China bans kids from computer games
The computer games industry has boomed in recent decades. Worth nearly $200 billion annually, it eclipses Hollywood and is growing at nearly 10% per year. But that might be about to change in China, because under 18s there are now forbidden from online games from Monday to Thursday, and can spend just one hour on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays playing. The ban, say the Chinese authorities, is designed to “protect the physical and mental health of children”. Chris Berrow, who presents our Naked Gaming podcast, reports...
Chris - It's been a difficult week for gamers. China's video game regulator has announced harsh restrictions that limit how long you can play for. Now, if you're under the age of 18, you can only play for an hour on Fridays, weekends, and a few select holidays between eight and nine o'clock in the evening. The regulator also instructed gaming companies to actively prevent children from playing outside these times after fears that they've been cheating the system by using adult IDs. It's not the first time the authorities have targeted gamers in China. Some restrictions were brought in early this year, but these are the most severe yet. Recently they branded online games as spiritual opium, specifically mentioning a game Honor of Kings published by Tencent. Josh Ye is a gamer who writes for the South China Morning Post. He told me that these new restrictions weren't a surprise
Josh - From a gamer's perspective, because of the tightening of the entire sort of public debate arena, they know the target is squarely at kids. Gamers do feel stigmatised and demonised in many ways. So for teenagers, if you're talking about a 15 year old, 16 year old, they are frustrated for sure. But at the same time that, you know, the general sort of belief of society is that they put a lot of pressure on kids to study and shouldn't be playing as much games.
Chris - So what are some of the problem games in the eyes of the authorities?
Josh - Tencent's Honor of Kings is the one that got the sort of most attention. So like that game was the one that was framed as, you know, 'spiritual opium' because it's the world's most popular game, even though unknown to most Western gamers. You know, it was the first game to average 100 million daily active users. It's readily accessible from a mobile device, and just, you know, it became a sort of a social gathering activity among kids. Last time I checked it made $9.6 billion since its launch in 2015. So that's an absurd amount of money that it made. Gaming in China has always been a bit of a cat and mouse game between the government and the gamers, right? So like gamers know that this is probably not something that the government encourages, but then the government sees like the economic benefits as well as they are a great tool for China to really export their culture and be a medium to tell good China stories.
Chris - The president of Tencent, Martin Lau, said in a statement
Martin - The government does recognise the importance on the economic side and the social side of the internet industry, and also the contribution of the industry to global competitiveness on games. I think the key issue at this point in time is still the amount of time and the amount of money that the minors spend on games. And this is an area that we are very focused on. If that can be achieved, I think that most of the criticism on the gaming industry will be resolved.
Chris - So is there any evidence that gaming is addictive? Professor Andy Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute has been researching this question for many years
Andy - From a scientific perspective there's zero support for the idea that either restricting video gameplay to certain days of the week or to a certain amount, a magic number, would yield a positive effect on mental health, on psychological well being, or on the kind of relationships between young people and their parents. And we find in other parts of the world where measures like this have been enacted, such as in South Korea where they try to limit online video game play to maximise study time and maximise sleep, we found after an eight year experiment there is pretty conclusive evidence that the intervention was a failure. It's a bold move, I'm sure there are some parents who are interested and whose ears perked up. But it's certainly not a move that's supported in any way by the science.
Chris - Some parents will say though that kids are simply playing too much
Andy - Does something kind of magical happen to young people when they turn 18? Do they become, you know, able to resist the temptation of the digital world because you know, a clock strikes midnight? And the answer to that is obviously no. And one thing that could have happened is you've missed years of practice balancing video games or other online activities with your studies. And then you show up to university at 18, 19, and all of a sudden, you know, you're out on your own and you can play video games whenever you want for the first time ever. And games companies did research in, you know, ways of making games more immersive and attractive the whole time. So it hits you like a tidal wave. It's a bit like not letting someone practice riding a bicycle, and then when they're 18, just kind of handing them a U lock and saying, good luck.
Chris - The Chinese government hopes this move will create positive energy among young people and educate them with 'correct values', but with little scientific evidence to support the ban, whether it will work remains to be seen