The Counterproductivity of the Chinese Under-18 Online Game Restrictions

As the season of summer was waxing to a close, the gaming world was hit with an announcement that sounded somewhat ludicrous but also not surprising whatsoever: The Chinese government announced that they were going to ban children under 18 from playing online games, except for 8-9pm on Fridays-Sundays1. While this was not unprecedented (there was a lighter restriction of about 14 hours per week already in place), it sure caused some waves over the Internet. Why would they double down so hard on gaming when there were already restrictions in place? Was this really just because they wanted kids not to be addicted and to focus on studying? Naturally, I knew that this policy change was going to have some effects that wouldn’t exactly align with the original intentions, so let’s run through just two of the most relevant ones.

Whether you like it or not, gaming is a profession

Let’s get the big fat elephant in the room out of the way first: Esports. China is an absolute hotbed of young talent and potential, and in the biggest games like League of Legends or DOTA 2, the Chinese scene undoubtedly handles the largest amount of money anywhere in the world. It has been publicly stated that players in the Chinese LPL (LoL Pro Circuit), players are regularly paid up to $1.44 million USD a year2, with the buyout of the legendary player Uzi in 2015 reaching a whopping $7.85 million USD3. On top of that, the operators of the LPL reported a total revenue of $155 million in 20204, which is only expected to increase in the coming years (of course, not considering this policy change…)  Considering all the players, organizations, sponsorships, and the sheer number of esports titles (some of which I know absolutely nothing about), the amount of money made by the Chinese esports industry is no joke; by certain estimations, it reached well in excess of $20 billion USD in 2020.

Uzi, the most famous Chinese LoL player of all time, was reportedly transferred for a sum of nearly $8 million. And this was in 2015! He made Worlds finals at 16 and retired at 23. (Credit: Riot Games)

Now, to the issue of young talent in esports. Will this policy decision immediately kill esports? Of course not. Remember, the restrictions only apply to under-18s. However, the issue lies in the future and the potential for a slow and gradual decline of esports. The point is, the majority of professional esports players started when they were young, and without the ability to invest time and energy as a child, it is extremely difficult to become a professional-level esport player.

While this is obvious even to those that follow traditional sports, it is even more pronounced in esports – it’s not often that one starts past the age of 16 and makes it to the pro scene, let alone 18. Add to this the fact that unlike traditional sports, players retire and burn out far faster in esports; virtually nobody, save a couple legendary StarCraft or Counter-Strike pros, makes it past 30. Once this generation of Chinese talent burns out and retires, who will replace them? The pro scene may still exist, but without its gargantuan pool of prodigal children who are able to put in the effort and time, Chinese esports is primed to fall behind compared to other regions, and once they stop winning, people will start to lose hope in the country…

Faker, the best LoL player of all time according to most, started playing professionally in 2013 at the age of 17 (1 day before his 18th birthday). He started playing the game at the age of 15, reportedly having actively played other games even earlier. (Credit: Akshon Esports)

This loss of faith in domestic talent and the inability to win is bound to have knock-on effects for multitudes of people – teams will lose sponsorships, players will lose salaries, tournament circuits will struggle, and even streamers will suffer. It’s possible that investors and sponsors could already be looking at pulling out of the scene due to the government policy’s stance and effect. Let’s also not ignore how the game development scene in general will suffer; from tech giants like Tencent to smaller online game developers, the restriction of minors will take away a chunk of the market as well as vastly decrease the public’s interest in video games. Without children who grow up with games, how can we expect a generation who is willing to step into the game development industry?

It’s possible (my conjecture) that as a result of this change, China could also culturally fall behind in the world of video games, just as it fell behind in digital arts and animation as a result of a generation that belittled cartoons as being only for toddlers. It’s frankly a shame, since I felt that in recent years the Chinese style was finally beginning to shine through as I heard about up and coming games that had a distinct and genuine style that I couldn’t find anywhere else. In the world of games, many were feeling like they could finally be proud of things that they produced. Is it now worth it to suffocate that pride? Are we simply throwing away our credibility for the world stage, along with potentially billions of dollars?

To tie up this point, let’s just do a short comparison. As explored in one of a LoL YouTuber’s videos, China has invested heavily into football (soccer for us NA residents ha), but has never been able to find international success despite even buying out many foreign soccer stars for their own leagues5. The investment numbers go up year by year, reaching nearly half a billion USD in recent years, and the government continues to try ever more complicated and high-tech facilities as well as paying fat stacks for players and coaches6. For a sport that is unlikely to globally grow into the far future, it hardly makes sense to pour this much investment in just to catch up where they’re this far behind in results, ranking 77th in the world near Syria and Curacao (which is not even an independent country!), as of May 20215.

A selection of big football names bought out by Chinese clubs. (Credit: Bloomberg)

In this case it’s obvious that the government’s favouritism towards physical sport is not informed by pragmatism but instead only a sense of cultural conservatism that favours certain people’s ideals. Why pull the plug on an area in which you are already winning, and one that has massive potential to grow in the future, but continue to hand out cash injections to a sport that fails to perform even in the slightest year after year?
Will the Chinese youth be proud of their country if there is no team to lift the Summoner’s Cup for them?

I don’t support censorship, but neither does this policy

Now, let’s talk about why one of the main goals of the policy (and that of the CCP) may in fact not be achieved but instead hindered by this action: that goal being control over the media and not allowing foreign media to influence Chinese citizens. The action of banning domestic media is almost certainly going to cause some youth to circumvent the Great Firewall to access similar media, whether from the attention drawn to the subject by the policy change (the Streisand effect) or by reducing citizens’ confidence in and dependence on domestic media, causing China’s cultural bubble to be weakened.

The Streisand Effect might be a term some of you are familiar with; it was first coined as an expression in response to when singer Barbara Streisand attempted to remove pictures of her house from the Internet, which instead drew more attention to her (and the photos) because of her attempts at censorship7. Essentially, the more that someone or something is publicly opposed, censored, or suppressed, the more curious people are of it, and ultimately, the more attention people pay to it. It’s just a phenomenon of reverse psychology that happens in many cases whether intentional or not. Unfortunately, I would say that a lot of people like to manipulate it to attract attention, both good and bad… you know, drama and the like. But I digress.

What has been documented with regards to censorship at least of the Chinese kind is that often times the banning of a new website or social platform (especially those that had been popular beforehand) serves as a catalyst for people to circumvent or oppose the censorship. This even sounds logical on a basic standpoint; when you get unreasonably grounded by your parents, what do you do? Try to get around it by sneaking around their watch, or if you can’t do that, well, you just dislike them more. After the banning of Instagram in 2014 following protests in Hong Kong, an analysis of data from the App Store and of Facebook and Twitter saw a surge both of the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) which are used to bypass the restrictions of the Great Firewall, as well as the creation of new Facebook and Twitter accounts that were geolocated in China8.

A chart showing the increase in popularity of Facebook and Twitter following the Instagram ban in 20148.
Likewise with VPNs8.

As well, there was an upswing in the amount of discussion regarding Instagram from these Chinese users on Facebook and Twitter. While the video game restrictions are not a lights-out ban and are technically different from the Great Firewall, one can only assume that this could result in a wave of unhappy kids finding their own creative ways to play some non-Chinese vidya with VPNs and such.

Along with the Streisand Effect of censorship, another factor that could push anti-censorship practices is the loss of confidence in domestic media. Contrary to popular belief, the most powerful factor in keeping Chinese citizens tied to their own domestic Internet media is not really the Great Firewall; it is simply the power of Chinese media that as created a bubble known as the culturally defined market or CDM9. In fact, by population, generally the Chinese are no more isolated from the rest of the world on the Internet than Japan or Russia are, even though the latter two countries do not have internet censorship on the level of the Great Firewall9. If your population no longer trusts domestic media over that of other countries, the bubble will be at risk of popping no matter how much it’s being reinforced by a firewall.

And to be completely fair, the Great Firewall is not as strong as many people make it out to be. People talk of arrest being made over VPN use and the fear of persecution, but the reality is that it’s just not technologically feasible or worth it for the government to track down every VPN. Cracking VPN networks is a lot harder than some people make it out to be. And besides all that, what’s even to stop kids from playing offline games, like all the doujinsoft on my computer that’s just in the form of a .exe file in a folder? You can’t track that without spending ungodly amount of money and effort to tag every computer system that enters a household! Simply put, it’s way too hard to track down all the wall-climbers once they’re already out. The best they have done is fearmonger with arrests made as an example.

Conclusion

In all honesty, I may be overreacting. It’s quite likely that we won’t see any real major effects of these policy changes anytime soon, and even if they did, it’s not that likely that we Westerners would easily hear anything of it. Of course, the restrictions no longer apply at the age of 18, and supposedly the under-18 market supplies very little of the revenue to large companies like Tencent. However, there could easily be some large ripple effects that could start to slowly shift the paradigm; let’s hope it doesn’t kill esports, and let’s also hope that kids and adults alike start to realize the short-sightedness of such a policy. But you can’t really take my word for it just as a prediction; we’ll have to wait and see.

Sources

1. CNN Staff (2021, August 31). China bans kids from playing online video games during the week. CNN Business. https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/31/tech/china-ban-video-games-minor-intl-hnk/index.html

2. Kolev, Radoslav “Nydra” (2019, April 2). JD Gaming recruitment post reveals salary of LPL players. VP Esports. https://www.vpesports.com/leagueoflegends/news/jd-gaming-recruitment-post-reveals-salary-of-lpl-players

3. Leslie, Callum (2015, Nov 11). Report: Uzi transfer bidding reaches $7.85 million. Dot Esports. https://dotesports.com/league-of-legends/news/uzi-transfer-7-million-2679

4. Chen, Hongyu (2021, January 14). China’s League of Legends Esports Operator TJ Sports Reports Revenue Milestone, OnePlus Sponsors Suning Gaming. The Esports Observer. https://archive.esportsobserver.com/china-esports-recap-jan14-2021/

5. Gbay99 (2021, May 31). Where Does the “Culture Difference” in Esports Come From?  YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9q3_rk1myU. Accessed Sep 12, 2021.

6. Panja, Tariq (2017, July 13). How China Is Spending Billions to Conquer World Soccer. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-07-13/soccer-balls-and-china-s-billions

7. Cacciottolo, Mario (2012, June 15). The Streisand Effect: When censorship backfires. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-18458567

8. Hobbs, William and Margaret E. Roberts (2018, January 30). How Sudden Censorship Can Increase Access to Information. http://www.margaretroberts.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/selfiecensorship.pdf

9. Taneja, Harsh and Angela Xiao Wu. Does the Great Firewall really isolate the Chinese? Integrating Access Blockage with Cultural Factors to Explain Web User Behavior. University of Missouri. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1305/1305.3311.pdf

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