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Research indicates China's playtime limitations are "ineffective"

China's playtime regulations have been in effect for years, but it appears they've not had much of an impact.

Justin Carter, Contributing Editor

August 10, 2023

2 Min Read
Picture of the Chinese flag.

Researchers studying China's restrictions on how long young players can play video games found "no credible evidence for overall reduction in the prevalence of heavy playtime."

As revealed in a new paper for Nature Human Behavior, the researchers studied 7 billion hours of playtime accrued in mainland China between mid-August 2019 and mid-January 2020. Limitations started for the region in late 2019, and later expanded to other parts of the country in mid-2021.

Under China's then-newly established law, players under the age of 18 were limited to an hour of playtime (from 8 PM-9 PM) on weekends and public holidays. Much as with regulating loot boxes, the aim with limiting play has been to curb video game addiction for younger players.

Playtime was classified via "heavy" or "non-heavy" groupings, with the former defined as playing for four or more hours a day and six (or more) days a week. Following the hour-long restrictions that started in 2021, the researchers found players would be more inclined for heavy play, and in fact had "significantly more hours" than prior to the adjustment. 

In fact, in the 11-week span before and after adjustments, the odds of an individual player counting as a "heavy player" shot up from .44 percent to .59 percent. Further research showed that individuals were "more likely" to play heavily after the restrictions took place. 

Do China's playtime limits actually matter? 

Prior to the release of this paper, analytics firm Niko Partners suggested last year that the playtime limits would have a limited effect and were ultimately temporary. Player numbers in China dropped across various demographics, but Niko suggested that by 2026, those numbers would climb back up again. 

This paper not only validates Niko's theory, it suggests that governmental bodies across may not fully know how to regulate the game industry the way they clearly seem to want to.

As far as why China's policy hasn't yielded many results, the paper speculated that the frequency of public holidays prior to the restrictions may have skewed the numbers. Another potential reason was that the playtime of adults ended up "masking" the playtime for minors. 

Because age information of individual players wasn't given in their data set, it would be difficult to determine if heavy play from adults was hitting simultaneously as decreased play from minors. Future research, they said, must "focus on generating data infrastructure" that allows privacy while providing key demographic information. 

In the end, the paper finds that China's policy (and similar ones on "youth digital behavior") was unable to change already established behaviors of young players. Even so, it thinks the data gathered can be used to study other regulatory game-related efforts around the world. 

More broadly, it could prove as a guideline for "investigating how a broad range of regulatory measures may affect the technology sector." The full paper and other data points (and variables) can be read here.

About the Author(s)

Justin Carter

Contributing Editor, GameDeveloper.com

A Kansas City, MO native, Justin Carter has written for numerous sites including IGN, Polygon, and SyFy Wire. In addition to Game Developer, his writing can be found at io9 over on Gizmodo. Don't ask him about how much gum he's had, because the answer will be more than he's willing to admit.

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