Opinion: Online Games Should Be Next in Line for a Crackdown

The central government recently introduced sweeping new rules to ease the educational burdens on schoolchildren. The document also requires that students be guided to rationally use electronic devices, limit time spent online and prevent internet addiction. A state media commentary Tuesday accused game companies of creating a “spiritual opium” of gaming addiction that harms children’s academic and personal development.

The new rules to ease the burdens of excessive homework and off-campus tutoring has dealt an unprecedented, harsh blow to the after-school tutoring industry. Many expect that the gaming industry will be the next supervisory target. Some of the measures issued to restrict off-campus tutoring are likely to be applied also to the game industry, such as ordering operators to register as nonprofit organizations and banning them from financing activities.

The guidelines restrict tutoring institutions from offering curriculum-based tutoring on weekends, national holidays or during winter and summer vacations. But that sparked concerns of many parents who are worried that the tutoring crackdown will only push their kids to online games.

To address concerns over minors’ online game addictions, authorities have taken many measures, but to no great effect.

For example, game platforms must restrict the registration of minors, improve anti-addiction systems and actively limit the annual game time of minors. A 2019 notice requires strict control of minors’ online game timeframe and duration. From 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., online game companies must not provide minors with game services in any form. The accumulated online game time of minors can’t exceed 1.5 hours a day or 3 hours daily on weekends and national holidays. Further, minors under the age of 8 are not allowed to access any paid game services provided by online game companies.

However, the anti-addiction system performs practically no function at all.

It is easy for minors to access online games with an adult’s account. According to a media survey, some students play games all day, which fully demonstrates the uselessness of the anti-addiction system. The underlying cause is that profit-driven game platforms have eased restrictions and failed to identify minor users by face recognition when the authorities have relaxed their supervision.

A long-term problem facing game platform monitoring is how to protect minors without affecting adult entertainment and consumption. If a game platform serves both adults and minors, and its games are accessible to both groups, the platform may bypass minor-protecting monitoring measures on the grounds of serving adults. Also, it is difficult for regulators to even monitor minors and adults separately.

The newly revised Law on the Protection of Minors, which took effect June 1, declares that the country will establish a unified electronic online-game minor identity authentication system. Under the law, online game service providers must require minors to register and log in to all online games with real identity information. Gaming companies also must classify their products by making age recommendations and taking technical measures so that minors will not be exposed to inappropriate games or game functions.

One solution would be to create a rating system for games. The regulatory authorities need to clearly define game classification standards, lead the game classification and require game developers and operators to provide services to adults and minors according to the classification standards and provisions.

However, such a system would not be easily implemented in China as some parents lack guardianship consciousness and can’t effectively guide their kids to access proper games.

Thus, a more effective regulatory measure would be to restrict profit-driven financing and investment in the game industry. Since online games are a kind of “cultural product” that has a significant impact on the growth of minors, it is necessary to strengthen supervision on the supply side. Under the new guideline on education companies, off-campus training institutions must register as nonprofit businesses and are banned from raising funds from the capital market. Such a regulatory measure could also be considered for the game industry.

If all game operators were required to register as nonprofits without access to capital markets, most of them would be likely to close down. Without excessive capital investment in the game industry, the supply of game products would significantly decline. Parents may no longer feel they are battling with game operators for their children’s time.

China has been dedicated to the development of public welfare games suitable for children to play, but these games are less competitive than commercial games developed by profit-driven developers.

China’s game industry has grown into a giant sector worth hundreds of billions of yuan, but it has also resulted in 20% of minors becoming addicted to games. Gaming addictions not only make families suffer, but they could also even destroy a whole generation of minors. In reality, the regulation of the game industry should be stricter than that of the educational training industry. The regulatory authorities are determined to “eliminate” the educational training industry with an output value of more than 1 trillion yuan, so there is no reason for them to indulge the development of the game industry, which is more harmful to minors.

No matter whether the focus is online tutoring or online games, the regulatory crackdowns are aimed to create a better environment for children. In addition to bans, the education of schools, families and society needs to be improved, helping children learn more about society and daily life and fostering wider interests.

Author: Xiong Bingqi, Caixin Global
Xiong Bingqi is vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Center.

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