Chinese gamers are using the Steam background app to get porn past the censors

Chinese gamers are using the Steam background app to get porn past the censors

Online pornography is banned in China, so people there have to be creative to access it. Steam is one of the few popular global platforms still available in the country, and its community features, fast international servers and dwindling access to sexual content made it an inevitable choice. 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 now fear that they may soon lose this rare community, either due to moderation of the platform’s content or the possibility that China may block Steam altogether.

Public secret

Developed by the German-based duo and first released on Steam in October 2016, Wallpaper Engine allows users to swap out their static wallpapers for something more dynamic. Most user-submitted backgrounds in the software workshop are harmless: anime characters, cyberpunk cities, landscape drawings, and movie posters. But it’s also not hard to find NSFW content in between: About 7.5% of the over 1.6 million submissions are marked as “mature.” These are often nude anime characters in suggestive poses and sexual positions, and occasionally pornographic photos and videos of real people.

Despite Wallpaper Engine’s success as arguably the most popular non-gaming software on Steam, its erotic side has rarely been reported in English, apart from a brief article in gaming media outlet Kotaku and sporadic discussions on social networks. Yet within Chinese online communities, it was an open secret among gamers and gaming publications since it was published.

“It was at least two or three years ago when this went viral,” said Zhou, a Chinese player in Beijing who asked to use only his last name because of privacy concerns. “I was confused why it was always like that [on the top 10 played games ranking]. Did people like to change their backgrounds that often?”

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

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

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 reviews and MIT Technology Review found that 40% of them were written either in Simplified Chinese or by someone with a Simplified Chinese username. (Language is a common proxy for the geographic distribution of Steam users, which is difficult to gather on Steam.)



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