China’s Gaming Restrictions Aren’t As Anti-Gaming As You Think

China’s Gaming Restrictions Aren’t As Anti-Gaming As You Think
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Whenever any kind of news about China hits the internet, I brace myself for oversimplifications by English-language writers and commentators. But in a country with roughly 720 million gamers (roughly twice the U.S. population), the context behind the recent gaming restrictions placed on Chinese youth isn’t as straightforward as narratives about sinister, big-government politics might make it seem.

Starting from September 1st, players under 18 years of age are restricted to one hour of gaming a day on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and public holidays. The restrictions imposed on players don’t come from a law; it’s an industry regulation recently passed by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA). As a parallel example: Imagine that you’re an American company that wants to dump radioactive waste into a lake, and the Environmental Protection Agency said that you can’t do that. Regulations are specific, rather than broadly applied to a populace. The NPPA is a government regulatory branch that oversees print, online, and broadcast media more broadly, but has sole purview over digital games.

Under the regulations, gaming companies are tasked with preventing minors from accessing their games during certain times, and to boot players after they run out of their allotted time. Jingtong Zhu, a publishing manager at a Chinese gaming company, told Kotaku that Chinese games have previously been restricted to an hour and a half on weekdays, and three hours on weekends and holidays. So the latest mandate is an extreme tightening of government regulations that have already existed since 2019.

Why do these rules exist? While it might be tempting to generalise the Chinese government as inherently regulatory, it’s important to consider that the gaming landscape in China is very different than in North America and Europe. Daniel Ahmad of Niko Partners told Kotaku that around 92 to 95 per cent of the games made in China are based on a free-to-play model. So while most Kotaku readers might think of first-party titles or self-contained indie games as what “video games” are, most Chinese players will probably think of a free multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game like Honour of Kings or a gacha game like Genshin Impact.

This means that gaming addiction and delinquent spending, two qualities associated with these types of games, are a much more prevalent concern in China compared to in the west. But regulators are also part of why Chinese gaming turned out very differently compared to gaming in other countries. For example, Zhu mentioned that China’s 15-year-old console ban was also motivated by concerns about video game addiction (a ban that arguably led to the popularity of free-to-play games).

China’s lucrative, $US360 ($488) million esports industry poses another complication to a clear-cut anti-gaming narrative. According to Zhu, regional governments like the city of Shanghai are very supportive of both the esports and game development industries. For a company like MiHoYo, which ranked 88th among all Shanghainese companies in terms of income, its tax contribution is an important part of the local economy. At the national level, the Ministry of Education started categorising esports management as an official major in 2016.

So it’s pretty ridiculous to make broad statements about how the Chinese government (what level? which branch? any specific individuals?) is necessarily anti-gaming. Shanghai has even been welcoming to foreign offices such as Ubisoft and Activision. So it’s weird to see a lot of takes that portray China as an anti-gaming country. This is the biggest esports market in the world, in the country with the most gamers.There’s not a single Chinese interest when it comes to gaming, and the country’s president isn’t the one calling all the shots.

Consider also that not all Chinese minors are affected equally. As one might imagine, players’ experiences are heavily influenced by factors such as gender and class. The New York Times states that parents were largely the driving force behind the new gaming restrictions, but it leaves off some important data from the report that it cites.

According to the report from the Beijing Youth Legal Aid and Research Centre, over 90% of minors with gaming addiction problems are boys, and roughly 70% come from blue-collar families. If nearly two-thirds of parents reporting a gaming addiction issue are laborers, then it reframes the narrative of the restrictions as an initiative that is mostly relevant to working families. The report noted that children often receive mobile games when their parents can’t afford professional childcare.

Even after the gaming restrictions went into effect, I don’t think they’ll resolve the factors that caused aggrieved parents to demand stricter regulations to begin with. While I don’t claim that free-to-play games are blameless, the problems that the restrictions are trying to address are partially caused by external socioeconomic factors.

China already has a grey market for PC and console games. Zhu explained to Kotaku that since Steam is an overseas operation, it isn’t held to the same regulatory standards. In fact, Steam had around 30 million Chinese users in 2018. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are another popular way to gain access to video games. But the NPPA’s new regulations mostly target mobile games by design; as Zhu noted most minors are primarily mobile gamers and aren’t heavy Steam users. However, even mobile players aren’t completely out of luck.

“Complying with the new rule isn’t technically difficult because it’s just a matter of writing new [Software Development Kit] codes,” Zhu told Kotaku. “[SDKs are] integrated as part of the login process. What happens is that when new players log in, they are asked to enter their ID number which then verifies their age. Every gamer needs to log in with their real names…[and] every [domestic] game that legally operates in China is required to have that function.”

According to Niko Partners’ Ahmad, parents aren’t barred from giving their unrestricted adult accounts to their children, and there’s a large grey market for adult gaming accounts. If an underage player wanted to, they could circumvent the new restrictions. But not every gamer is necessarily tech savvy, and such a far-reaching regulation may have unforeseen consequences…again.

So where does that leave us? My sources agreed that the severity of the restrictions are unique, even if the methods of enforcing them aren’t. Personally, I’ve admired how Japan has implemented consumer regulations on gacha spending. But NPPA’s new regulations seem too far-reaching. While the economic disruption on the industry is projected to be survivable, the effects on millions of players’ lifestyles are much more difficult to predict. Chinese players aren’t a monolith, and each have their own personal relationship to gaming. Industry doesn’t solely define gaming. The players do, too.

Comments

  • Fanastic article and analysis. Far better than the usual sheeplike ‘China baaaaaaad’ narrative that gets bandied around gaming sites.

    • “China bad”
      “Sheeplike”

      I’m sorry, are you forgetting the entire history of china and its totalitarian communist dictatorship?

      • So… China bad? I mean the article talks about the actual details of where these decisions come from, but your sole argument is about the entire country and it’s history. Literally an unambiguously “china bad”.

        I mean, I would agree that China’s government is bad. But in your other post below you’re doing that thing where conservatives treat any nuanced debate over details as full support. Leaving only the binary of “China bad” and “Praise Mao!” as the only possible positions.

        • China is a modern-day communist dictatorship that operates concentration camps that incarcerate a religious minority. China is bad and anyone who continues to support the Chinese government is equally bad along with those who try to brush it aside.

          • So… you either accept “china bad” as being the absolute maximum nuance depth, or you are completely complicit in totalitarian communism? That was exactly my point.

            My take from the article was that it seemed a bit apologist for these kind of restrictions in China. But also illuminated the system involved and concluded that the new restrictions were a problem. It’s somewhere in the middle, so take it with a grain of salt.

            But I will try to think about it a bit more than “china bad”, sorry.

    • What! She compares China’s gaming restrictions to the US EPA restricting dumping of radioactive waste. How ridiculous a comparison is that especially that China’s disposal of radioactive waste likely to be less restricted than the US.

  • While I was aware of a lot of that I still underneath it all think creating a law that bans or limits addictive activities DOES NOT help people with mental health issues that underpin the addiction.

    Addictive gaming is more often a symptomn, not a disease.

    A lot of cultural change needs to be made to help families with mental health, rather than just blame games and rip them out of their grasp… its harmful.

  • Kotaku running defence for a totalitarian communist dictatorship is not what I thought id see.

    Next in from kotaku “You shouldn’t actually compare the glorious leader to silly cartoon bear, Praise MAO!”

  • It also raises a significant issue around the ever-expanding use of technology as a means of government surveillance and control of the behaviour of a population for the purposes of compliance, an issue that is not limited to China but many would agree that China is definitely championing its widespread deployment.

    As a person in charge of organisational compliance, it also skews the delicate balance between compliance by education or by force. If the perception is that these behaviours are tied only to restrictions and penalties, then the actual reasons behind these laws (however good the intent) becomes lost and there is no underlying cultural change occurring, just people doing what won’t get them fined

    • Won’t, cause it only effects children and only effects chinese run games… “gold farmers” will operate unabated since they target EU, US and Oceanic game servers

  • I mean I work with Uyghurs who were lucky to get out of China before they started their genocidal war on them. Literally these families have no idea if their family members and friends who were left behind are even still alive. And China has them all kept in concentration camps and the reports are of raping, beatings, killings as they try to systematically wipe them off the face of the Earth. And before anyone goes to me – Oh you should see what they did first, yes I’m aware there were some attacks from a very small number of extremists 2 decades ago but if you think that warrants the genocide of an entire culture, then perhaps you were born in the wrong decade.

    So yeah, this disillusion that the CCP is anything but bad is just that. The entire world should be condemning them for this literal repeat of WW2 Holocaust like behaviour, but people are happy to ignore it as long as they get the new iPhone made there cheaply (which is of course an oxymoron).

    • +1
      China is bad, it’s one of the worst shitholes on the planet as far as civil rights are concerned. I find it amazing that Kotaku’s US writers cry and insert links to defunding the USA police, but have no problem with actual police state China devaluing their people into slaves who do nothing but work with no recreation and no respite from the inhumane conditions. Myopic and hypocritical to the extreme.

  • If I know one thing, it’s that China just seems to be consuming money from every country based on US $$$, production of almost every product that people could want is from China. Given that its basically been attempting (in success) to out populate every country in the world since the 80/90’s, it is very much looking like they are going to take over in the next century. And stories like this, that support/explain why the country acts like it does just indicates that there is a problem.

  • What this is really doing is shifting the responsibility away from parents and onto other parties. This is “I can’t regulate little Johnny’s gaming habits as a parent so I want the government or some regulatory body to do it for me.”

  • When your comparison for Chinese gaming regulations is to bring up US regulations for DUMPING RADIOACTIVE WASTE, you forfeit the right to run around telling other people that their takes on any topic are bad ever again.

    The article may as well have just been headlined, “Stop being mean to China!”

    What a brave new editorial direction you’ve got there Kotaku… Fuckin’ wild.

  • The comments arent going the way you thought it would are they Kotaku US?
    Jesus wept. What a dumpster fire of an organisation you are.

  • Talks about oversimplification while making a broad generalisation in opening paragraph. Then continues making generalisations and assumptions through the article.
    This is a weird article when read and re-read. Just because a government is a big and complex does not mean the world owes them a gentle hand wave on their bad behaviour. The writer seems to lack any real understanding of the way the a healthy society or world works. It’s frankly naive.

  • Why was the article headline changed? To make the author seem like less of a boofhead?

    You sought to free yourself from bad takes, only to create a bad take yourself.

  • Journalism at its worst, no surprise coming from Kotaku. It seems to me as though this journalist loves dictatorship.

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