It is getting dangerously close to “game over” for young players in China as the country is tightening its reins on their allotted time for video games. On September 30th, the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) launched a tipoff website, aiming to enhance public supervision and better prevent minors from becoming addicted to online games.
Members of the Chinese public can now inform authorities via the website when online game providers violate regulations related to underage users. According to the NPPA statement, violations includes allowing users to log on to games without genuine indentification, allowing minor users to play games for longer than permitted or during prohibited hours, and charging minors excessive prices.
“Strict punishments will be imposed on game operators that violate regulations once the tips have been verified,” reads the statement.
The website is the latest move to comply with the country’s just-released limits on video games. Under the new rule, online gaming companies can only offer one hour of service to minors between 8pm and 9 pm on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, as well as on public holidays. Online gaming providers must not provide any form of gaming service to users who fail to register and log in using genuine identification.
Since the website launched, Chinese microblogging platform Weibo has seen more than seventy millions views related to the topic. The deployment of such a website seems to be winning overwhelming support from Chinese parents who are tired of yelling at their own teenage children to quit playing computer games and do something more useful.
“It’s a responsible decision for the government to save children from indulging in virtual games,” one netizen commented.” As a parent, I firmly support this approach. Minors need more guidance and supervision in regard to online gaming as they have poorer self-discipline than adults. The tipoff websites can force gaming companies to shoulder their social responsibility,” another added.
Why is China acting tough on limits for online gaming for minors?
The struggle over gaming has intensified in recent years as Chinese minors are now able to easily access the Internet, one dataset showed that the figure stood at nearly 95 percent as of 2020. The number of Internet users under the age of 18 in China topped 183 million by 2020, and 62.5 percent of them play video games, according to the latest report on Internet use among Chinese youth jointly issued by the Chinese Communist Youth League Central Committee and the China Internet Network Information Center.
“The popularity of video games among younger people appears to be a lasting risk factor for the their development as they have poor self-control and are more likely to lose themselves in virtual games,” said Liu Jinming, a professor at the School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University.
Exasperated parents have left no stone unturned to limit the games as they have long been concerned that unfettered screen times would make their children lazy and listless, or worse, unpredictable and violent. “I found my son often would rush through his homework to get to his gaming consoles faster. Sometimes, he left the problems blank without asking for help, and instead delved into videogames,” You Meiying, a housewife with two kids complained. A study conducted by Rutgers University researchers justified her worries. Using interactive technology for entertainment purposes for more than 1 hour on school days has been shown to decrease children’s school performance. Such usage leads to lower educational aspirations, a lack of concentration in class, and a greater risk of absenteeism.
However, the true concern about video games goes beyond teenagers’ academic performance. Immature children tend to be more violent if they have been immersed in a toxic environment of gaming communities. A report released by the American Psychological Association task force shows that there is “a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.”
“My son became grumpy after he indulged in video games with a lot of violence,” one netizen commented on one the topic. “If we banned him from playing it, he would explode with rage.”
Similar misfortunes have befallen millions of families. According to a report issued in August by the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Center, 90 percent of parents said their children had shown significant changes in their temper and personality after becoming what appears to be addicted to video games, even to the point that they had seemingly become another person.
“Minors are prone to imitate violence and bloody behavior in games,” Liu said. “Being too obsessed with online gaming would affect a teenager’s physical and mental health, stirring up tension between them and their parents. This matter could even increase the risk of youth crime.”
In 2018, the World Health Organization classified Internet game addiction as a disease, which can “result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”
“Online gaming addiction has gradually become the reason for a lot of societal ills, and it is time for our country to address this problem head-on,” said Liu.
Digital Detox: An Anti-Addiction System
The Chinese government is proactive in addressing these concerns. In recent years, China has been crafting its anti-addiction system for video games in an effort to protect young people’s mental and physical health and to ensure that they aren’t distracted from school and family responsibilities.
In 2018, China issued a nine-month moratorium on licensing new games and clamped down on portrayals of violence and other hazardous information on video games. In 2019, China adopted a regulation that restricted citizens under 18 to playing games for 1.5 hours per day on weekdays, three hours during weekends and public holidays, and imposed a curfew between 10 pm and 8 am. The drastic measures did, to some extent, curb excessive online gaming. Reports shows that 65.6 percent of netizens under the age of 18 thought the anti-addiction system was effective in preventing them from indulging in video games.
However, the previous rules had loopholes. Even though the rules required gamers to use their real names and ID numbers to play, many were still able to circumvent the restrictions. “Young gamers often use adult credentials to log in or play in Internet cafés that would turn a blind eyes to long gaming sessions,” said Cai Jiaojiao, an employee in the gaming industry. “Some are even using virtual private networks (VPNs) to access foreign games.” Many parents deemed the previous regulations too lax, saying that 90 minutes per day of gaming is too much for school-age children, and called for stricter rules.
By demand of the parents, China has launched an updated version this year, aiming to block such workarounds. The new rules not only shorten the time for children to access and play online games, but also urged online gaming providers to implement stricter real-name registration systems and logins to prevent abuse.
On September 8, Chinese authorities summoned leading online game enterprises and platforms for talks and subsequently required them to fully and faithfully impose time limits on underage gamers. The new regulations banned the companies from providing online game account trading services to minors. The authorities also ordered the video game providers to tighten their examination game content and to remove any obscene and violent content.
“Online game companies and game streaming platforms should understand the importance and urgency of preventing minors from online game addiction. They need to implement the regulations that arw aimed at boosting youth development, ” wrote the notice. “The departments will implement tougher policing and any companies found to be not abiding by the regulations will be punished.”
Online gaming providers are now reinforcing their protections for the youth, with Tencent, China’s biggest video gaming company, taking the lead. The company, which has been using identification for a couple of years, raised proposals for the entire industry to consider including a ban on gaming for children under 12. In July, Tencent rolled out a facial recognition software dubbed “Midnight Patrol” for over 60 mobile games during the curfew of online gaming (10pm-8am) to ensure young players cannot use other people’s credentials.
The system uses an algorithm to identify underage players based on the time they play, how long they play and their behaviors within the game. Any suspected underage users then have their faces scanned. If the scans don’t match the photo identification documents provided to the company, the user will be immediately booted from the game. A month later, the company prolonged the “midnight” patrol to “all-day” patrol.
The facial recognition software is the latest strategy among the company’s ongoing “Balanced Online Entertainment System” initiative, which also encompasses its “Parental Guardian Platform” and “Healthy Gameplay System” designed to let parents know what their kids are up to and remind users when they’ve played for too long.
The raft of measures has been effective. In its latest financial disclosures, the company said that in the second quarter of 2021, players under 16 accounted for just 2.6 percent of its gross receipts for China gaming.
“I think this is the right policy,” said Feng Xingjian, a woman in Beijing whose 15-year-old son is a fan of Tencent’s flagship game Honor of Kings. She said her son’s playing times were dropped sharply after Tencent implement the new measures. “Some teenage kids just don’t list to their parents, and these forceful measures can essentially limit their playing times.”
“The gaming industry needs times to adapt this strict three-hour gaming rules, but Tencent’s Balanced Online Entertainment System may provide a template for the wider gaming industry in how to enforce it,” said Liu.