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China’s move to drastically cut young people’s online gaming time comes amid Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on the internet sector. Photo: Reuters

China’s tightened limits for kids’ gaming time raise questions about tolerance for foreign platforms, VPNs

  • The new rule is expected to steer young people to find alternative platforms on which to play without restriction
  • The grey area for video gaming in China remains significant, as many consumers play unlicensed games on international platforms such as Steam
Video gaming
China’s latest rule to tighten limits on the time spent by kids on video gaming is raising fresh questions about how Beijing has long turned a blind eye on the grey area of unlicensed games accessible on foreign platforms.
On Monday, the National Press and Publication Administration, China’s top watchdog for gaming and other forms of online media, issued a new rule limiting gaming time for players aged under 18 to between 8pm and 9pm only on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and statutory holidays. It marked the country’s most stringent measure yet to tackle video gaming addiction among young people.

The new rule, however, is expected to steer young people to find alternative platforms on which to play without such restriction.

Beijing’s latest move will “100 per cent” drive more young players to unregulated foreign games and platforms, according to Warren Lee, technical director at esports company Hexing Global.

“Gamers will find a way,” Lee said. “If a domestic solution is impossible then you cannot fault consumers from looking outwards.”

Shoppers check out console games at a store in Beijing on August 31, 2021, a day after China announced a drastic cut to young people’s online video gaming time to just an hour a day on the weekend. Photo: Agence France-Presse
The stakes are high for enforcing the new rule in the world’s largest internet and video gaming market, as Beijing continues to crack down on the activities of the country’s major online services providers. Implementation of the new rule relies on the domestic gaming industry’s real-name registration system, which enables unlicensed games to elude restrictions.
At present, the grey area for video gaming in China remains significant. Many consumers play unlicensed titles on international platforms such as Steam, the world’s most popular online video games site operated by US firm Valve Corp.

The scope of China’s new rule does not cover the grey market, according to Lisa Cosmas Hanson, founder and president of Asian video games market research firm Niko Partners.

“For gamers operating in a legal grey area such as Steam, we think [the new rule] does not have much of an impact,” she said, adding that many players on these platforms are adult gamers who are not the target of the latest restriction.

Founded in 2003, Steam has been providing thousands of unlicensed online games to users in China for years even though it is not officially approved by the Chinese government. The site had more than 30 million users in China as of 2018, according to Niko Partners.

China limits gaming time for under-18s to one hour a day on weekends only

Chinese video game industry veteran Charlie Moseley, founder of hobbyist group China Gaming Federation, is sceptical about the enforcement of the new rule.

“I wonder how capable China‘s administrators will be at enforcing [the new restriction]”, Moseley said. “Will they really crack down, or will they allow grey and black markets to meet the demand?”

While access to foreign video games in China has become more restricted in recent years, the demand for gaming virtual private networks (VPNs) has also increased.

Known as game boosters or accelerators, gaming VPNs have become some of the most downloaded apps in the country whenever a new hit foreign title is released.

Niko Partners’ Hanson said she believes that China’s grey market for gaming will remain active, despite the new restriction, because of the wide popularity of gaming VPNs.


Tencent narrows kids’ playing time on video games labelled ‘spiritual opium’ by Chinese state media

Tencent narrows kids’ playing time on video games labelled ‘spiritual opium’ by Chinese state media
Large Chinese video game companies, including video gaming giants Tencent Holdings and NetEase, offer their own game boosters and other services, according to a Niko Partners report on Monday. It said young gamers “may bypass the new rule by logging into global servers via VPN and avoid the time limits”.

Video game restrictions have long been loosely enforced in China, where imported gaming consoles and titles remained widely available to consumers even during a 15-year ban that ended in 2015.

For years, many gamers in mainland China played bootlegged games on consoles that were smuggled or shipped in by parallel importers from Hong Kong and other markets.

Even though Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo established their respective games console businesses on the mainland in 2015, the number of consoles sold in the country’s grey market were nearly triple those sold in the regular market in 2018, according to Niko Partners. Bootlegged games have also remained popular with many gamers in the country.

China’s love-hate relationship with video games puts sector in stormy waters

Others, however, predict Steam and other alternative platforms used by mainland gamers will inevitably face regulatory action.

“It is very likely that [Steam] will soon be blocked,” said Rich Bishop, chief executive of app publisher AppInChina. He indicated that Apple, after years of not following the directive of Chinese regulators, caved in last year and removed more than 80,000 unlicensed video games from its online China App Store.
Earlier this year, a neutered version of Steam’s international site was rolled out on the mainland by Valve and local partner Perfect World, with only about 53 games and without the popular community features amid greater regulatory scrutiny in the country.

Beijing’s new rule and its overall stance against video gaming has frustrated the industry, according to Hexing Global’s Lee.

“It wasn‘t that long ago that the regulators voiced support for the gaming industry and the global positive attention on China’s gaming industry and community,” Lee said. “To regress like this, to stigmatise gaming, is a jarring mismatch in messaging considering the time frame.”


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: questions raised over new limit on gaming time