Jubensha: the mix of Cluedo, Werewolf and LARP that became a Chinese phenomenon
How playable murder-mysteries exploded in popularity and weathered the pandemic.
Live-action roleplaying games - or LARP - have been a huge cultural influence in Nordic countries such as Norway and Sweden. While tabletop RPGs and roleplaying video games have become very well-known worldwide, the majority of people outside of said countries are still not as familiar with LARP.
However, China has developed its own LARP phenomenon in recent years. Jubensha is far more commercially successful and influential than anything we have seen before even in Nordic countries - and there is a good chance it might change our perception of what live-action roleplaying games are capable of in the future.
“Jubensha is not just a form of entertainment [like other live-action roleplaying games in the West], it might be the most significant form of social interaction among the [Chinese] youth in the post-COVID era,” says Jubensha scholar Rouyu Wen, a researcher at Huazhong University of Science and Technology and Uppsala University. “While live-action roleplaying games are often a niche phenomenon in the West, it is almost as mainstream as digital games in China.”
But what is this cultural prodigy in China that is almost entirely unknown to the outside world?
In the mid-2010s, Guillaume Montiage’s Death Wears White, a murder-mystery board game, was imported to the People’s Republic of China, introducing its Chinese version to board game enthusiasts of different kinds. The game became a massive hit and had a huge influence with regard to capturing the young population’s imagination.
Jubensha might be the most significant form of social interaction among Chinese youth in the post-COVID era.
The impact was so big that it inspired Mango TV, one of the biggest Chinese media companies, to purchase the rights to South-Korean variety programme Crime Scene and make a widely popular reality show called Who’s the Murderer? (明星大侦探)
Who’s the Murderer?, inspired by its South-Korean counterpart as well as Death Wears White, introduces the audience to a cast of beloved celebrities each season. The chosen celebrities are given a variety of colourful roles to play in a murder-mystery setting and need to find out who the killer is within the boundaries of the game and its rules by the end of the season.
China’s love for murder mysteries is nothing new. The Chinese crime fiction subgenre Gong'an (公案小说) has been part of the country’s culture since the Song dynasty 1,000 years ago. Gong'an is a form of inverted crime mystery genre which often includes a large number of characters, with stories featuring massive conspiracies and grand philosophical concepts.
“Many argue that the underground culture of China already developed, before Werewolf, a similar game as a result of Gong’an,” Wen suggests.
So it is far from surprising that a show such as Who’s the Murderer? was able to reach such a wide audience among Chinese youth, with viewership in the millions.
Considering the early forms of scripted Chinese games didn’t require much to perform other than having roles, rules and a script which could all be written on a piece of paper, a lot of young people gathered around tables at public and private places to play out different forms of murder-mystery scenarios. This created the phenomenon known as Jubensha, roughly translated to “scripted homicide”, a fascinating combination of live-action roleplaying games and social deduction games like Werewolf.
Jubensha has provided a source of social interaction that was missing from many people’s lives.
As Jubensha started to become increasingly popular in the late 2010s, with thousands of stores and cafés dedicated to the game opening up, COVID-19 broke out and prevented people from physical interaction - a big component of what made Jubensha so interesting.
Like many pre-pandemic physical activities, Jubensha entered the digital world during the pandemic. Jubensha apps, often known as MMG (Murder Mystery Game) apps in China, became available to millions of people across the country. Alienated young people found MMG apps to be an entertaining and engaging way to kill time.
The problem of social alienation among young people in China was prominent within society even before the pandemic. The scholars and some of the players I talked to for this article said that social interaction outside of your family/acquaintance circle in China is often quite limited. People don’t casually meet and interact with each other like in many western countries. As a result, Jubensha provided a source of social interaction that was missing from many people’s lives.
After things eased up a little bit with regard to COVID-19, Jubensha became immeasurably popular, with more than 45,000 shops opening up after the pandemic and nearly 10 million active players. It is estimated that soon the Jubensha market will reach 23.89 billion Chinese Yuan.
When Wen came to Northern Europe, he was shocked by a phenomenon known as Nordic LARP, an immersive form of live-action roleplaying game in which people dress up as their characters and portray a game scenario in a fictional or historical setting. While there are many different forms of LARP, one can summarise it as a mixture of theatre and tabletop roleplaying games - except that there are often no tables involved.
“LARP looked surprisingly similar to modern Jubensha,” Wen observes.
He adds that because escape rooms were also a massive subculture in China, the murder-mystery scene soon merged with certain aspects of escape rooms to create high-budget Jubensha games that include make-up, costumes and well-designed historical or fictional settings in which players take up their designated roles.
There are no limits to what the setting can be. While mostly they are set in TV drama-esque environments such as period pieces, they can be set in the most unlikely places - such as the world of zombie apocalypse video game Dying Light.
The same variety is evident in the way such games play out. While LARP, tabletop RPGs and escape rooms are heavily associated with entertainment and an experience shared among friends and acquaintances, the social capacity of Jubensha is much broader.
The temporary set of social relationships and the dark and scary atmospheres help to create trust between strangers.
According to research by Dr. Shuo Xiong and Rouyu Wen, the modern and taboo-breaking form of socialisation among strangers that became part of Chinese culture as a result of online interactions and apps that let you stay anonymous, such as TanTan, has had a profound effect on pervasive games.
A good example is the dating element of Jubensha. It is very common for single people to go to an event and ask for a group of people of the opposite sex to play Jubensha with in order to find their future partner.
The social aspect of Jubensha, at times, overshadows its case-solving and gaming elements. One might be able to describe Jubensha, at least in many circumstances, as a gamified social gathering of strangers. This especially makes sense when you include the frustrating loneliness that came with the pandemic and left a generation of young people in China isolated and alienated.
Although the discussion around Jubensha in the West is often limited to the government restrictions and recent crackdowns due to elements of supernatural and religiosity in some games, the impact of this phenomenon is much more interesting. An example provided by Wen is Chinese companies’ usage of such games for HR assessments.
“The temporary set of social relationships [in Jubensha] and the dark and scary atmospheres help to create trust between strangers,” Wen says. “Meanwhile, the alibi [fictional roles] provided by playing a character allows for safe ways to experiment with your behaviour.”
Jubensha’s influence is much greater than any other form of live-action roleplaying games we have seen so far. While most forms of LARP never reached mainstream popularity outside of Nordic countries, Jubensha created a mainstream culture that has affected the social life of the youth. With tabletop RPGs becoming increasingly more popular in the West - just look at the great success of the new D&D movie! - Jubensha might drastically change the discourse around LARPs in the future.