Illustration by Tilly Binucci
China’s decision to restrict gaming for under-18s to just three hours a week – 8-9 pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – is not shocking. In fact, compared to other Chinese internet censorship, like banning Twitter, or the Amnesty International website, it is tame. The new laws are justified by the Chinese National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) because “Protecting the physical and mental health of minors is related to the people’s vital interests”. Many would agree.
But the law is yet another that adds to already suffocating internet restrictions in China. Freedom House, an NGO providing yearly reports on the state of internet freedom, ranked China as the least internet free country in the world in 2021. This is due to heavy intervention from Chinese authorities, resulting in what Freedom House calls “a highly censored, monitored, and manipulated version of the internet” for its users. More insidiously, the report points to extreme levels of self-censorship – the fear of being banned or targeted by the government is great, particularly among minorities like the persecuted Uyghurs. “Chinese citizens are regularly jailed for their online activities,” the report states.
It is a reminder of how appalling state censorship is. When the threat of intrusion is so overt – likened by one scholar to “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier” – it controls the very things its citizens think. Ideas are self-censored to appease the “anaconda” before even leaving the mind. In an interview, Chinese author Yang Huang revealed that due to learned self-censorship in the Chinese language, she “relies on English,” and her “point of view is so fractured by self-censorship that [she] could not conceive a story in Chinese.” The gaming ban is censorship of habit; it teaches under-18s the ‘correct’ way to live, which will be internalised. This is China’s explicit aim: the National Radio and Television Administration ban nine types of content, including content that does not help the youth “establish the correct world view”.
While you can argue over the benefits of restricting youngsters’ time spent gaming, you cannot justify the invasive method in which it has been put into practice. Many young people use video gaming as an escape from a miserable school or home life, and to mandate that it may only be done on weekends at certain times strips gaming of the freedom it can provide. Hours before the law was passed, the state-run paper Economic Information Daily termed China’s most popular game, Honor of Kings, “spiritual opium”. But restricting the activities of minors so stringently will not fix addiction – the need for escape will not disappear. To lessen the appeal of video games to the youth, attractive and valuable alternatives – like sport or music – must exist.
More practically, the law will be easily sidestepped by eager young gamers. On Weibo – a platform similar to Twitter – one user commented that “[under-18s] will just use their parents’ logins, how can they control it?” There is no doubt that a generation as tech-literate as the one growing up now will find ways to bypass the law. Nevertheless, in 2019 Chinese tech giant Tencent introduced compulsory facial recognition to prevent minors lying about their age. The new gaming law, intrusive enough as is, breeds new violations of privacy in order to enforce it. Gaming addiction is an excuse to harvest facial data from the 720 million Chinese gamers.
“Gaming addiction has affected studies and normal life … and many parents have become miserable,” the state-run NPPA said. That their child spends too much time online is a natural worry for parents who grew up without gaming. The WHO, by officially defining a ‘gaming disorder’, gave credence to those concerned. Like other addictive behaviours, gaming addiction is characterised by “impaired control” over the activity, and it “taking precedence over other interests and daily activities.” But it is the job of a parent, not the state, to control when their children can game. There are ways the state can get involved in fighting gaming addiction, though. By providing meaningful alternative recreation for teenagers. By using their power to battle corporations from the top-down. With legislation that prohibits exploitative game features designed to get children hooked, addiction can be fought the right way.
When Chinese authorities claim there is something as blatantly fictional as a “correct world view”, it is easy for them to rationalise even the harshest violations of their citizens’ rights. It is almost glib to say that it is the diversity of opinion and background that makes life worth living, people worth talking to – but the Chinese authorities seem to need a reminder. The gaming ban might not be the cruellest or most unreasonable piece of legislation – but it prescribes too harshly for its citizens the life they should lead. Let the children of China game when they want, but teach them when to stop. The ban is the clumsy attempt of a tired and frustrated parent – and China, no doubt, has enough of those.