It’s been said that to really understand China you need to understand the Opium Wars. China lost face and power as the British and other foreigners sought unfettered access to its trade goods.
Somehow it’s fitting that this week Chinese party officials unveiled tough new limits on the amount of time its young people can spend playing online games. A state-owned media outlet published a piece that called video games “opium for the mind.“ (The statement caused stock prices of Chinese gaming companies like Tencent to plummet and the comment was removed shortly after it was released.) Elsewhere, the state-run Xinhua News Agency described the new online gaming rules as an effort to “protect the physical and mental health of minors”.
The ban may seem draconian, but honestly it’s the kind of intervention even many American parents secretly dream about. It applies to online gaming only (gaming consoles and playing alone are harder to regulate). Under the new regulation, online video game play for people under 18 is limited to three evening hours only on weekends and public holidays. No gaming is allowed during the school week. Online gaming companies must connect to an “antiaddiction” system operated by the government that will require users to register using their real names.
Adam Naijberg, Head of Communications for Tencent Games, offered me this somewhat generic, but important statement indicating that the company will help enforce the national mandate: “Since 2017, Tencent has explored and applied various new technologies and functions for the protection of minors. That will continue, as Tencent strictly abides by and actively implements the latest requirements from Chinese authorities.” Najerg also says that kids make up a very small portion of its overall audience. “During the second quarter of 2021, players aged under 16 accounted for 2.6% of our China game grossing receipts. Among which, players aged under 12 accounted for 0.3%,” he told me over a messaging thread.
There’s no doubt China has been aggressive and masterful at inserting itself into the private lives and private enterprises of its country. Many say this is a continuation of President Xi Jinping’s move to reassert control over the economy. Others say it is a continuation of earlier moves this month to curb Chinese youth’s growing preoccupation with fandom. I spoke to a young colleague I’ve worked with in China, who confirmed that “it’s not only gaming, but the whole tech industry in China that is experiencing unfavorable policies at the moment.” She added that EdTech and gaming are the most outstanding examples right now, because Chinese are both strident and risk-averse in their approach to education.
Politics aside, this is a fascinating setup for an experiment on the detrimental or beneficial effects of video gaming with worldwide implications. There’s plenty of fuel to feed either side of the debate about how bad they are, from academicians, social scientists, parents, and educators. Scholars, says Chris Ferguson in this New York Daily News piece on the Chinese ban, are split on whether video game addiction “is real or just a moral panic.“ Pew Research suggests that American parents are equally concerned about their kids’ screen time and online gaming, with two-thirds of them saying screens make child-rearing more difficult.
Scientists have extensively examined the neuropsychological effects of playing games. Dopamine and serotonin give players a sort of high (and craving) as they play, similar to other thrilling or addicting behaviors. The good news is that your brain grows healthier and you feel good while it’s stimulated and engaged. The bad news is that you develop cravings for more of something that makes you feel that good. Research into the adolescent brain indicates that their neurotransmital systems are not fully developed yet, so their reactions to dopamine may be intensified (hence adolescent risk-taking behaviors). Here’s a good book on the subject.
Underlying the debate about kids screen time is the equally important discussion of what skills students will need to be prepared for today’s online, global and digital-first economy. In its Portrait of a Graduate (pictured above), the Battelle for Kids, a not-for-profit, forward-thinking educational reform group talks about the skills required for a 21st-century job market. Many of those skills — collaboration, critical thinking outside the box, problem-solving are precisely the kinds of skills that online video games foster.
Susanna Pollack, President of Games For Change, a well respected organization for empowering gaming creators, says “China’s decision to restrict video game play for kids under 18 is at odds with decades worth of research around video games, youth development, and learning, as well as recent trends in educational gaming. It’s no surprise that during the COVID-19 crisis, teachers have increasingly been using popular games like Roblox and Minecraft to support the transition to remote learning and teach important skills and concepts. Video games, regardless of whether or not they are purpose-built for the classroom, offer online spaces where students can learn skills that are critical for the 21st century workforce — like collaboration, communication, critical-thinking, and problem-solving.”
Finally, there’s the issue of intrinsic vs. extrinsic control of the use of video games. At what age should a student begin to foster their own internal clock about overuse of online? Will Chinese regulatory efforts be internalized by kids as they enter adulthood, or will they turn 18 and get drunk on video games once they’re freed from regulation?
Pollack report that “less than 1 percent of video game players exhibit characteristics of addiction, and none of these players experienced any negative outcomes related to addiction, according to a large-scale study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. By imposing harsh limits to curb video game addiction she says, “China is responding to a problem that may not even exist — and keeping young people away from powerful tools that can set them up for success in the workforce of the future.”
Let the experiment begin.
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