HONG KONG (AP) – As the week-long Lunar New Year holidays in China draw near with promises of feasts and red envelopes stuffed with cash, children have another thing to look forward to – one extra hour of online games each day. Only one hour.
For years, Chinese authorities have sought to control how much time children can spend playing games online, to fight “internet addiction”.
They’ve claimed success in curbing the problem but are taking no chances.
In 2019, authorities restricted minors to playing 90 minutes a day on weekdays and banned them from playing between 10pm and 8am.
In 2021, they issued even harsher restrictions: Minors are allowed to play online games for only an hour a day and only on Fridays, weekends and public holidays. Game approvals were halted for eight months.
The January 21-27 Lunar New Year holiday, China’s biggest festival, will give them four extra days for online gaming. Many parents have lauded the restrictions, even as their children threw tantrums.
Social media and games companies set up or strengthened “youth mode” settings on their apps meant to protect minors.
They include features that limit use, control payments and display age-appropriate content. For some popular games, real-name registration and even facial recognition gateways have been implemented to prevent workarounds.
In November – more than a year after the stricter game controls were introduced – a government-affiliated industry group, Game Industry Group Committee, issued a report declared the gaming addiction problem among minors was “basically resolved”, even as the three-hour weekly limit for Friday, Saturday and Sunday stayed in place.
Overall, the Game Industry Group’s report said, more than 75 per cent of minors in China played online games for less than three hours a week and most parents expressed satisfaction with the new restrictions.
A report by games market intelligence firm Niko Partners in September found that the number of youth gamers declined to 82.6 million in 2022 from its peak of 122 million in 2020 as a direct result of China’s regulations.
The Game Industry Group’s report said the “biggest loophole” in the gaming restrictions was parents who help their kids bypass the controls. The harsh restrictions have also spawned an underground market where minors can buy “cracked” games that are unsupervised, or rent adult game accounts.
In February, NetEase, the country’s second-biggest games firm, was awarded a licence for Fantasy Life, a role-playing simulation game by Nintendo.
However, the company’s partnership with Activision Blizzard is set to end by January 23, which will see the withdrawal of hit titles such as Overwatch and World of Warcraft from the Chinese market until Blizzard finds a new domestic partner to publish its games.
December brought green lights for the first batch of imported games in 18 months – with China’s biggest games firm, Tencent, receiving approvals for Riot Games’ tactical shooter game Valorant and the multiplayer online battle arena game Pokémon Unite.