China Tries to Rip Game Consoles Out of Teen Hands. What Are the Odds?
I have vivid memories of my father raging against all the time he thought I wasted as a teenager by listening to rock ’n’ roll.
Not alone among parents of his generation, which had grown up with the strictures of the Depression and World War II, he couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand that these years should be spent preparing for the hard world into which I would soon be slammed.
Our conversations — well, not exactly conversations — flashed through my mind this week when the Chinese government drastically curtailed the amount of time anyone under 18 can legally spend playing video games.
Under the new restrictions, gamers under 18 are allowed to play for a maximum of three hours a week, 8 to 9 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. No other hours are permitted on those days and no gaming is allowed Monday through Thursday.
Under the previous crackdown, in 2019, gamers could play up to 90 minutes on school days and up to three hours a day on weekends.
So yeah, Dude, this is harsh.
Of all the things I could imagine my father having been, a Chinese Communist Party functionary is not one. But his reasoning on rock ’n’ roll falls into perfect harmony with the Chinese government’s concern about video games: that they are luring young minds away from all the things that will enable them to become more intelligent and productive citizens.
The Chinese government isn’t alone in this fear. The World Health Organization recently certified “Gaming Disorder” as a mental health condition. The American Psychiatry Association has declared “Internet Gaming Disorder” a condition that needs to be studied. Out in the capitalist free market, a growing number of rehabilitation centers promise parents they can “detox” teenagers addicted to gaming, by reminding those teens that there are other attractions in this big old beautiful world.
Anyone who has ever seen a teenager with his or her phone will understand the challenge in that promise.
Meanwhile, almost everyone has heard disturbing stories about teens who live for the thrill of gaming, whether the payoff is money, camaraderie or adrenalin. Cautionary tales circulate about teens who wear disposable diapers so they don’t have to leave the game to visit the bathroom, sometimes with a corollary story about how their parents physically kidnapped them to send them to the aforementioned rehab centers.
There’s no big mystery why anyone enjoys video games. They challenge the brain and provide the satisfaction of winning. Anyone who loves puzzles or card games or a multi-step pasta recipe understands the appeal of video games.
The difference is that it’s way easier to take video gaming to an extreme. Switch on your computer and it’s always there, asking only for your time.
Gaming also offers the seduction of a perpetual next level. Within any game, or in the next game, there’s always a new challenge, a place the game dares you to reach.
China sees that place as a black hole, and doesn’t want it to swallow the next generation of potential great minds. No country does. It’s just a tough horse to coax back into the barn. How do you regulate gamers? How do you keep millions and millions of kids off computers?
The Chinese government, which can decree things a government like America’s cannot, says it’s simple.
Companies that create and license video games — like Tencent, which has passed Nintendo as the world’s largest game producer — must register all users and require proof of age. If the user is under 18, the company must shut down his or her access at the government-appointed hour.
Good plan, except in reality, enforcement has proven more challenging than the games themselves. Teenagers are clever. They’re computer-savvy. They understand workarounds. One reason for China’s 2021 policy, the government admits, is that the 2019 policy didn’t work very well.
So this new improved crackdown comes with the vow that “stepped-up inspections” will seal the leaks. Governments are so cute when they say things like that.
Wild guess: China would have to assign a bureaucrat to every teenager in the country to ensure full compliance.
My father never achieved his dream of talking me out of rock ’n’ roll. On the brighter side, I also didn’t live out his nightmare. I found that newspapers would pay people to write about rock ’n’ roll, and I managed to get in on that scam, I mean, that became a component of my professional career.
I have no doubt that video game addiction, like social media addiction, is real and in extreme cases bad. I suspect that China, like my father, will get outflanked by a lot of pesky kids and that in the end it may not actually be the end.