Tech

Chinese gamers use Steam wallpaper app to get porn through censorship

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

Last year, users in China suddenly needed to use VPN services to access certain Steam services. As 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 could block Steam altogether.

Open secret

Wallpaper Engine, developed by a duo from Germany and first released on Steam in October 2016, allows users to switch their static wallpaper to something more dynamic. Most of the wallpapers submitted by users in the Workshop are harmless: anime characters, cyberpunk cities, landscape paintings, and movie posters. But it’s also not hard to find NSFW intermediate content, with about 7.5% of the more than 1.6 million material labeled as “mature”. Often these are naked anime characters in provocative poses and sexual poses, and sometimes pornographic photos and videos of real people.

Despite the success of Wallpaper Engine as the most popular non-game program on Steam, its erotic side is rarely mentioned in English, except for a short article in gaming media Kotaku and sporadic social media discussions. However, in Chinese online communities, this has been an open secret among gamers and gaming publications. since it was released.

“It was at least two or three years ago when it went viral,” says Zhou, a Chinese gamer from Beijing, who asked to use only his last name for privacy reasons. “I was confused why always [on the top 10 played games ranking]. Did people enjoy changing their wallpaper so often?”

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

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

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


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