China’s long struggle with video games

Official media blasts the online gaming industry for its effects on youth – but then wonders if more adults might help young people find meaning in life.

A cosplay fan poses at a Tencent Games booth during the China Digital Entertainment Expo and Conference in Shanghai July 30.

Some tech whiz really should make a video game out of this. On Tuesday, China’s leaders again took a left swipe at its online gaming industry. They accused the industry of spreading “spiritual opium” among Chinese youth, creating addicts who fail in their academics and other alleged effects.

“No industry or sport should develop at the price of destroying a generation,” stated the Economic Information Daily, a media outlet of the ruling Communist Party. The article demanded new rules to curb what it called “electronic drugs.”

The impact was as swift as a Fortnite shootout in the world’s largest market for video games, home to an estimated 740 million players. The stock price of Chinese gaming giants dropped. Official restrictions on the industry could be around the corner. To head that off, the largest gaming company, Tencent, whose owner is China’s richest person, immediately proposed new measures to restrict the use of its flagship game, Honor of Kings, among children.

China’s leaders have been here before – like many parents worldwide – trying to figure out how to fit video games into their expectations for young people. In 2018, the party imposed a temporary ban on new games. In 2019, it set time limits for young people playing games online. Its paternalistic actions seemed justified after the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its list of official afflictions.

A similar concern is playing out in the International Olympic Committee. In May, after years of declining viewership for its Games and rising calls for the IOC to recognize esports as a type of athletics, the IOC launched the Olympic Virtual Series. The games involve only five sports – baseball, cycling, motor sport, rowing, and sailing – but without any medals. The purpose is to encourage sports participation and “promote the Olympic values.”

The IOC, like China, is trying to find the best in video games. Many games do develop useful skills, such as cooperation, team building, and self-confidence. The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games included music from video games like Sonic the Hedgehog. What really worries the IOC, however, is that most games are violent, centered around killing rather than kindness. A main goal of the Olympics is to promote peace among peoples and nations.

As many parents have discovered, the key to shielding children from gaming frenzy is to find out what’s missing in their lives – and then fill it with attention and affection. Does a child need to know how to make friends? Would a family discussion of a game put it in perspective? Can (or should) a game be played in real life?

China may be nearing a step-back-and-think moment about video games. Soon after the article appeared in the Economic Information Daily, the China News Service published a piece calling on schools, game developers, parents, and other parties to work together to prevent gaming obsession. For young players, that shared concern might start to fill what’s lacking in their lives.

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