China's gaming restrictions are an 'ineffective policy' that hasn't cut playtime

 China flag waving in the wind.
China flag waving in the wind.

The Chinese Communist Party has in recent years begun to try and combat what it sees as the problems with technology and gaming, and in doing so has made China one to watch for government regulators worldwide. China may not be a 1:1 comparison with any other country, and the regime is authoritarian, but the issues it's tackling and the way it's chosen to do so (in examples like crypto mining, an outright ban) are policy lessons: the question being do the restrictions work and, if so, how effectively?

In November 2019, the CCP launched new regulations with the stated goal of "prevention of online gaming addiction in juveniles", under which videogame publishers are obliged to stop players under 18 from playing more than 90 minutes a day (three hours on public holidays), and to stop them playing altogether between 10pm and 8am. The government was explicit about the fact it considered excessive playtime on videogames to have a negative impact on people and, despite some public grumbling, made the restrictions even more onerous in September 2021: minors are now limited to one hour of daily playtime between 8pm-9pm on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays. There are of course ways around this, like using your uncle's account, more on which later.

So: has it had an impact and reduced playtime? A new study pretty much gives its conclusion away in the title: "'No evidence that Chinese playtime mandates reduced heavy gaming in one segment of the video games industry" (the authors are David Zendle, Catherine Flick, Elena Gordon-Petrovskaya, Nick Ballou, Leon Y. Xiao and Anders Drachen, all of whom are computer scientists at various institutions).

The study comes with some caveats but is based on a tremendous amount of anonymised data provided by Unity Technologies, maker of the Unity engine. The latter is used by an estimated 61% of game developers worldwide and the majority of games made with it are for mobile platforms. The researchers had data spanning one million separate game identifiers, 7.04 billion hours of playtime and approximately 2.4 billion gamer profiles. With the latter figure, note that China's total population is estimated at just over 1.4 billion, so we are talking about multiple accounts for individual users. The data tracks the period between 16 August 2019 and 16 January 2020, with the researchers choosing to cut off here in order that the beginnings of the Covid-19 pandemic don't interfere with the results (with lockdown inevitably leading to variance in behaviour).

The main problem with this data is that, because individual players cannot be identified, it incorporates both players under 18 and those over 18 (whose playtime is not regulated by the CCP). Thus there are relevant and irrelevant individuals, and this leads to the various methodologies used to interpret the data: this is explained in detail in the 'methods' section of the paper, but essentially the team slices this dataset in five different ways and also separates out 10,000 randomised profiles to analyse whether individuals tended to play less heavily after restrictions were brought in.


"We maintain that the result observed here is most plausibly explained by an ineffective policy."

The study found that, while the majority of players gamed for less than an hour a week anyway, the proportion of profiles that engaged in 'heavy play' (which here means four hours per day, six days per week) actually increased, though not by a degree that met the threshold whereby it would be regarded as of practical significance. It notes that ID-sharing (a loophole in the regulation) and VPN usage inevitably factor-in to these results, as the main way that under-18s get around the regulations, but the degree to which that's true is outside the paper's scope.

"For the domain of gaming, our study provides evidence that broadly scoped restriction policies on youth digital behaviour may lead to no widespread and uniform decrease in utilization," say the researchers, again acknowledging the data's limitations. "While our analyses suggest that the likelihood of heavy playtime may have not been reduced in some parts of the games industry after regulation, they are unable to estimate how prevalent this phenomenon is among young people specifically."

The debate about whether China’s top-down control of playtime is likely to promote the health and wellbeing of young people, as the CCP claims, is one thing. But this paper suggests a more fundamental issue with the approach: it may not be changing behaviour at all. What the researchers call 'regulatory escape' has been observed in relation to bans in other areas, such as pornography, gambling and smoking, and "a similar phenomenon may be occurring in the video game domain as well."

It is of course impossible to be definitive here. The results could mean the above, or it could be the case that a drop in playtime among minors has been masked and offset by a big increase in playtime among adults. But playtime does appear to have increased across-the-board after regulation.

"We maintain that the result observed here is most plausibly explained by an ineffective policy" reads the conclusion. "Nonetheless, in order to build on this work, future research must focus on generating data infrastructure: technological frameworks that allow privacy-preserving independent access to large-scale behavioural data fused to relevant self-report or demographic indicators."