China vs. Video Games

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S1: I heard a little factoid the other day that absolutely floored me about video games in China. And it’s this. China has twice as many gamers as the U.S. has people. Some 700 million of them.

S2: When you go on the streets where you are waiting at a bus stop, where you are at the supermarket is inevitable, especially if you see a kid with his head bowed out. He’ll be playing a game or she’ll be playing a game

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S1: that’s Brenda Goh. She covers technology in China for Reuters.

S2: It’s pretty much in your face everywhere you go. I mean, so well, as big as video games market,

S1: that ubiquity, especially among young people, has worried China’s central government. So at the start of this month, they banned people who are under 18 from playing video games for more than three hours a week. They could only play from eight to nine p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. And it’s not just video games. The government has gone after tutoring companies and Big Tech players. Brenda calls this the season of crackdowns.

S2: They’ve laid down new ground rules. They’ve cracked down on a whole whole bunch of sectors in a sense to bring them better in line with what they perceive as socialist values.

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S1: Yes, this is China, so some of this is to be expected. But Brenda says these moves are part of a bigger plan.

S2: The authorities have been trying to strengthen their control of over various parts of Chinese society and the Chinese economy.

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S1: Today on the show, how China’s gaming curbs are just the opening salvo in a fight to reshape its youth culture and the internet. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around for. I want to understand kind of the role of video games in China, like before these restrictions started. Who was playing? How often were they playing? I guess I’m trying to understand, are these rich kids? Are they poor kids? Is it everybody?

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S2: It’s everybody we checked back a bit about this whole concern over video games and young people in China. It goes back quite a few years there used to be quite negative media coverage of these like internet addiction camps in China.

S3: So it may look like fun and games, but parents will commit force their kids to this facility for four to six months to break the internet addiction

S2: and around, I would say, 2017 2018. There were more complaints in society about video game addiction and also rising cases or shortsightedness. That’s kind of when China started talking about curbing the video games industry.

S1: What kind of games are we talking about? I know there’s one called Honor of Kings that that’s really popular, like, are these multiplayer games

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S2: that sort of, yeah, multiplayer battle royale type of games. Then the honor of Kings is essentially is very similar to League of Legends, which is very well known in the West. These are games where you essentially need to be online the whole time and you need to work with other players, strategize, fight with other clans, protect your territory. It’s not a game that has a start and finish by. It goes on for as long as you play it.

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S1: As I listen to you, it makes me wonder about these increasing restrictions that the central government put on gaming over the years, kind of as those restrictions tightened. How did teens react to them? And I guess, how did their parents react to

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S2: this new rule? An hour a day on, on the weekends and on Fridays, these times restrictions that I knew there were already time restrictions that were put in place in 2019 that only allow young kids to play less than an hour and a half on weekdays and on three hours on weekends. The thing is that even though there were these restrictions in place, China’s video game market is still the largest in the world.

S1: The latest gaming curbs are getting a lot of news coverage, maybe in part because Western parents read about them and think they sound kind of appealing, but they fit into this broader attempt by China’s central government to change the way teens live. One thing the government has targeted is online fan culture.

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S2: When they talk about fan culture in China, they’re talking about this growth of an industry where where you have these massive fan clubs that ban behind celebrities. And in China, I mean, I guess it’s not that dissimilar to fan cultures elsewhere. But what the government has been really getting unhappy about is that they say that is causing a lot of internet disorder. So, for example, on social media, they say that they see fan clubs attacking each other. Unlike China’s version of Twitter, for example, some of these talent shows in order to vote for the contest, then you, you want to see win or to be able to be part of the ban. You actually have to like buy products in order to be able to cast their votes. So there was a big scandal a couple of months ago where fans of this show will feel like wasting a lot of milk. They were buying milk that was from a sponsor of the show, but then throwing it down the drain. So it was kind of seen this Oh, this is very wasteful. So is this sort of behaviors that the Chinese government took note of?

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S1: Is it possible to even know like how much time and money kids are spending kind of pumping up their favorite celebrities?

S2: There’s not really a lot of research done on this specifically, but you see interviews in local media with with some of these kids that spend a lot of time supporting their favorite idol. And they will say, Oh, I spent thousands of dollars a month buying paraphernalia chasing the star around around the country. It’s not an industry that is to be taken lightly.

S1: In August, China’s internet regulator banned platforms from publishing lists that ranked celebrities because kids were spending hours online, trying to game the rankings and then fighting with other fan groups. The government also regulated merchandise sales, and those moves came after another crackdown on the $120 billion online tutoring industry where kids were getting extra help in school, often from Americans and other Westerners.

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S2: That move to everybody by surprise, I mean, it was the ferocity of that move in a way it’s very expensive to bring up a child in China where where you compare incomes to the costs when it comes to education or just providing life comforts for these kids. So when the government did this, a lot of it was seen very much as they want to reduce the amount of stress for parents and children are under.

S1: It sounds both like it’s about lowering stress, but also maybe kind of. Lowering some some inequality between the families that can pay for this kind of tutoring and those who can’t.

S2: There has been some skepticism about whether whether these sort of, you know, especially their private tutoring policy, whether it could have an inadvertent negative effect because, for example, when it was first announced after getting over had this believe, a lot of parents started going out to look for private tutors. So whether some of this would would go into sort of the gray gray market, that was one of the big questions that people had

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S1: when we come back. Chinese government isn’t just trying to change teen culture, it’s also trying to change the internet. You’re listening to what next? TBD, I’m Lizzie O’Leary, and I’m talking with Brenda Goh, who covers technology in China for Reuters.

S2: The video game curbs came out last month, but China’s technology sector has been under pressure since late last year. You could say that the starting gun for this season the regulatory crackdown was where they blocked the Ant Group IPO.

S4: Ant was supposed to list on Thursday. And not anymore. The Shanghai Stock Exchange has said that it’s going to be suspending the listing

S2: after the company that was going to be the world’s biggest IPO and that was blocked. And from then, regulators in China signal that we are going to be much tougher on technology companies. We saw numerous fines. We saw punishments companies being called out for infringing consumer rights, building up monopolies in certain areas. So the video game curbs follows all of that.

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S1: When you look at the share prices of these companies, you know, recently they’re fallen kind of dramatically. But it also feels a little bit like the central government is maybe trying to scale back some of their growth. And I wonder if you think at all, there is a recognition that some of the, you know, runaway economic growth of the past 15 years in China had real downsides to it. Like, is this just about technology and video games or is it about trying to find a more sustainable economic model?

S2: I think what the Chinese government has been saying is that they recognize that there has been some excesses or some, you know, bad practices that have resulted off the growth of these technology companies. For example, they’re really concerned about data because a lot of these technology companies, they know everything about you, right? Because we we rely on Alibaba and Tencent apps and other technology, other tech companies apps to manage our everyday lives in China. So the government is worried about consumer rights. There’s also concern about the treatment of gig workers in China. China relies a lot on your delivery man that, you know, in China is very cheap. It’s very it’s very quick to get something delivered. And over the years, that’s that’s been a great growth driver. But at the same time, there’s been increasing recognition that a lot of these workers, they don’t have the basic protections like insurance. They don’t have adequate rest, period.

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S1: Sometimes, you know, a lot of these regulatory curbs are frankly things that I think Western governments would like to impose on their tech companies as well.

S2: I mean, yeah, that’s the that’s the interesting parallels that you see. I mean, a lot of a lot of the discussions that we’re having here is not it’s not things that you know in the U.S. or in Europe, unheard of. For example, in the U.S., in Europe, there’s a lot of chatter as well about regulating the gig economy companies, right? And China has been able been doing it here as well. So, yeah, I mean, it’s it’s quite fascinating to look at the global regulatory picture right now and see how that’s progressing in different parts of the world.

S1: Is it possible to look at some of these changes and get a sense of what the central government or Xi Jinping in particular want for China in the next decade? Or is that is that over kind of oversimplifying?

S2: What they’ve been saying a lot is how they want to bring culture, bring the economy, bring these companies back to socialist values. China already has pretty strict censorship policies where, where, where things that are on the internet that seem to violate socialist values are censored pretty quickly. But what analysts what China watchers have been have been observing with the last couple of months of crackdown this there’s a lot more of an intentional effort to bring different parts of society of culture activity into place.

S1: I wonder what a socialist internet looks like, like that’s such a fascinating kind of way of thinking about it. What could that model actually end up being?

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S2: On Tuesday, they put out a document they said, Well, guidelines for the development are what they call a civilized or civilized cyberspace. So what the outlanded document was stronger control over content. That influence should be dealt with. Model work as model citizens in China should be should be further highlighted that the internet should be used to better spread socialist values. There is a vision for what the internet should be like from Beijing.

S1: Brenda Goh, thank you so much.

S2: Thanks, Lizzie.

S1: Brenda Goh covers technology for Reuters. And that is it for us today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks, edited by Troy Bosch and Alison Benedict. Alisha Montgomery, the executive producer for Slate Podcasts and TBD, is part of the larger What Next family? It’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And I want to recommend you go back and listen to Tuesday’s episode of What Next? It’s about how college professors have just had it with COVID workloads. Pay everything. What next? We’ll be back next week. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening. And.