• China placed strict limits on the time young people may spend playing online games.
  • The move is part of a broader effort to enforce social guidelines.
  • But cracking down on video game play is not unique to China.

Things were looking bad for young Chinese gamers by early August.

A state-run newspaper had just equated online gaming with “opium,” likely striking a chord in the psyche of a country targeted by Western powers during the 19th century "Opium Wars" (remnants of that era of “national shame” are carefully preserved for tourists and schoolchildren).

Shares of the country’s biggest game company crumpled in response to the harsh rhetoric, and by last week new rules had been issued that sharply limit the time children may spend on a wildly popular diversion.

Online gaming in the country is now only available to people younger than 18 from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. The decree is supported by an “anti-addiction” registry.

“I think this is the right policy,” one parent told a New York Times reporter. “It amounts to the state taking care of our kids for us.”

The new video game controls are just one element in a broader range of government policies on youth behavior. Other aspects include crackdowns on “effeminate” male images in pop culture, and on entertainers with “incorrect political positions,” according to reports in Western media.

Video game developers are not the only companies affected by the top-down reset. The country’s biggest tech giants are all being pressed to redirect their efforts towards greater “common prosperity.”

While the video game restrictions may carry particular resonance in a country where the number of gamers far outstrips the population of most nations, the concept of cracking down on video game play is not unique to China.

Germany’s “Youth Protection” laws aimed at violent games pushed developers to replace realistic red blood with a green version, for example, and Australia has sought to ban games for including depictions of everything from assault to marijuana use.

Image: World Economic Forum

China’s clampdown is also certainly not the first time that officials have sought to shield young people from unhealthy influences when it comes to games in general – video or otherwise.

Pinball machines, once deemed “insidious nickel stealers” in New York City, were banned there in 1942. Other US cities followed suit, and Oakland’s ban wasn’t officially repealed until 2014.

Reactions in other countries to the Chinese video game restrictions have included at least a grudging sense of envy among some beleaguered parents.

But, it’s not entirely clear that indulging in video games really that bad for young people. At least, in moderation.

Games that include violent and grotesque imagery likely carry the same sort of risk as a film with equivalent content. But some studies have suggested that playing video games can actually improve children’s cognitive abilities.

There may even be some benefit from the heavier game play tied to the pandemic.

A recent survey of parents in the US showed that 64% said their children’s online communication and game play this past summer led to stronger friendship ties. Half said their child’s overall well-being was helped when they used screen media for playing single-player games.

It’s also unclear what impact restricting the time spent playing video games might have, if any, on another increasingly popular video-game-adjacent form of entertainment: watching other people play.

YouTube, for example, has reported that last year watch time from video game live streams on the platform grew to more than 10 billion hours.

Image: World Economic Forum

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Some research to support the idea of cutting down: according to this study of Chinese teens published earlier this year, those using the internet, social media, or video games for entertainment four or more hours daily were four times more likely to skip school. (Science Daily)
  • Sometimes a specific game can be hit with a ban – according to this report, Egypt’s Al-Azhar Center issued a fatwa against the game Fortnite earlier this year because it depicted the destruction of Islam’s most sacred site. (Al Monitor)
  • Turns out WFH hasn’t been so great for the video game industry. Even before the threat of bans, according to this analysis, many developers were experiencing pandemic-related delays. (Harvard Business Review)
  • Gaming isn’t just something children do for fun anymore, according to this piece, which describes ways games have been used to alter behaviour and positively impact financial decision making. (Big Think)
  • “When the world locked down, I chose to walk.” The author of this piece found solace amid pandemic-related restrictions in walking simulator games that take players everywhere from a Shropshire Village to an abandoned island. (Wired)
  • A significant number of gamers identify as LGBTI, according to this piece; where being a member of a marginalized group in the real world can invite bigotry and discrimination, digital spaces offer an avenue of escape and safety. (JSTOR Daily)
  • Designing the perfect bad guy – this academic study explores how the visual attributes of video game antagonists can affect perceptions of character and morality. (Frontiers)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to the Future of Entertainment, China, and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum