Pokémon announces name changes in China, likely to appease local censorship

Society & Culture

Japanese computer game company Nintendo has made some changes to its popular Pokémon game, apparently to appease Chinese censors.

Pangoro pokemon china copy

Video game censorship is an all-too-common reality in China. Even Pokémon, the iconic Japanese media franchise known for its family-friendly fun, has had to make “regional adjustments” to avoid offending the Chinese government.

In an October 23 Weibo post (in Chinese), The Pokémon Company, the entity behind the series, announced that it had revised the Chinese names of six Pokémon characters. Words like hooligan, death, and toxic have been scrubbed and replaced with terms associated with a less negative image.

Hooligan Panda (流氓熊猫 liúmáng xióngmāo), a fighting-type Pokémon that resembles a giant panda, is now being called Domineering Panda (霸道熊猫 bàdào xióngmāo).

Thief Fox (偷儿狐 tōuérhú), a creature that survives off its ill-gotten gains in the world of Pokémon, was renamed as Cunning Little Fox (狡小狐 jiǎoxiǎohú). Bandit Fox (狐大盗 húdàdào) has been rebranded as Cunning Big Fox (猾大狐 huádàhú).

The word death (死 sǐ) was removed from the names of two ghost-like species. Instead, they adopted the term loss (迭失 diéshī), whose Chinese pronunciation reads like the English word death.

The Pokémon Company did not disclose the reasoning behind the name changes, but the decision was seen by many — including Pokémon fans in China — as a necessary compromise made by the brand to comply with censorship rules in the country.

“Pokémon is exercising self-censorship to avoid offending the government. The company would face greater costs if it kept the original names and actually ran afoul of Chinese censors,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). Another one commented, “It goes without saying that ‘Hooligan Panda’ won’t register well with Chinese officials, given that panda is an emblem of the country.”

The six creatures that had their names altered are included in the latest console game for the franchise, Pokémon Sword and Shield, which was released on the Nintendo Switch in November last year. While the official Chinese variant of the video game console went on sale last December — with Chinese internet giant Tencent as the authorized distributor, only three titles have been granted releases in China due to censorship rules, and Pokémon Sword and Shield is not one of them.

So naturally, the announcement has prompted speculation that The Pokémon Company was localizing the game before submitting it for approval, and that a mainland China release might be imminent. “The silver lining to this announcement is that a Chinese release is likely in the works,” a Weibo user commented.

In fact, this is not the first time that The Pokémon Company has renamed characters in its franchise to stay on the good side of Chinese censors. In March, three Pokémon creatures — Porygon2, Porygon-Z, and Mimikyu — dropped English letters in their Chinese names. The modification was heavily rumored to be in reaction to a censorship rule forbidding English letters in Chinese video games.

With nearly 620 million players who spent over $37 billion on mobile and PC games in 2018, China has one of the largest gaming markets in the world. But while having access to the lucrative market is undoubtedly good for developers and publishers, releasing games in China can be daunting and time-consuming because of censorship and all the vague regulations that could potentially land game publishers in trouble.

In exchange for a piece of the market, it’s not uncommon for foreign developers to make compromises, such as creating alternate versions of certain games or toning down titles altogether so that they comply. For example, in 2018, Ubisoft Montreal altered all versions of its multiplayer first-person shooter game Rainbow Six Siege to secure a Chinese release, by removing visuals of skulls, blood splatter, and exotic dancers. Players in other countries were not pleased, but it was probably worth it for Ubisoft, at least when measured by profits.