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 generalize 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 percent 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 Honor 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, $360 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 categorizing 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 Center, 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 gray 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 gray 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.