Regulating gaming in China

October 11th, 2021

China limited under-18 years to playing online games from 8pm to 9pm on weekends. Not surprisingly, this triggered a lot of conversations with my Chinese parents: Sure, it’s a little extreme, but might it also be good for China?

It’s easy to see why. Gaming conjures up images of fat little boys with thick glassses shooting up strangers at 2am. Particular for helicopter parents, it can be the first, frightening glimpse of addiction. But for me, games were thrilling. In my tightly controlled life, games offered up not only a measure of freedom, but a cultural and social connection with my peers. I was so different from everyone around me, but in the game, we shared a world.

Games give you freedom of expression and in doing so, imagination. Games are inherently interactive. That’s what separates them from movies. You can make choices in games, whether it be what crops to plant or what gun to shoot. You’re given a digital playground, you make choices, and see what follows. In fact, the people who are best at games understand this. You have moments where you can “see through the Matrix” and instead of being immersed in the game, you see all its levers and gears and because of this, you can play so much better. Games are systems of rules and challenge you to learn and bend those rules to your advantage. The real world is increasingly saddled with regulation, process and complexity. Games give you a degree of freedom to explore and express that is almost impossible (or just really expensive) to find in the physical world.

On the other hand, gaming addiction is real. You can be addicted to gambling, Facebook, porn, games, even work. Most governments regulate entertainment that’s considered too addicting and for good reason. Addiction lays bare and can even exacerbate some of our worst inclinations. But should we outright ban tobacco products? Alcohol? Sugary drinks? Should everyone be forced to be vegan and do government-approved exercises for 30 minutes a day? What is the line between entertainment and addiction? Passion and obsession?

It’s health. The question of regulating gaming is a question of how much government should define and control mental health. We’ve chosen to regulate tobacco, gambling, sex, and alcohol. There’s no reason we shouldn’t regulate gaming. But the Chinese’s government approach is too blunt. It misunderstands what behaviors truly are detrimental and what are the new norm.

I do understand why you’d want to limit time in-game. Three hours a week seems…crazy but would we have felt that way if it was 30 hours instead? The problem is that more and more of our lives will be virtual. Already, we must deliberately carve out time to disconnect. Let’s say a Ready Player One style game arises. Is that really a game if you’re mostly just sitting around a virtual campfire and talking with your friends?

It would make more sense to gate younger children from buying in-game currency or items. We should let children explore in these games, let them build up in-game currency and create value for other players (a la Roblox). But children aren’t particularly good at understanding that today’s obsession might not be tomorrows. It makes more sense to regulate how value is exchanged between the real economy and in-game economies.