Chinese state media describes gaming as 'spiritual opium' that stunts education and destroys families

Tencent shares dive and company restricts hours of play

China's government has again expressed its severe dislike of gaming, and one of the nation's major purveyors of such entertainment has reacted by limiting the time that can be spent on the pastime.

Beijing has never been entirely comfortable with gaming. In 2013, China sought to define gaming addiction so it could be treated, after previously having regulated internet detox camps to ensure that they got results – but without brutalising those felt to need an intervention to curb their online activities. In 2019, industry analysts suggested China was a key backer of World Health Organisation attempts to define gaming-related disorders as comparable to drug or gambling addictions.

In 2020, China required gamers to use their real names, and required games platform operators to match those real names with IDs used to log in to their services.

China also operates gaming curfews, and local giant Tencent recently added facial recognition to its services to enforce those time limits for minors.

Yesterday, State-controlled organ Economic Information Daily published a story that labelled games "spiritual opium", quoted a parent who said gaming has caused his son's academic performance to decline, noted that kids spend quite a lot of time gaming, and alleged that even adults can sometimes become so addicted to games that their loved ones feel negative effects at home.

The story disapprovingly wagged a finger at games developers who "exploit the weaknesses of human nature" to make their products addictive and employ huge R&D staff to do so. eSports competitions were also criticised – for offering an unrealistic picture that players could turn their passions into a career.

The story named Tencent as a villain, and singled out the game "Glory of the King" as a particular problem.

The article sparked two changes.

One was a nasty plunge for Tencent's share price, which went from $HK460 to $HK432 in half an hour (but has since recovered to $HK441). Other Chinese gaming companies experienced similar dips.

The other was a swift change to Tencent's gaming policies, with a post to Sina Weibo announcing a further reduction in the time minors can play games. Tencent will now permit just one hour of play each day, and two hours on holidays. The company will also clamp down on adults sharing accounts with kids, and use its R&D muscle to find ways to ensure kids don't play too much.

China's hostility towards gaming stems from political beliefs that it just isn't productive, games seldom reflect Chinese values, and gaming communities therefore represent a potential source of either disengagement with national goals or a locus of dissent.

This article may have another dimension. China's government has recently cracked down on its largest web companies to curb their market power, reduce their exposure to international markets, and – for the first time – regulate the industries into which they expand. Naming Tencent and one of its most prominent games in this story was therefore not a coincidence, but almost certainly a continuation of that wider crackdown on the power of companies that have come to be utterly pervasive in Chinese society. ®

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