In early September, new rules introduced by the Chinese government came into effect: everyone under the age of 18 cannot enjoy more than three hours of online video game time per week. Furthermore, this allocated playtime can’t be used whenever one pleases.
Children and teenagers may game only on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and national holidays — and only between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Online game vendors have already complied with the new rules and are now requiring logins that are real-name verified. Tencent, the country’s leading gaming developer, has even rolled out a facial-recognition login feature dubbed “midnight patrol” to prevent children from using adult logins to get around the curfew.
These new rules serve to tighten earlier limits set in place by the Chinese government, which had restricted online playtime to 90 minutes during the weekdays and three hours on weekends for those under 18. Gaming consoles like the Sony PlayStation or Microsoft Xbox have been banned in China since 2000.
These new restrictions — which affect more than 268 million people in China — seem incomprehensible and unacceptable in the free world and have been criticized as a gross interference of the state in the private life of its citizens. So, what got into China?
Video games cannot be allowed to destroy a generation, says China
State-run news agency Xinhua claims authorities have implemented these restrictions as a way to protect the youth. In the weeks leading up to the new policy, Xinhua and other Chinese state media have gone as far as comparing video games to “spiritual opium” and “electronic drugs.”
According to statistics released by Chinese state media, 6 in 10 Chinese minors play online video games frequently. More than one in 10 spend more than two hours each day during the school week playing online games on their mobile devices.
Some parents have responded by sending their kids to military-style camps where no devices are allowed for months to combat so-called “gaming disorders.”
Chinese authorities believe abusing online games interferes too much with children’s school assignments and personal growth, as well as affects their health. For instance, China blames video games for its growing cases of nearsightedness among children.
But are there that many Chinese children addicted to video games and are their lives so much negatively affected by them that these rules are warranted? Data is woefully lacking in this respect, but it is very likely that Chinese parents and especially Chinese authorities have a different view of what constitutes genuine gaming addiction — and at the end of the day, this wouldn’t be the first time the Chinese government imposes this type of restriction.
What gaming addiction is
Joanne Orlando, a digital wellbeing expert and psychologist at Western Sydney University, says that gaming addiction resembles gambling addiction. Once you cross the line from a leisure activity to compulsive and intense behavior, you’re entering addiction territory.
prioritising gaming to the extent that it takes precedence over other activities and interests
continuing to game despite negative effects on school, family life, work, health, hygiene, relationships, finances or social relationships.
According to Orlando, playtime isn’t indicative of developing an addiction, it’s behavior. As long as a child doesn’t show harmful behavior, time spent gaming isn’t necessarily a cause of concern. In fact, according to the American Psychiatric Association, only 0.3% to 1% of the population will be diagnosed with gaming addiction.
That being said, many modern online games are specifically designed to be very compelling. These games provide incentives that hook players and motivate them to spend as much time playing as possible through a clever design of missions, rewards, and gameplay. Some children who lack self-restraint may end up having the gameplay them rather than the other way around. It is because of these dopamine-firing design elements that Chinese officials hyperbolically compare video games to opium.
Orlando adds that there should be some boundaries set around gaming by parents. But concerning children who genuinely develop online video game addiction, the researcher urges parents to self-examine their own behavior and parenting. Some kids play video games all day because life at home is a mess, for instance, which is the parents’ responsibility.
Despite efforts from the government, kids are smart and will always find ways to escape these restrictions. It’s likely Chinese youth will shift to unlicensed games available on foreign platforms or gaming on virtual private networks (VPNs).
But while Chinese kids may find a way to continue playing online games on somebody else’s platform, domestic vendors have been hit hard. Tencent and NetEase, the largest Chinese gaming developers, have both lost nearly 10% of their share price, shedding tens of billions in market cap.
Chinese regulators targeted these two companies, in particular, summoning them to focus less on profit and further clamp down on how minors can play their video games. “Companies failing to follow the requirements will be stringently punished,” state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
This year, authorities cracked down on the entire tech sector, including Alibaba, often referred to as the Amazon of China, and Didi, known to many as the Uber of China. They’ve also targeted online tutoring companies, which Chinese regulators see as offering an unfair competitive advantage to families who can afford them.
This attitude is owed to a combination of factors. As an authoritarian state, China cannot afford to have companies that grow too powerful and wants to control the digital data gathered by these vendors. There’s a growing concern with wealth inequality, which authorities are trying to keep under control by restricting the influence a handful of companies or individuals wield in Chinese society. Last but not least, online games are by their very nature social, and authorities need to control the conversation in order to maintain their grip on society.
Policing the country’s next generation is thus not all that surprising given China’s track record of censorship and interference in its citizen’s private life.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.