Regulators in China are taking their disapproval of youth gaming to the next level with sweeping new restrictions that limit minors to a handful of state-approved online gaming hours a week.
According to Bloomberg, authorities have ordered gaming platforms such as industry giant Tencent and Netease to restrict gaming for minor users to between 8:00 p.m. on Fridays, weekends, and holidays, a dramatic increase from prior restrictions that limited accounts belonging to minors (those under 18) to 1.5 hours a day. News of the restrictions comes via Chinese state-owned media organ Xinhua, which cited the government’s National Press and Publication Administration.
The new rules will require all gaming platforms to be linked to a state-operated “anti-addiction” system and require that all users be verified with a real-life identity. Regulators also said they will step up compliance checks to ensure companies enforce the new rules.
As Ars Technica reported, it’s widely understood that the restrictions will apply to all games and all devices. However, the measures appear to predominantly target online ones and it’s not clear how regulators could restrict offline gaming even if they intend to. Reuters wrote that many users on Chinese social networking site Weibo were sceptical that young gamers couldn’t easily evade the new rules by such means as the use of parental accounts not subject to the same restrictions.
Previously, Chinese state media announced that restrictions on video game playing by minors would be enforced via requirements that platforms implement face recognition systems. Theoretically, such a system could be required for all game platforms in the future, providing a way to enforce age requirements in offline games.
Tencent quickly moved to roll out a “Midnight Patrol” system Daniel Ahmad, an analyst at occasional Tencent partner Niko Partners, told the Verge. The system worked by identifying gamers who remained active after midnight and prompted those who remained online for long amounts of time or spent lots of money to submit a picture of their face to verify they were actually 18 or older.
The NPPA statement in Xinhua characterised the new restrictions as “protecting the physical and mental health of minors… and relates to the cultivation of the younger generation in the era of national rejuvenation.”
“This ruling is the strictest one to date and will essentially wipe out most spending from minors, which we note was already extremely low,” Ahmad told Bloomberg. Netease stock slid by over 9% in pre-market trading in New York, Bloomberg wrote, while UOB Kay Hian (Hong Kong) Ltd executive director Steven Leung told the news agency that three hours is “too tight” and will “have a negative impact on Tencent too.”
“I thought regulatory measures would take a break gradually, but it’s not stopping at all,” Leung added. “It will hurt the nascent tech rebound for sure.”
“Since 2017, Tencent has explored and applied various new technologies and functions for the protection of minors,” Tencent told Bloomberg in a statement. “That will continue, as Tencent strictly abides by and actively implements the latest requirements from Chinese authorities.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, while vast numbers of young people play online games in China, gaming companies may easily be able to weather the storm because those users comprise a small percentage of overall revenue. Tencent told the paper just 2.6% of its gross receipts in China came from players under the age of 16 from April to June, though the paper noted it was the company’s slowest quarter for growth since 2019.
This year, regulators in China have continuously cracked down on the country’s tech sector, seemingly both in response to the same sort of antitrust, monopoly, and competition concerns that have been behind a backlash to tech firms in the U.S. and because their rapid growth creates space for dissent or other activities the Communist Party of China deems socially harmful.
Authorities have particularly singled out video games, with Reuters citing one state outlet as calling them “spiritual opium” and top officials regularly railing against a perceived epidemic of video game addiction. At least one addiction centre in Beijing has used a boot camp-style model to treat internet addiction, while Chinese authorities vowed in 2017 to regulate others that sometimes subjected children to electric shocks. Tencent has reportedly considered banning children under 12 from gaming entirely. Steam, the largest game distribution service in the world, continues to be accessible from China via VPN but recently launched a Chinese version of the service with a heavily limited selection of games and restricted social networking features.
Video games aren’t the only target. Authorities have investigated local officials on suspicion of graft to aid companies like Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and others, blocked a merger between Tencent and competitor Douya, and ordered tech firms to limit the use of algorithms in their products in favour of human curation.