Explaining China’s games ban

Opinion: China's tough clampdown on children's online game playing could mean less bullying, improved eyesight and a reduction of addictive behaviours, writes Allan Fowler.

China's clampdown on children playing online games might seem excessive, but there could be beneficial side effects to the regulations. Photo: iStock

The news that China is banning children from playing online games has attracted much interest in the western media. CNN correctly reported the ban is on playing games during the week. However, some media have distorted the news considerably, with a headline in the Washington Post saying the ban is for all video games. The actual story is a bit more nuanced.

Gaming consoles like the Sony PlayStation or Microsoft Xbox have been banned in China since 2000 (although this did not mean there wasn't a thriving black market for the hardware or the games). As a result, most gamers in China play games on personal computers and, more recently, mobile phones, with a lot of children playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), a video game that combines aspects of a role-playing video game and a massively multiplayer online game.

Through gameplay data, it is possible to see thousands of school children playing video games late at night and, in many cases, into the early morning. A lot of the gameplay is on weekends, but there is a very high percentage of kids playing online games on weeknights. The challenge for many kids is that these games are very compelling (some might say addictive). The games provide incentives to keep the player playing for as long as possible. A lot of the games involve group play, which puts peer pressure on the kids to continue to be involved in the mission (or quest).

The Chinese government is concerned about the addictive elements of online games and has decided to increase the restrictions on the amount of time children spend playing online games. In 2019 it introduced a regulation to limit the number of times children can play games. However, many parents and educators did not feel that this went far enough. So, from September 1, 2021, children were restricted from playing online games during the week. On Friday night, the weekend, and public holidays, children are now limited to playing online games for a total of three hours.

Why are Chinese officials so concerned about the amount of time children play online games? There are two main concerns. The first is what they refer to as the addictive elements of games. The government is quoted as comparing games to opium. While many might argue games are not addictive, the concerns are certainly compelling.

For children who have difficulty with self-regulation, it is hard to stop playing these games. Thus the limit on the amount of time children can play games and the days they can play them. The government has asked online gaming platforms like Tencent to ensure all players register their name and provide their identification cards. This way, the companies can stop minors from playing online games during the week and monitor and limit online gameplay at the weekend (or public holidays).

The second concern is about the impact on myopia (nearsightedness). Although there are mixed opinions on the correlation between staring at a computer screen for too many hours and myopia, the American Optometric Association indicates that it does strain the eyes, which can’t be a good thing.

Some pundits might argue children will find a way around the regulation, which is possible. However, online gaming platforms and many mobile gaming companies can use facial recognition systems to validate that the user is who they say they are, which will reduce the number of people trying to cheat the system. For most children (and their parents), this will provide an effective tool for restricting access and setting limits to the number of online games being played.

One of the side effects of the regulations around user registration is that they might reduce online bullying. There has been much concern about game players abusing others through in-game text or verbal chat systems. We have observed a significant reduction in bullying when the player's identity is known.

Although they might appear a little excessive, these regulations could cut children's online game time - and there is good reason to believe that will, in the longer run, be good for both the children and their parents.

Dr Allan Fowler is from the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Explaining China’s games ban 13 September 2021.

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