China’s game restrictions aren't working

A new study by Nature Human Behaviour has found that players are willing and able to circumvent restrictions

China’s game restrictions aren't working

China’s attempts to curb video game addiction have led the country’s government to take drastic steps, most notably the imposition of strict playtimes among minors.

2019 saw the introduction of a 90 minute limit on playtime for users under eighteen, with three hours on public holidays. This policy was expanded in 2021, limiting minors to just one hour of playtime on Fridays, Saturday, Sundays, and public holidays.

More recently, restrictions were implemented for mobile phone use in general, with users between 16 and 18 restricted to a maximum of two hours of phone use per day, while minors aren’t able to access the internet between 10pm and 6am.

Now, a new paper published in scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour has found no evidence that the rules have had a significant impact on excessive gaming.

“Policymakers around the world have been discussing how to understand the impact of video gameplay, particularly on young people, for some time now, and how to ensure a healthy relationship with games,” said the paper’s lead author, the University of York’s Department of Computer Science’s Dr David Zendle. “The UK government, for example, has recently issued guidelines for high quality research into gaming and wellbeing to inform future decision making.

“The restrictions in China allowed us to look, for the first time, at the real behavioural impact of regulation on reducing the time people spent in gameplay and whether this policy had the desired effect.”

Nature partnered with Unity to examine over 7 billion hours of playtime from approximately 2.4 billion Chinese gamer profiles from August 2019 to January 2020, and fond “no credible evidence for overall reduction in the prevalence of heavy playtime [more than four hours a day on six or more days a week] following the implementation of regulations.

On the contrary, individual accounts became 1.14 times more likely to engage in heavy play in any given week, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the mandates, although the report notes that the increase isn’t “interpreted as a practically meaningful increase”.

China's efforts to restrict playtime among minors largely involves real-name identification - however, these regulations are easily overcome by deternmined gamers. While it's likely that the volume of gaming has been diminished from where that total would have been if there had been no restrictions, the fact that gaming has increased at all shows that the measures currently in placce are not proving successful.

“We found no evidence of a decrease in the prevalence of heavy play and more research is needed to understand why, but the work certainly highlights that this kind of analysis can be useful for policymakers, anywhere in the world, to move forward confidently in discussions around regulations in the digital space,” said Zendle.

Healthy gaming

The report also found that heavy gaming in and of itself isn’t an indicator of health, despite these restrictions in part being aimed at promoting healthier activities.

“Experiences of disorder derive from gaming interfering with what one wants to be, do, and have throughout life, whereas the experiences of intensive esport play derive from gaming being integrated into self throughout life.”

In short, while excessive gaming can become problematic if it interferes with a player’s daily life, it isn’t a problem in and of itself.

“Given previous industry-affiliated claims that this policy has ‘solved video game addiction,’ it made sense in a Chinese context to consider scaling it up to other domains,” said co-author and IT University of Copenhagen’s Leon Y. Xiao. “In fact, the Chinese government is currently consulting on limiting screen time amongst young people by law, although parents may override those limits.

Gaming remains the most profitable sector of the entertainment industry, with mobile as the single most popular platform - and one where China has long held the position of market leader. As such, taking too firm a stance has resulted in the country cutting off its own nose to spite its face. With new restrictions coming into place, it could be some time before the country’s government strikes a happy balance between the Chinese gaming industry’s profitability and its larger goals.

This research comes in the wake of China increasing the volume of its game approvals following a lengthy slowdown.


Staff Writer

Lewis Rees is a journalist, author, and escape room enthusiast based in South Wales. He got his degree in Film and Video from the University of Glamorgan. He's been a gamer all his life.