China thinks it has a gaming problem.
The country just forbade everyone under 18 years of age from playing video games for more than three hours per week, in a strict social intervention that officials framed as a measure to combat a surge in addiction to video games. In fact, video games were once described by the country as "spiritual opium", according to an initial report from a China-owned news agency, Xinhua.
Gaming addiction is considered an actual mental health disorder in some areas, but it isn't universally recognized as a mental illness. And notably, it can also serve as a useful antagonism for authorities interested in something else, like controlling massive companies.
China scales back gaming hours amid efforts to reel in big tech
The new rules were published on Monday. Some have argued that they are part of a substantial change in Beijing policy intended to bring big tech to heel and strengthen governmental control over society, in addition to areas of education and property, after several years of accelerated growth. The new restrictions apply to any electronic devices capable of running video games (including phones), and represent a serious blow to the global gaming industry, which creates games played by tens of millions of young players in the most lucrative market, globally. According to Xinhua state news agency, everyone under 18 years of age can only play for one hour a day, between 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM, and only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
State media of China have described the growth of video game use as "savage", and the new rule has erased tens of billions of dollars off of shares traded in China and internationally. "Teenagers are the future of our motherland," said an unnamed NPPA spokesperson in Xinhua. "Protecting the physical and mental health of minors is related to the people's vital interests, and relates to the cultivation of the younger generation in the era of national rejuvenation." Further, all gaming companies will be prevented from offering services to minors outside of the stipulated hours, and must enforce a real-name verification process, explained the regulator, in Xinhua.
In the past, China had placed a 1.5-hour limit on gameplay for under-18s on all days, with three hours allotted for holidays, under rules from 2019.
Understandably, the news has exploded on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, where the public's reactions were mixed. Some were practically speechless at the new stringent rules, while others expressed concern that the children could simply log in to gaming consoles or devices with their parents' information. But while most Western civilians may reject such invasive means of social control, about China's framing of their campaign as a gaming addiction issue: They're not (entirely) wrong.
'Gaming addiction' is a useful tool for China's desire to enhance social control
In 2021, nearly everyone still living has enjoyed a video game of some kind, whether on the dozens of home gaming systems released since the 1980s, at classic arcades, on computers, phones, or elsewhere. While gaming has been a part of society for nearly 50 years, some major authorities think that it can, at times, get out of hand. The World Health Organization (WHO) added "gaming disorder" to its medical reference book, International Classification of Diseases, in 2018. By contrast, the DSM-5 manual for the American Psychiatry Association, didn't, although it did include a proviso of warning signs to look for in people who might develop other mental health issues from excessive gaming.
As of January of this year, 9.89 million people were actively streaming on Twitch, a platform where gamers and gaming enthusiasts can easily spend days watching friends or strangers play any kind of game that can be displayed on a screen, with extra content for subscribers willing to pay small fees through Patreon. Add to that the endless list of "Let's Play" and other video game content on YouTube, and, statistically, it's inevitable that a sizable group of players and gaming enthusiasts would develop mental illnesses associated with doing any singular activity for prolonged periods. But on the flip side, more of us than ever are working remotely, staring at the same screens with different content (which goes double for extremely online Twitter users following the dumpster fire of modern discourse), which could mean that many who aren't playing any games are developing mental illnesses due to coronavirus-related social measures. Suffice to say: It remains uncertain whether gaming addiction is a real phenomenon or not, but decrying it as a "spiritual opium" has already served as a useful antagonism for officials in China, who very much desire to expand the means of social and economic control.