Earlier this week, the Chinese government’s National Press and Publication Administration imposed the strictest restriction on children’s and teenagers’ use of online video games in the country. Anyone under 18 is banned from playing online video games during weekdays. They are only allowed to play for one hour on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. This rule supersedes an existing law that limited online game playing to 90 minutes per day on weekdays and three hours on weekends and bans playing after 10 p.m.
The government claims that the rule was imposed in response to parents’ complaints that online gaming has negatively affected their children’s studies as well as their physical and mental health. Not too long ago, a Chinese state-controlled newspaper called online gaming addiction a form of “spiritual opium” and “electronic drugs.”
Chinese gaming companies will be responsible for enforcing this rule. Tencent, one of China’s biggest online gaming companies, has stated that it agrees with the rule and will comply with the law. It has self-imposed a rule for minors limiting playtime to one hour a day during the week and two hours a day during holidays and banning under-12 players from making in-game purchases.
One might wonder why Chinese video game companies like Tencent would support a rule that is likely to hurt its revenues. For starters, spending from those under 16 comprises a very small portion of the company’s revenues. So it may be in their best interest to sacrifice this paltry revenue source instead of incurring the wrath of the Chinese government, which could result in financial disaster. But this is a slippery slope. If the government tries to expand this restriction to cover a greater portion of the population, companies are less likely to enforce the rule if it poses a greater threat to their profits.
Undoubtedly, some parents (and spouses) outside of China support this action and probably hope that their governments will do something similar. The World Health Organization recognizes video game addiction as a disorder. There are numerous stories of relationships and careers breaking down due to excessive game playing. However, whether this is a systemic societal problem or just a large number of isolated incidents is debatable and inconclusive.
The law is likely to curb the growth of e-sports in China and may not be as competitive compared to other top-tier Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. And this could likely affect those who earn money by playing games online.
Finally, it is possible that this rule might not have the effect that the government wants and may even backfire. For teenagers who are affected by this restriction, this will be their first meaningful experience with state sanctions. Most will be good citizens and find something else to do with their time. But some may resent it and, if they really want their gaming fix, will find it elsewhere, even if it means hacking through the Great Firewall of China.
Those who are reasonably proficient in another language can switch to foreign online games whose companies will likely not abide by the restrictions. And while they are playing on the dark web, these people might be privy to information that the Chinese government doesn’t want them to know involving the United States, North Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Who knows how this information will affect their worldview as they get older.
Historically, laws restricting video game use have been repealed or relaxed. In 2015, China repealed a 2000 law banning the sales of game consoles citing their adverse effect on the mental health of its youth. And earlier this week, South Korea repealed a 2011 law that banned minors from playing online games from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. to ensure that they got adequate sleep.
The law limiting online game activity to three hours per week has drawn worldwide attention because, for most people, it seems harsh, even by tiger mom standards. Perhaps video game addiction has become so widespread that the state had to step in. Or the government might be trying to impose its cultural agenda on its people. Or both. And whether this law can be meaningfully enforced remains to be seen. Only time will tell whether this law will accomplish the government’s policy goals or will be repealed for one reason or another.
This column is cross posted on Above The Law.