Scripted Murders – A Popular Pastime in China

Young people in China are flocking to clubs to play a game that can be translated as “scripted homicide” wherein the murders are fake but the money – real.

In the game, they play different characters, spending hours solving fake murders and this macabre entertainment is expected to generate over USD 2 billion (INR 148991000000) in revenue this year, by one count. The growing popularity of the game has sparked some concerns from Chinese government officials, reports the New York Times.

This concern is about their sometimes gothic or gory content. It has also led to a proliferation of clubs as well as competition for new and compelling scripts. Both players and owners alike say these scripts have become cutthroat.

“There’s a huge demand for good scripts that’s just not met,” said Zhang Yi. The 28-year-old Shanghai resident who played more than ninety games in just over a year added: “The script is the foundation to everything in this game.”

Scripted homicides are known as ‘jubensha’ in Chinese. As per the New York Times, it requires the players to gather in a group to discuss a fake murder or other crime, and each of them is assigned a character from a script. The script includes one player who plays the murderer and then they engage in an elaborate role-playing game wherein they ask questions of the host and each other. This goes on until they have determined which one of them has done the deed.

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One club in Beijing illustrated the same as players descended into a fantastical martial arts school. Donning robes, they transformed into a peach fairy or a dragon to take on different roles as the script offered character backgrounds, relationships, and potential storylines to follow. The plot of the story develops as the players go around the table.

They talk in character, taking hooks from the script as well as the host, and at the end of the same, they vote on who they think the murderer might be (As per the New York Times, in that particular game, it was the kung fu student who practiced on a mountaintop.)

People vector created by  – freepik (Representative Image)

A successful, dramatic ‘scripted homicide’ offers laughs, tension, and maybe even tears based on its storyline as Poker Zhang said, “They will cry.” Zhang, who owns a script-writing business in the city of Chengdu, added, “Players cry a lot.”

The whodunits, although imaginary, provide a real-world alternative for young Chinese people who spend increasing amounts of time on their screens as China’s 1 billion internet users spend much of their time on their phones. This is spurring worries from the public and the government alike about excessive screen time and the government’s concerns over children, in particular, have led them to restrict video game time for minors.

The games also provide free-flowing opportunities for young people to mingle as Ms. Zhang, the player from Shanghai, for whom scripted homicides have become one of her primary ways to meet people, said “I met people who I now spend the entire weekend with”. “We meet every week. It’s replaced a lot of the other activities in my life.”

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This is something that can be rare in China, according to Kecheng Fang. Dr. Fang, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the games provide “a participatory experience and a way of socializing, which is missing from the life of many Chinese young people”. “They lack participation in civic affairs, community engagement, and meaningful socialization.”

The pandemic briefly threatened the industry, say its adherents but scripted homicides’ comeback was stronger than ever when travel restrictions stranded young people in their hometowns, leaving them looking for distractions.

People photo created by freepik (Representative Image)

“I couldn’t leave Beijing for two months,” said Gong Jin, 20, a veterinary medicine student. “I felt bored, so I often played script murder.”

Now, Ms. Gong works at a club part-time and much of the pleasure, she said, comes from matching players with a part in the script that “will touch you and resonate with you.” “I shed tears every time I play,” she said.

Jubensha has become so popular in the country that the Chinese authorities have become concerned about their subject matter. The New York Times reported state-run Xinhua News Agency blamed such games for potentially distorting reality, labeling them as “confusing” to young players.

In a post on Weibo, (the Chinese social media platform), Xinhua said the scripts need to show “corrective value guidance” and spread “positive energy.”

Wood photo created by kjpargeter – freepik (Representative Image)

Furthermore, Plainclothes officers recently played more than eight hours at four clubs undercover in Shaanxi Province as per the New York Times and they confiscated sixteen “illegally published” scripts that contained “bloody and gruesome” elements.

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The scripts are similar to video games, TV, and films, “and are therefore subject to content censorship,” said Professor Fang. “Especially since the government seems eager to set a high moral standard, it’s paying attention to the so-called ‘bloody and gruesome’ content of the game.”

This kind of crackdown is nothing new for authoritarian governments, said Joseph Laycock. Laycock is an associate professor of religious studies at Texas State University, and author of “Dangerous Game,” about the history of role-playing games.

“These games of imagination carry with them a kind of radical autonomy,” Dr. Laycock said. “Because if you can imagine the world being another way, that gives you the ability to question things that had previously gone unquestioned.”

People photo created by freepik (Representaive Image)

Although role-playing games have been popular in China for years ‘scripted homicides’ took off around 2015, when reality shows with names like “Lying Man,” “Dinner Party Seduction,” and later “Who’s The Murderer,” showed celebrities playing whodunits and naturally, members of the audience wanted to play too. Clubs started opening, fans poured in and a new pastime took off in the country.

According to the New York Times, the number of scripted murder enterprises registered in China totaled about 6,500. This is more than a sixty percent increase from the prior year, according to state-run media, amping up the competition.

The decoration of the rooms and quality of the hosts distinguishes or may distinguish one club from another but each club really lives and dies by the quality of their scripts as Bai Lu, a club owner in Beijing, said, “Investment into props and offline features is not as high as our investment in scripts.”

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Club owners buy scripts from several different places. They are bought from industry exhibitions to websites like Xiaoheitan, an online mall that connects script distributors and club owners and some scripts can be as long as forty pages.

A “retail” script that can be sold to any number of clubs can cost about $80 (INR 5935.31), said Wang Yihan. The twenty-eight-year-old owns four script homicide clubs in Shanghai and also writes and distributes the mysteries. She says a “city-limited script,” which can only be sold to a handful of clubs in the same city, can sell for about $300 (INR 22,247) and an exclusive script, she added, for only one club, can cost as much as about $900 (INR 66,772.22).

Coffee vector created by freepik (Representative Image)

“Great scripts are extremely rare,” Ms. Wang said. Many people are eager to put together a script of their own.  When Ms. Wang worked as a host, she received a popular script that she thought could be better and she “made five full pages of changes to it.” “I was constantly thinking about how to better conjure up the emotions of the players,” she continued. It worked and she made about $31,000 (INR 22,99,931.85), she said.

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According to her, it became one of her club’s best-selling scripts, moreover, the pursuit of scripts can result in real crimes, said Ms. Wang and others. “Scripts are constantly copied, pirated, and sold for cents on the internet,” she added. “That’s the single biggest problem club owners face.”

On the online Chinese retail site called ‘Taobao’, a bundle of three thousand scripts can be bought for about $2 (INR 148.38).

The piracy has some club owners welcoming the attention that government officials are increasingly paying to the business as per New York Times. Ms. Wang and the others are openly asking for government regulators to step in and clean up the industry. This is to prevent bribery among script distributors and protect the material from being stolen.

“Creation is inherently difficult,” said Ms. Zhang, in Shanghai, “and piracy has dealt a huge blow to the industry.”


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