“Every day is apocalyptic”: new limits give a boost to Chinese e-gamers

China’s video game industry is booming. But that’s certainly not how Stone Shi, a game designer in China, feels.

Shi, 27, got his first job in 2018, when Beijing temporarily suspended approval of new games. The following year, the government imposed new limits on the playing time of minors. A few weeks ago, the rules got even tougher. Under-18s can now only play three hours a week, during the prescribed hours on weekends.

“We never hear good news about the gaming industry,” Shi said. “We have this joke, ‘Every time that happens, people say it’s the end of the world for the video game industry,’ so we say, ‘Every day is the end of the world. “

It’s a bit of a stretch. Shi remains employed and hundreds of millions of Chinese people continue to play games every day. Miners are still finding ways to get around government blockages. Chinese technology companies, like Tencent, are the cornerstones of the global gaming industry. The country has also quickly embraced competitive games, built esports stadiums and allowed students to specialize in the subject.

Yet China’s relationship with games is decidedly complex. A major source of entertainment in the country, games provide an easily accessible social outlet and pastime in a country where booming economic growth has disrupted social media and resulted in long working hours. The multiplayer mobile game “Honor of Kings”, for example, has more than 100 million players per day.

For years, however, officials – and many parents – have worried about potential drawbacks, like addiction and distraction. As a more paternalistic government led by Chinese leader Xi Jinping has turned to direct interventions to shape the way people live and what they do for fun, taking control of video games has been a problem. priority. In addition to other activities, such as celebrity fan clubs, Xi’s government increasingly views the games as an unnecessary distraction at best – and at worst, a social evil that threatens the Party’s cultural and moral orientation. Chinese Communist.

On social networks, players were ranting about the latest rules. Some have pointed out that the age of sexual consent, at 14, is now four years younger than the age at which people can play without limits. Even though minors make up a small portion of Chinese video game revenue, shares of game companies have fallen amid concerns about the long-term impact on gaming culture.

Shi said that despite the anger, gamers and the industry were increasingly getting used to the range of government demands. For most adults, the new bans have little impact. For businesses, it is just another barrier to entering a lucrative industry.

Many players in China’s gaming industry agree that games have drawbacks. The country’s most popular games are designed for smartphones and are free, which means companies make them live and die depending on how they attract users and charge them for extras. Game makers have become experts at hooking gamers.

But top-down attempts to wean children from games – what state media have called “poison” and “spiritual pollution” – have at times been worse than the problem itself. Bootcamps fond of military discipline have multiplied. The same is true of Chinese media accounts of abuses, such as beatings, electroshock therapy, and solitary confinement.

Even the country’s past ban on consoles like the PlayStation made matters worse, Shi said. This ban has helped propel the popularity of free mobile games. Studios selling console games are motivated to create high-quality games, like blockbuster movies. This is not the case, he said, with the free games, which are motivated to maximize what they can get out of the players.

For Shi, the government’s new limits are similar to those his mother placed on him growing up. During the week, his PlayStation 2 remained locked in a cupboard. Every record he bought was scrutinized. Many of them were deemed inappropriate.

When he got to college, he entered a period he called “recovery,” trying to make up for the years when he had hard limits. Even now, he sometimes indulges in his gambling habits or spends more than he should. What’s important to understand, he said, is that for a generation that grew up largely without siblings, many with parents who worked late, video games offered a portal to a social world beyond the stagnation of academic pressures.

“After school I would finish supper on my own, and it sounds pathetic, but what made it less pathetic was that I had my play friends,” he said. He recalls that when his parents prevented him from playing games, he would go online and watch other people play.

“Banning people from doing something doesn’t mean people will do what you want them to do,” he said.

China is uniquely equipped to control how children spend time online. A system of registering real names for phone numbers has effectively put an end to anonymity on the Internet. To register for just about anything on the internet in China, for example, social media or games, you need a phone number. If the identity of a child is linked to their mobile plan, it is easy for companies to identify them as a minor.

Yet workarounds persist. When authorities started limiting play time for minors in 2019, children found ways to access cell phone numbers linked to adults. Some would buy, others would rent. Many simply borrowed or took the phones of their parents or grandparents. In response, Tencent demanded facial recognition to confirm the identity of players in its most popular games.

When Chinese netizens this month flagged an account they believed was probably used by minors – because it belonged to a 60-year-old man who was masterful in a nighttime session on “Honor of Kings” – the company released a statement that the account had passed 17 facial recognition scans since March.

Many gamers and designers have wondered what will become of the popular competitive gaming industry. Those in esports said the rules would likely hurt recruiting and talent development. The rules can even ban careers, said Ma Xue, a 30-year-old esports player and streamer.

“A talented 15-year-old will have to wait a few years to participate. The world of esports can change massively in two years, ”she said. “Esports is a cruel world.”

Hou Xu, founder of the Yizhimeng Esports Training Center, said the effect of the new rules may take some time, as there is already a pipeline of players. Industry veteran for 20 years, Hou said the ban was “too uniform” even though it was unlikely to change drive as schools obtain permissions and accounts from parents to ensure that athletes under the age of 18 can play. quite.

Through his school, Hou said he mostly tries to show kids obsessed with video games, and often their parents, how difficult it is to be successful in competitive games. Only one of his last class of 60 got tryouts in a professional club. He failed to secure a place.

Instead of focusing his students on unlikely careers as stars of the game, he tries to work with them on deeper issues. “Often the spiritual needs of children are not met. It’s easy in the virtual world to have a sense of accomplishment, identification and initiative, but they might not have that in school or in life, ”he said.

Shi, the game’s designer, said he has already noticed that children are turning to other playful hobbies. After the ban, he encountered a large number of children in a store examining and painting miniatures for the strategy game Warhammer.

“If I have kids and they have a problem with video games, I would explore something we can do together, like Warhammer, chess, Go, or sports. They are all very good substitutes for video games, ”he said.

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