From Renmin Ribao (人民网, People’s Daily Online), Sept. 13, 2021, Complete text:

It is getting dangerously close to “game over” for young players in China as the country is tightening its reins on their allotted time for video games. Recently, the China National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) released a notice on preventing minors from becoming addicted to online games.

If you are under 18 and a fan of video games, you will not be happy to hear this piece of news. Under the new rule, online gaming companies can only offer one hour of services to minors between 8 pm and 9 pm on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, as well as on public holidays.

The rule, dubbed “the world’s strictest limits on video games,” aims to “curb video game addiction among children and effectively protect the physical and mental health of minors,” an official from NPPA said at a press conference on Aug. 30. Once the notice was announced, related topics on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, racked up 700 million views, winning overwhelming applause from Chinese parents who are tired of yelling at their own teenage children to quit playing miserable computer games and do more useful things.

“As a parent, I firmly support this rule. The minors need more guidance and supervision on online gaming as they have poorer self-discipline than the adults,” one netizen commented. “It is a responsible decision for the government to save the children from indulging in virtual games,” another added.

Online gaming addiction: electronic drugs.

The struggle over gaming has been intensifying in recent years due to the soaring penetration rate for the Internet among Chinese minors (the figure stood at nearly 95% as of 2020). The number of underage Internet users in China topped 183 million by 2020, and 62.5% of them are fans of video games, according to the latest report on Internet use among the juvenile Chinese population, jointly issued by the Chinese Communist Youth League Central Committee and the China Internet Network Information Center.

“The popularity of video games among younger people appears to be a lasting risk factor for the minors’ development as they have poor self-control and are more likely to lose themselves in the virtual games,” said Liu Jinming, a professor at the School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University.

Exasperated parents have left no stone unturned to limit the games as they have long been fretting that unfettered screen times would make their children lazy and listless, or worse, unpredictable and violent. “I found my son often would rush through his homework to get to his gaming consoles faster. Sometimes, he left the problems blank without asking for help, and instead delved into videogames,” You Meiying, a housewife with two kids complained. A study conducted by Rutgers University researchers justified her worries. Using interactive technology for entertainment purposes for more than 1 hour on school days will decrease children’s school performance. It leads to lower educational aspirations, a lack of concentration in class, and a greater risk of truancy.

However, the genuine concern about video games is more than affecting teenagers’ academic performance. Immature children can tend to be more violent if they were found to have been immersed in the toxic environment of a gaming community. A report released by the American Psychological Association task force shows that there is “a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.”

“My son became grumpy after he indulged in the video games with high-intensity fighting scenes,” a netizen commented on one of the associated topics. “If we banned him from playing it, he would explode with rage.”

Similar misfortunes have befallen millions of families. According to a report issued in August by the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Center, 90% of parents said their children had significant changes in their temper and personality after becoming addicted to games, even to the point that they had seemingly become another person.

Xi Peizhi, a member of a research institute in Shanghai focusing on juvenile law shares a heart-wrenching story. A 17-years-old boy who had played a shooting game for three consecutive days quarreled with a passer-by after he walked out of an Internet café and proceeded to beat him violently. Afterward, he said that he had mistakenly thought he was still in the game.

“Minors are prone to imitate violence and bloody behavior in games,” Liu said. “Being too obsessed in online gaming would affect teenagers’ physical and mental health, stirring up tension between them and their parents, and even increase the risk of youth crime.”

In 2018, the World Health Organization classified Internet game addiction as a disease, which can “result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning”

“Online gaming addiction gradually becomes the host of societal ills, and it is the time for our country to address this problem head-on,” said Liu.

Anti-addiction system: digital detox.

China is proactive in addressing these concerns. In recent years, China has been crafting its anti-addiction system for video games in an apparent effort to protect young people’s mental and physical health and to ensure that they aren’t distracted from school and family responsibilities.

In 2018, China issued a nine-month moratorium on licensing new games and clamped down on portrayals of violence and other hazardous information in video games. In 2019, China adopted a regulation that restricted citizens under 18 to playing games for no more than 1.5 hours per day on weekdays, three hours during weekends and public holidays, and imposed a curfew between 10 pm and 8 am. The drastic measures did, to some extent, curb excessive online gaming. Data from the Report shows that 65.6% of netizens under the age of 18 thought that the anti-addiction system was effectively preventing them from indulging in video games.

However, the previous rules had loopholes. Even though it required gamers to use their real names and identity numbers to play online, crafty young players were adept at skirting the restrictions. “Young game geeks often used adult’s credentials to log in or play in Internet cafés that turned a blind eye to long gaming sessions,” said Cai Jiaojiao, an employee in the gaming industry. “Some even used virtual private networks (VPNs) to access foreign games.” Also, many parents deemed the previous regulations to be too lax as 90 minutes per day of gaming is too much for school-aged children, calling instead for stricter rules.

Under the adamant demands of parents, China has launched an updated version this year, aiming to block such workarounds. The new rules not only shorten the allotted times for children but also urge online gaming providers to implement stricter real-name registration and logins such that they cannot provide any form of game services to users who fail to register and login using their real personal identification.

On Sept. 8, Chinese authorities summoned leading online game enterprises and platforms for talks, which required them to fully and faithfully impose the time limits on underage gamers and banned them from providing online game account trading services for minors. The authorities also ordered the video game providers to tighten the examination of the content in their games, removing obscene and violent content in a timely manner.

“Online game companies and game streaming platform should profoundly understand the importance and urgency of preventing minors from online game addiction. They should implement relative regulations aimed at boosting youth development,” wrote the notice. “The relative departments would implement tougher policing. Any companies found to be dragging their feet would be punished.”

Online gaming providers are now following suit on enacting protections for youth, with Tencent, China’s gaming giant taking the lead. The company, which has actually been using real-name verification for a couple of years, raised proposals for an industry-wide discussion, including “the feasibility of banning primary school students under the age of 12 from playing games.” In July, Tencent rolled out a facial recognition software dubbed “Midnight Patrol” on over 60 mobile games during the curfew time for online gaming (10pm-8am) to ensure young players cannot use other people’s credentials.

The system uses an algorithm to identify underage players based on the time they play, how long they plan to play and their behaviors in the game. The suspected underage users then have their faces scanned. If the scans don’t match the photo identification documents provided to the company, the user will be booted from the game immediately. A month later, the company prolonged the “Midnight Patrol” to an “all-day” patrol.

The facial recognition software is the latest strategy among the company’s ongoing “Balanced Online Entertainment System” initiative, which also encompasses its “Parental Guardian Platform” and “Healthy Gameplay System” designed to let parents know what their kids are up to and remind users when they’ve played for too long, respectively.

The raft of measures has turned out to be effective. In its latest financial disclosures, the company said that in the second quarter of 2021, players under 16 accounted for just 2.6% of its gross receipts for gaming in the domestic market.

“I think this is the right policy,” said Feng Xingjian, a woman in Beijing whose 15-years-old son is a fan of Tencent’s flagship game “Honor of Kings.” She said that the length of time her son plays video games has dropped sharply after Tencent implemented the measures, which have abided by the government’s rules. “Some teenage kids just don’t listen to their parents’ discipline, and the forceful measures can essentially limit their playing times.”

“The gaming industry needs time to adapt to this strict three-hour gaming rule, but Tencent’s Balanced Online Entertainment System may provide a template for the wider gaming industry in how to enforce it,” said Liu.

(Editors: Wu Chaolan and Liang Jun)