This week, China extended restrictions on minors’ screen time. New regulations issued by the National Press and Publication Administration will limit minors’ online gaming to only three hours per week: one hour from 8:00-9:00 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The move is part of a broader campaign by the Chinese government to promote healthier lifestyles among youth, and to crack down on tech companies’ growing influence on society. Chris Buckley of The New York Times described the impetus for these new regulations:
“Recently many parents have reported that game addiction among some youths and children is seriously harming their normal study, life and mental and physical health,” the administration said in an online question-and-answer explanation about the new rules. Parents, it said, had demanded “further restrictions and reductions in the time provided for minors by online gaming services.”
The new rules also reflect the government’s intensifying push for companies to jettison what the Chinese Communist Party says are unhealthy influences, especially among teenagers and children.
[…] Online gaming has been one of the most vibrant and profitable sectors of China’s internet industry, generating billions in revenue from players who pay to take part in online quests, wars and adventures. But there have been signs of growing official pressure for the companies to step more strictly in line with the demands for cultural conformity from Xi Jinping, China’s leader. [Source]
Previous regulations by the Ministry of Education limited minors to 90 minutes of game play on weekdays and three hours on weekends, and banned any weekday gaming between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. Prior measures “also limited the monthly amount that minors could spend on microtransactions, with the maximum amount ranging from $28 to $57, depending on the child’s age.”
The new regulations, which take effect on September 1, will be enforced by requiring all gamers to register using their real names and government-issued identification. In order to prevent minors from logging on through their parents’ accounts and breaking the curfew, Tencent has introduced a special facial recognition function, dubbed “midnight patrol,” to further verify each user.
Although the rules were welcomed by some parents who struggle to limit their children’s screen time, many on Weibo reacted negatively to the new restrictions. “This is so fierce that I’m utterly speechless,” said one comment that received over 700 likes. Another commented sarcastically, “Why don’t you plan when I go to the toilet, eat meals and go to bed.” Brenda Goh at Reuters documented furious reactions among Chinese youth:
“This group of grandfathers and uncles who make these rules and regulations, have you ever played games? Do you understand that the best age for e-sports players is in their teens?” said one comment on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
“Sexual consent at 14, at 16 you can go out to work but you have to be 18 to play games. This is really a joke.” [Source]
The government’s plans fall under a series of measures intended to promote a healthy mindset among Chinese youth. As The Guardian explained, “The regulator said that the purpose of the new rules was to ‘effectively protect the physical and mental health of minors.’ It urged Chinese gaming companies to ‘always prioritise the social good and actively respond to societal concerns.’” The state has expressed concern about tech companies’ impact on youth, describing their video games as a threat to young people’s eyesight, education, and fitness. “By imposing these new rules, the Chinese government is hoping to create ‘positive energy’ among young people and to educate them with what Beijing considers ‘correct values,’” the BBC stated.
Chinese authorities have already taken other steps to realize these changes through recent campaigns targeting teenage fan club culture, which the government argues negatively affects children’s mental health. Other efforts in this crusade for children’s well-being include the recent crackdown on the private tutoring industry, which many argue has a negative psychological impact on children.
The new restrictions on video games are also seen as part of a larger crackdown on Chinese tech companies. As Josh Ye reports at The South China Morning Post, Chinese tech companies dominate the domestic and international gaming industries and thereby maintain considerable influence over Chinese gamers:
“In 2020, China’s domestic gaming revenues rose more than 20 per cent to 278.7 billion yuan (US$43 billion) with almost half of the country now playing video games, according to statistics from government-backed China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association.
[…] Last August, Beijing’s municipal government launched the “Esports Beijing 2020” initiative, promising to provide major subsidies to teams, venues and games that promote local culture.
A month later, during the Beijing International Game Conference, the city announced its intention to become an “international capital of online games” by 2035. [Source]
However, the government views these companies’ influence as unhealthy. Earlier this month, the South China Morning Post reported that Chinese state media criticized Tencent’s video gaming products, calling them “spiritual opium.” The metaphor has precedent: in 2000, the People’s Daily described video games as “digital heroin.” This rhetoric has spooked investors wary of impending regulatory measures, triggering a sell-off that caused Tencent to lose $43 billion within just a few hours. Since its high point in February, Tencent has lost more than $400 billion in market capitalization.
It is not clear what the long-term impact of the new regulations will be. Some analysts claim that investors’ fears are overblown, since gaming is but a small slice of Tencent’s overall revenue, and players under 18 account for a minor portion of its gaming revenue:
1/18 Some local perspective on gaming regulations and "profound revolution": Tencent’s revenue growth in online games has been decreasing since 2018. Under 18 accounts for 6% of revenue. Policy restrictions on online video gamers on company fundamental is negligible. https://t.co/GAN6uIfMGA pic.twitter.com/sETr9Hosvw
— Liqian Ren (@liqian_ren) August 31, 2021
But as the government tries to rein in Chinese tech companies and their domestic player base, it also risks driving young players to seek out foreign games in order to counteract the limited availability of domestic games:
My latest on gaming crackdown: The big elephant in the room is whether this will simply drive kids to play unlicensed and foreign games or Beijing will soon completely ban players’ access to foreign game platforms such as Steam and Epic Game Store. 1/https://t.co/cRraGmkzpl
— Josh Ye 葉嘉栩 (@TheRealJoshYe) August 31, 2021
Others predict that the regulations will jeopardize the sustainability of the video game industry, since the restricted playing time may discourage minors from taking up gaming as a hobby and make them less likely to enjoy complex video games as they grow older. However the regulations play out, they join a host of other state-imposed measures intended to mold Chinese children:
In Xi's China, the ideal child "does not attend after-school tutoring, does not play video games, does not chase celebrities…finish all their homework at school, read…Xi’s selected works for one hour everyday…urge their parents to have more children.”https://t.co/ZeDM81XTSC
— Jonathan Cheng (@JChengWSJ) August 20, 2021