As China makes the announcement that gaming addiction is over, experts wonder whether it has more to do with the country's export ambitions or social welfare.
A decade or so ago, reports started to appear, first in a trickle and then in a flood, of horrifying levels of internet addiction in China.
More than one gamer dropped dead at an internet cafe, teenagers barricaded themselves in their bedrooms and boot camps sprung up to deal with 'addicted' kids.
"Many parents said that teenagers’ addiction to online games seriously affected their studies, and physical and mental health, leading to a series of social problems, making many parents suffer," said a National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) spokesperson at the time.
More than six in 10 children were playing video games online frequently, Chinese state media said, with more than one in 10 playing games on their mobile devices for more than two hours a day during the school week. Gaming was likened by state media to comparing video games to 'electronic drugs' and 'spiritual opium'.
In 2019, the government started placing restrictions on the amount of time that young people were allowed to spend gaming — 90 minutes on weekdays and three hours on weekends.
Two years later, it tightened those limits, restricting children to just an hour of playing time between 8pm and 9pm on Fridays, weekends, and public holidays.
Policy declared a success
And now comes an announcement that the policy has apparently worked. A report on China's gaming industry from the China Game Industry Group Committee claims that around three-quarters of Chinese children are observing this limit, describing this as a 'remarkable' result.
Gaming addiction is a worldwide phenomenon. In a report last year, Limelight Networks found that, worldwide, gamers spent about eight and a half hours a week playing. A third said they play five hours in a row – classified as 'binge gaming', and up 13 percent on the year before. Around a third said they skipped showering, eating, and socializing to play.
In 2019, the World Health Organization added 'gaming disorder' to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD).
However, in most countries, gaming isn't seen as anywhere near the threat that China has deemed it to be, with some studies showing that gaming can actually be good for people, relieving stress, improving cognition, and increasing well-being.
In fact, China had other reasons for limiting gaming. The ban was just one of a number of cultural restrictions introduced at the time, including a ban on 'effeminate' male role models and on entertainers with 'incorrect' political positions. It seems likely that there were concerns that young people were able to communicate privately through gaming.
China was also engaged in a crack-down on big tech companies in the country, again in part to increase state control, with concern that technology was gaining too much influence in the country.
And, now, China's declaration that it's cracked the problem of gaming addiction doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny. According to Limelight, while US gamers play for an average 7.7 hours a week, Chinese gamers are still clocking up 12.4. Again, there may be other motives.
At around the same time as the announcement was made, China awarded home-grown gaming giant Tencent its first new games license in 18 months.
Meanwhile, the state-owned People's Daily Online published a leader praising the games industry to the skies.
"Games have been inseparable from cutting-edge technology since their birth," it reads.
"At present, game technology plays an important role in promoting the development of advanced technologies and industries such as 5G, the chip industry, and artificial intelligence. With the rapid development of the digital economy, game technology has been applied to more and more different fields such as digital cultural preservation, industrial simulation, smart cities, and film and television creation."
The People's Daily Online article also points to recent European Parliament legislation to develop an EU-wide video gaming strategy to promote 'European values' abroad.
All this is a strong hint that China intends to start ramping up its efforts in gaming and related technologies. With much of the west working to restrict Chinese tech products, games could provide a 'soft' port of entry – while raking in cash.
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