a Chinese gamer in Beijing who asked to use only his last name for privacy reasons. “I Was Confused Why It Was Always Like This” [on the top 10 played games ranking]. Did people like to change their backgrounds so often?”

Cui Jianyi, a Chinese writer and journalist, wrote about the phenomenon in 2020 after seeing someone mention it on social media. Being a gamer and a Steam user, he downloaded and tested Wallpaper Engine. There he found porn, hentai anime, Donald Trump memes, and even pirated copies of Hollywood movies, like Joker. His article in the Chinese media helped bring the hidden uses of the software to the attention of those who were not yet aware of the secret.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many Wallpaper Engine users are from China, but there’s evidence that at least 40% of them are Chinese, almost twice Steam’s Chinese user rate.

Of Wallpaper Engine’s nearly half a million Steam reviews, 40% were written by someone whose default language was Simplified Chinese, compared to English at 28%. More recent reviews follow the same trend: during the first seven days of July, the software received 2,907 Steam ratings, and MIT Technology Review found that 40% of those were written in simplified Chinese or by someone with a simplified Chinese username. (Language is a common proxy for Steam users’ geographic distribution, which is difficult to collect on Steam.)