China and the “spiritual opium” of video games

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Chinese youngsters will be banned from playing video games outside an allotted time between 8pm to 9pm on Fridays, weekends and public holidays, under a new draconian rule recently revealed by the state-run press agency Xinhua. Those under the age of 18 will be limited to three hours of play per week – down from the previous maximum playtime of 90 minutes per day.

The Chinese Government is continuing to pressurise gaming companies to clamp down on excessive gaming amongst young people, who have managed to circumvent restrictions and identification rules already in place. These constraints come only a month after Tencent, the biggest video games creator in the world, introduced its own restrictions on minors’ playing time.

China hopes to combat video game addiction, with state media labelling online games as “spiritual opium”, a not-so-subtle reference to the 19th century Opium Wars between China and Great Britain (and later France).

The National Press and Publication Administration has also indicated that these new rules are being imposed to protect the “physical and mental health” of the country’s youngsters, and follows years of increasingly strict rules regarding the use of video games – it was only in 2015 that the country lifted its ban on video games consoles first imposed in 2000.

This new policy coincides with an array of attempts to bring the Chinese Communist Party into even greater social and cultural control

The justifications for this seem obvious – it is estimated that around 110 million Chinese youngsters play video games, and addiction has been a major concern across the world for years, although it was only in 2018 that the World Health Organisation controversially declared gaming disorder as a mental health condition.

Despite this, studies on the subject are often mixed. There can be real downsides to excessive gaming, including potential mental health concerns. Real addiction, however, is incredibly rare, according to a study by the American Psychiatric Association.

Many investigations also suggest that there are significant benefits to playing video games. For instance, a recent study by the University of Oxford found that there is a positive correlation between video gameplay and wellbeing. The study also suggests that regulating games could “withhold those benefits from players”.

Moreover, this new policy coincides with an array of attempts to bring the Chinese Communist Party into even greater social and cultural control – be it through ‘Xi Jingping Thought’ textbooks, the prohibition of private, for-profit tutoring, or the ban on ‘effeminate men’ on television (part of a broader attempt to rein in China’s ‘unhealthy’ celebrity culture).

These new policies, including restrictions on gaming, shed light on Xi Jingping’s authoritarian attempts to place the CCP at the centre of cultural and family life, and with his removal of the two-term limit on the presidency in 2018, this pattern does not look like it will be changing any time soon.

China’s drastic moves against technology companies continue, as does its ever-expanding reach into the nation’s cultural conscience

Furthermore, the move follows China’s recent regulatory crackdown on technology companies. As the Financial Times reported, the announcement shot down the market value of Tencent and NetEase, though shares quickly rebounded and both companies have suggested they will be largely unaffected by the restrictions.

Indeed, Tencent confirmed only recently that players below 16 provide for only 2.6% of its gaming revenue. Short-term financial impacts, therefore, appear to be limited, though some are voicing concerns over long-term economic and cultural effects, as the country’s youth become less invested in a growing global video games industry, which will, in turn, affect future involvement in gaming.

Despite all of this, the move has garnered some domestic support, particularly from the parents and counsellors of children who have become seriously addicted to gaming. Meanwhile, companies like Tencent have also publicly welcomed the incoming regulation. The restriction is severe, and in stark contrast to the position of the South Korean Government, which plans to scrap a controversial gaming curfew that bans those under 16 from online PC games between midnight and 6am.

China’s drastic moves against technology companies continue, as does its ever-expanding reach into the nation’s cultural conscience. China today arguably presents the biggest and most complex geopolitical dilemma of the last decades – this paternalistic restriction is only a symptom of this.

Image: Andrew Bell via Flickr

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