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Monday, 11 October 2021

Just an hour a day of gameplay for Chinese youth

Are video games really all that bad? The Chinese government announced in August that it would be heavily restricting video game play for minors in a bid to curb video game addiction in the country, according to Chinese state-run paper Xinhua. Under the new, heavy-handed restrictions, companies would be required to bar kids under the age of 18 from accessing online games at all times except during a one-hour window between 8 and 9pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. But are video games really as big of a threat as the Chinese government has made them out to be?

The Chinese government has a history of combating “gaming disorders” — which it likens to electronic drugs: In 2017, Tencent Holdings, the country’s largest gaming company, said it would place limits on some of its young users’ gameplay following complaints that kids were becoming “addicted” to a game. Physical concerns like nearsightedness were also alleged to be a result of larger interest in gaming among the youth, eventually leading to a nine-month halt on new video game approvals by the country’s regulator. In 2019, the government issued its first set of restrictions on gameplay and in-game transactions.

We (kind of) had our own attempt at banning a particular game earlier this year — albeit for different reasons than China — after Al-Azhar issued a fatwa warning against Fortnite for its depiction of the Kaaba being destroyed. The broader statement was even more sweeping in its denouncement of gaming, saying that “some electronic games played by young people distract them from their basic tasks … while inciting them to hatred and self-harm or the harm of others.” MP Ahmed Mahana even called on the CIT Ministry to ban online games that incite violence, terrorism and murder, but no official ban on games has taken effect here in Egypt yet.

So what exactly is the problem? The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018 listed gaming disorders — prioritizing gaming “to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities” — among its International Classification of Diseases. While an obsession with our screens is certainly a warranted concern given that much of our lives — and specifically kids' lives — have moved online in the past two years, even the WHO admits that only a minority of gamers are actually diagnosed with this affliction.

Video game addiction is real, but it's not as big a problem as it's often made out to be: While games like World of Warcraft and Fortnite have gotten a bad rep for sucking kids deep into their worlds, cognitive psychologists seem to agree that video games pose only a minor threat to cognitive health. According to a 2014 study, video games are in fact fairly similar — in terms of cognitive development — to traditional forms of play that require imagination and “social challenges,” and can encourage “higher levels of prosocial behavior,” among other benefits. The only caveat: These benefits only apply to children who invest less than one-third of their leisure time in video games.

Even if they’re robbing cars and waging wars? There’s an obvious concern that age-inappropriate games could have adverse effects on children’s behavior, but research seems to show that these games don’t have a greater influence than regular movies or TV. Oftentimes, first- and third-person shooters actually improve spatial reasoning, decision making and even attention in real life, as well as information-processing speed.

But it’s still not all gameplay all day: Even with the recorded benefits of just one hour-long video gaming session on brain activity, it's still important to be aware of how gaming impacts other areas of your life in both the short and long term, brain and cognitive studies researcher Dr. C. Shawn Green explains to Wired.

The new restrictions would apply to more than 268 mn people and more than half of Chinese internet users play video games online, according to government data. Those figures constitute about a quarter of the global video game market, which comes to a combined USD 61.3 bn market in 2020 across PC games, e-sports and mobile games, according to US government data.

Tech companies have already started to feel the weight of the turning tide: In the lead-up to the curbs, Tencent’s market cap of USD 573 bn was down more than USD 300 bn from its February peak. Gaming companies around the world also took a hit, with US-based Activision Blizzard stock falling 3.8% in early August. Electronic Arts, the company behind Sims, was down 2.8%, while European online video gaming stocks Ubisoft and Embracer Group fell about 5% and 3.7%.

So what’s in store for the future of the gaming industry? Major players Tencent and Netease say they’re on board with the new restrictions that would bar some children from age inappropriate games, saying only a small percentage of their gaming revenues come from minors. But analysts say that it might dampen the pipeline of new customers: “If you pick up a sport at 10 or 12 then you are more likely to keep playing it during your life,” Mio Kato, an analyst at Lightstream Research told the FT. The restrictions could present “very significant downside risk to long-term earnings,” he added.

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