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


Online porn is banned in China, so people there have to get creative to access it. Steam is one of the only popular global platforms still available in the country, and its community features, international high-speed servers, and increasingly hands-off approach when it comes to sexual content have 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 needed to use VPN services to access certain Steam services. As the reviews show, now they are afraid they may soon lose this rare community, either because of platform content moderation or the possibility that China might block Steam altogether .

An open secret

Wallpaper Engine, developed by a duo based in Germany and first released on Steam in October 2016, allows users to switch out their static wallpapers for something more dynamic. The majority of user-submitted wallpapers in the software’s Workshop are innocuous: 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 contributions are labeled “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 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. Yet within Chinese online communities, it has been an open secret among gamers and gaming publications since it was released.

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

Cui Jianyi, a Chinese writer and journalist, wrote about the phenomenon in 2020 after he saw someone mention it on social media. Having been a gamer and a 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, like Joker. His article in the Chinese media helped bring the software’s hidden uses to the attention of those who were not yet in on the secret.

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

Among the nearly half a million Steam reviews of Wallpaper Engine, 40% were written by someone whose default language was simplified Chinese, compared with 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 has found that 40% of those were written either in simplified Chinese or by someone with a simplified Chinese username. (Language is a common proxy for Steam users’ geographical distribution, which is hard to collect on Steam.)



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