‘Every day is doomsday’: New limits give Chinese e-gamers whiplash

China is uniquely equipped to control how children spend time online. A real-name registration system for phone numbers has effectively ended internet anonymity.

Written by Paul Mozur and Elsie Chen

China’s video game industry is booming. But it sure does not feel that way to Stone Shi, a game designer in China.

Shi, 27, got his first job in 2018, when Beijing temporarily suspended approval of new games. The next year, the government placed new limits on minors’ playing time. A few weeks ago, the rules got stricter still. People younger than 18 can now play just three hours a week, during prescribed times on weekends.

“We never hear any good news about the gaming industry,” Shi said. “We have this joke: ‘Each time this happens, people say it’s doomsday for the video game industry,’ so we say, ‘Every day is doomsday.’”

That is a bit of an exaggeration. Shi remains employed, and hundreds of millions of Chinese continue to play games each day. Minors still find ways around government blocks. Chinese tech companies, like Tencent, are cornerstones of the global gaming industry. The country has also been quick to embrace competitive gaming, building esports stadiums and enabling college students to major in the topic.

Yet China’s relationship with games is decidedly complex. A major source of entertainment in the country, games offer a social outlet and an easily accessible hobby in a country where booming economic growth has disrupted social networks and driven long work hours. The multiplayer mobile game “Honor of Kings,” for example, has more than 100 million players a day.

For years, though, officials — and many parents — have worried about the potential downsides, like addiction and distraction. As a more paternalistic government under Chinese leader Xi Jinping has turned to direct interventions to mold how people live and what they do for fun, gaining control over video games has been high on the priority list. In addition to other pursuits, like celebrity fan clubs, Xi’s government has increasingly deemed games a superfluous distraction at best — and at worst, a societal ill that threatens the cultural and moral guidance of the Chinese Communist Party.

On social media, gamers fumed about the latest rules. Some pointed out that the age of sexual consent, at 14, was now four years younger than the age at which people can game without limit. Even though minors represent a small portion of Chinese video gaming revenue, shares in game companies plummeted on concerns about the long-term impact on gaming culture.

Shi said despite the anger, gamers and the industry are growing used to the array of government demands. For most adults, the new bans have little impact. For companies, it is simply one more obstacle to entering a lucrative industry.

Many in China’s gaming industry agree that games have some downsides. The most popular games in the country are made for smartphones and are free to play, meaning the businesses making them live and die based on how well they draw users in and get them to pay for extras. The game makers have become experts at hooking players.

But top-down attempts to wean children off games — what state media has called “poison” and “spiritual pollution” — have sometimes been worse than the problem itself. Boot camps fond of military discipline have proliferated. So have Chinese media accounts of abuses, like beatings, electroconvulsive therapy and solitary confinement.

Even the country’s past ban on consoles like the PlayStation made things worse, Shi said. That ban helped propel the popularity of free-to-play mobile games. Studios selling games for consoles are motivated to make high-quality games, like blockbuster movies. Not so, he said, with free-to-play games, which are motivated to maximize what they can get out of players.

For Shi, the government’s new limits are similar to the ones his mother imposed on him growing up. During weekdays, his PlayStation 2 stayed locked away in a cabinet. Each disc he bought was scrutinized. Plenty of them were deemed inappropriate.

When he got to college, he entered a period that he called “payback,” trying to make up for the years when he had strict limits. Even now, he sometimes indulges his gaming habits or spends more than he should. What is important to understand, he said, is that for a generation that grew up largely without siblings, many with parents who worked late, video games offered a portal to a social world beyond the doldrums of school pressures.

“After school, I would finish supper alone, and it sounds pathetic, but what made it less pathetic was, I had my gaming friends,” he said. He recalled that when his parents kept him from playing games, he would go online and watch others game.

“Banning people from doing something doesn’t mean people will do what you want them to do,” he said.

China is uniquely equipped to control how children spend time online. A real-name registration system for phone numbers has effectively ended internet anonymity. To register for just about anything on China’s internet, for instance, social media or gaming, you need a phone number. If a child’s identity is linked to their cellphone plan, it is simple for companies to identify them as minors.

Yet workarounds persist. When officials began limiting minors’ playing time in 2019, children found ways to get access to cellular numbers linked to adults. Some would buy, others would rent. Many just borrowed or took their parents’ or grandparents’ phones. In response, Tencent has required facial recognition to confirm the identity of players of its most popular games.

When Chinese internet users this month pointed to an account they said was probably being used by minors — because it belonged to a 60-year-old who was masterly in one late-night session on “Honor of Kings” — the company released a statement that the account had passed 17 facial recognition scans since March.

Many gamers and designers have wondered what will happen to the popular competitive gaming industry. Those in esports said the rules would probably hurt recruitment and talent development. The rules may even foreclose careers, said Ma Xue, a 30-year-old esports player and streamer.

“A talented 15-year-old player will have to wait a few years to participate. The esports world can change massively in two years,” she said. “Esports is a cruel world.”

Hou Xu, founder of the Yizhimeng esports training center, said it may take a while for the effect of the new rules to be felt since there is already a pipeline of gamers. A 20-year veteran of the industry, Hou said the ban was “too one-size-fits-all,” though it was unlikely to change training, as schools get parents’ permissions and accounts to make sure athletes younger than 18 can play enough.

Through his school, Hou said he mostly tries to show video-game-obsessed children, and often their parents, how difficult it is to make it in competitive gaming. Only one in his latest class of 60 got trials at a pro club. He failed to get a spot.

Instead of focusing his students on improbable careers as gaming stars, he tries to work with them on deeper issues. “Often, children’s spiritual needs aren’t met. It is easy in the virtual world to get a sense of accomplishment, identification and initiative, but they may not have that in study or in life,” he said.

Shi, the game designer, said he had already noticed children moving to other game-like pastimes. After the ban, he ran into a large number of children at a store examining and painting figurines for the strategy board game Warhammer.

“If I have kids and they have a problem with video games, I would explore something we can do together, like Warhammer, chess, Go or sports. They’re all very good substitutions for video games,” he said.

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