You may have heard that the Chinese government has introduced new rules limiting the amount of online gaming allowed by those under 18 years of age. According to the new rules, from September 1st 2021, those under the age of 18 are only be allowed to indulge in online gaming between the hours of 8pm and 9pm and only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Moreover, online video game providers are required to adopt measures to enforce this and have name-verification processes in place to ensure that . The National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) – the regulator responsible for the approval of video game titles and the authority which released an explanation of the new rules, has also stated that it will bolster inspections to ensure the rules are being adhered to by online gaming companies.
Is this simply an action of an authoritarian government or is it ia government trying to curb gaming addictions and the negative affects these may cause on society?
According to available market data, the online gaming industry was worth around 630 million RMB in 2018 and soared to 6.8 billion RMB in 2020. Prior to the new laws being introduced, in June this year it was predicted that the industry would be worth 19.3 billion RMB in 20211 However, that will likely need to be revised given that the recently-released rules will inevitably affect online gaming revenue. With GDP growth in China slowing, a free-market capitalist mind might think that the Chinese government would not want to curb growth on high-tech industries – especially those which generate the majority of revenue online and thus are not as volatile in terms of GDP contributions during the current global pandemic. However, it must be that the government is more concerned about the negative effects of online gaming on young consumers and the effects this can have on society; thus, this concern overrides concerns of economic growth.
Official state-media in China has recently described online video games as “Spiritual Opium”. In China, opium has deep historical connotations and is not only a highly addictive drug but also a symbol of what historians refer to as the Century of Humiliation. During the Century of Humiliation, China was exploited by foreign powers through various invasive colonial measures – including allowing opium into China – which caused chaos in Chinese society. The development of China was severely disrupted and curtailed during this period and arguably China lacked the resources to change the status quo imposed on it by the colonial powers during that period and thus endured humiliation. Hence, for online video games to be equated with opium conveys just how repugnant the government feels towards online video games.
What is it that makes the government feel so repugnant about online video games that they take such severe measures? According to a report released in 2019, 90% of parents of primary and middle school students give their children phones,2 a further survey in 2020 showed that 93% of Chinese under the age of 18 are internet users.3 With the prevalence of mobile devices amongst young people in China and their access to the internet, young people are easily able to access online video games and thus are prone to excessive gaming and even addiction which ultimately effects their study, physical health, and physical prowess. Hence, it seems the government has stepped in to ensure that this factor negatively contributing to the physical wellbeing and academic results of young people is contained and not allowed to exist unchecked.
Regarding effects on study, in my last blog post, I mentioned briefly the measure the government has taken in its bid of reforming the sphere of education to make sure primary and secondary students rely on formal educational institutions to complete the national curriculum and ready themselves for the Gaokao (高考) examination which is held at the end of High School. Perhaps the prevalence of online video games and ease of access that youngsters have to online video games distracts students from study. Futhermore, this may be one driving factor behind parents needing send children into supervised tuition (such as that of Off-Campus-Tutoring) to make sure they do not just start gaming on their mobile devices when they are supposed to be self-studying outside of class.
Regarding effects on physical health and physical prowess of youth in China, these issues have rightly gained a lot of attention from the government in recent years. The Chinese government specifically released the “Child and Adolescent Obesity Prevention Implementation Plan” (儿童青少年肥胖防控实施方案) in 2020 to address this issue.4 It is estimated that that almost one fifth (19%) of children aged between 6 and 17 years old in China are obese – with a sedentary lifestyle a key contributor to this.5 Thus, the aforementioned plan was formulated to counter this issue. Physical prowess of youth has also been a topic discussed both by Academia where papers have been published expressing concern over limited numbers of candidates which meet the Army’s recruitment criteria6 and the People’s Liberation Army whom have in recent years become concerned about the lack of physical prowess of recruits, with weight and eyesight being key factors causing potential recruits to fail recruitment criteria.7
In light of these issues, it is easy to see why the government is so repugnant towards excessive online gaming as it is not conducive to maintaining a healthy and fit population. As can be deduced from the attention this issue has received, this not only threatens prosperity but also national security.
Online gaming in itself is obviously not necessarily bad if done in moderation; it is when it is done in excess that problems can ensue. Objectively, this can be likened to the restrictive measures adopted for alcohol and cigarettes to avoid excess consumption causing harm to individuals and society and also to limit the access of these potentially harmful products to children and adolescents whom may be more vulnerable to addiciton and its harms. If comparing online gaming with alcohol and cigarettes is too extreme – and I expect it will be considered so for many, then let’s compare it with a driver-licensing system for cars– which to a certain degree is structured to limit risks of younger people driving.
In New Zealand, there are three different phases for the driver’s license for car licenses. This 3-phased licensing system basically means that: (1) Anyone under the age of 16 is not allowed to drive a vehicle, (2) No one under the age of 16 years and 6 months can drive a vehicle by themselves (3) No one under the age of 17 years and 6 months can drive a vehicle with passengers unsupervised.8 This system allows adolescents’ developing cognitive ability a gradual adjustment to the volatile and dangerous environment of commandeering a vehicle which legally can maneuver at a maximum of 110 KPH and thus potentially cause harm to themselves and others around them due to mistake, misjudgment or misfortune. Perhaps then the decision to limit children’s and adolescent’s exposure to video games, which can potentially cause harm to them – in the sense that it can affect their physical wellbeing and indirectly affect their future career opportunities due to the affects of excessive gaming on academic results – is made out of similar reasoning.
So, is this limit on online gaming excessive and perhaps authoritarian? The answer to that is probably going to be more subjective than objective. The right question to ask would perhaps be is it necessary? If we are to worry more about the actual consumers or users and their long term wellbeing rather than the revenue of what is being consumed or used, we may find that we begin to come to the conclusion that such a limitation is actually necessary. It seems that this is indeed what the Chinese government is doing – it is refusing to prioritise corporate revenue, market growth and the economy over the actual consumers. Other questions to ask would be: should and will other countries follow suit? Will similar restrictions also be placed on the usage of social media apps by children and adolescents either in China or elsewhere? Judging by the way social media is starting to actually shape the way we see the world by making us compare our everyday lives with the supposedly perfect lives we see on social feeds which we follow and by making us compare how we look with others’ social media photos with all the artifical filters on, then perhaps this is another question worth pondering.
7 https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2108987/worries-over-fitness-levels-more-young-chinese-fail & https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/young-chinese-are-too-fat-and-masturbate-too-much-to-pass-army-fitness-tests-a3617881.html