In March 2021 at the meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, President Xi Jinping labelled video game addiction as a concern for psychological health. Several months later new regulations were introduced that forbade under-18s in China from playing video games for more than 3 hours a week, curtailing what was once described as “spiritual opium”. The imposition of video gaming restrictions is part of a wider societal divide in which Chinese authorities are struggling to keep the younger generation aligned with values of national rejuvenation.
Despite pushback the regulation was welcomed in some circles, particularly among parents who’d seen their children spending what they felt was too much time playing video games. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines gaming disorder as a pattern of gaming behaviour characterized by impaired control over gaming, and while the WHO points out that gaming disorder affects “only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities”, some research suggests 17% of Chinese adolescent gamers are affected by it.
Clamping down on gaming isn’t new to China. The government banned video game consoles in the year 2000 (the ban has since been lifted). In 2019, Chinese minors were limited to 90 minutes of gaming on weekdays and banned from playing between 10pm and 8am. However the contribution to China’s economy is hard to ignore. In 2022 China’s gaming market generated revenues of $44 billion, an amount that’ll no doubt force authorities to take a nuanced view of the impact of video games.
But the nuance also occurs at the individual level. Many people have experienced the addictive allure of video games. Perhaps you’ve been there. You can spend hours gaming and when you’re done, you wonder where the time went. Your life revolves around it. Maybe you’d wake up before school and get a quick gaming session in before heading out. During classes, you’d be itching to get back home and turn on the PC. While other people went out on weekends, you’d spend the time engrossed in earning points and building a reputation. You’d even dream about games.
As all-encompassing as gaming was, you didn’t stop. Why? Maybe it’s because it added value to your life in ways people didn’t fully appreciate. Maybe gaming was a temporary escape from real life. The stress of schoolwork and the emotional rollercoaster of being a teenager would get a bit much. Gaming would be the perfect release. Perhaps you weren’t particularly sporty or athletic at school, nor particularly popular. But when you went online you were part of a clan. You were part of a community. For the first time you had a large group of friends even though you’d never met each other in person, and you were finally able to achieve these artificial goals we impose on ourselves at that age. Online, you were the popular kid, and it was great to be greeted by a friendly community whenever you gamed.
For many people gaming and the online community associated with it will be a home away from home. A place where one can fit in and escape the harshness of reality. Beyond a simple source of addiction, gaming provides a variety of social and psychological benefits.
And as a simple rule of thumb, if people want to game, they’ll find a way. Registering for an account on Tencent requires a Resident Identity Card. To overcome gaming restrictions, kids have used their parents’ accounts. Others have used services that register an account for them as an adult. Or they just borrow the phone of other adults they know, the point being that if there’s a will to game, there’ll most likely be a way to sidestep the restrictions.
But let’s take a step back into the annals of China’s past. During the Ming Dynasty, China had the most advanced ship building industry in the world. No other country or region could compare to the vast ocean-going vessels of China in the 1400s. Admiral Zheng He, a famous Chinese explorer, led voyages of over 300 ships and a crew of up to 28,000, sailing to far off places such as Africa, India and Arabia. But then it all stopped.
New regulations were introduced that curtailed the industry, likely because of a rising threat from the land-based Mongols and possibly due to a fear that the existing elite would lose their power to a rapidly rising merchant class. The once-spectacular voyages were stopped. Ships were burned or abandoned, and China lost its position as global naval power.
How different would the world be today if China hadn’t self sabotaged its shipping industry? At the same time that China was dismantling its fleet, voyages were being made from Europe to discover the ‘New World’. The trajectory of history would be altered forever.
So what has this got to do with gaming in China? Let’s make another quick tangent to 2008 when China hosted the Beijing Summer Olympics. It was a moment to show that China had entered the world stage as a global superpower. The opening and closing ceremonies were nothing short of grandiose. China also achieved the highest number of gold medals, an achievement traditionally held by the United States. The Olympics was China’s way of showing that it had arrived.
Since then, the sporting world has evolved in such a way that eSports has gained considerable respect as a competitive endeavour. The global eSports market is expected to be worth $6.75 billion by 2030, and China will want to be a big player; just as it has been in the Olympics every four years. But with more and more restrictions being imposed on gamers, will China be sabotaging itself just as it did with its shipping industry in the 1400s? Like many other sports, the skills to be a world-class gamer are developed through hours of practice. Would authorities curtail an aspiring gymnast’s practice time to 3 hours a week?
It appears there are two competing forces in China. One that wants to minimize the harmful effects of gaming addiction and one that will want to compete on the eSports world stage. In 2018 the eastern city of Hangzhou opened an eSports town costing $289 million. The 19th Asian Games held in the same city also introduced eSports for the first time as a medal sport at an Asian Games. As it happens, China won the first gold eSports medal in Asian Games history, beating Malaysia in Arena of Valor.
Either the restrictions on gaming will continue and China’s position as a gaming powerhouse will decline, changing its eSports trajectory in a similar way to its shipping industry during the Ming Dynasty. Or China will recognize the role of eSports in the 21st century as a means of demonstrating international prowess. The latter option will require an easing of restrictions, which appears to be the way the authorities are heading, particularly as they’re claiming children’s addiction to gaming has been resolved. With hundreds of millions of people playing video games in China, of which half the population play mobile games, China has a massive talent pool from which to draw on to become an eSports powerhouse.