As the arguments around the perceived mass addiction to the mobile game Arena of Valor have reached fever pitch, internet giant Tencent, the game’s developer, launched a new “anti-addiction system” in an attempt to dampen down the controversy. The new system restricts players of and under 12 years old to a maximum of one hour of game play per day and for those between 13 and 18, two hours. The company also launched what it called the “parental care” platform, which lets parents connect their children’s game accounts to their own mobile phones. Any time a registered minor logs into the game, his or her parents will receive a text message and have the option to remotely block the child from playing. According to Tencent, the system saw around 70,000 accounts registered on the day it was released.
However, according to reports, the system has not been working as well as expected. Players can easily bypass the restrictions by using an adult’s ID card or by buying one on the black market. The “parental care” system was even easier to be “cracked” – children would just open another account if their parents lock them out of the one they are using.
Tencent told the media that they would upgrade the system to bind the game account to one particular device. But some industry insiders complained that Tencent was going too far as an enterprise, arguing that the games are not at fault. Their points of view were supported by some of the experts who believed that addiction to games is a “phenomenon” rather than a “problem” and that management of online games is not as straightforward as simply banning or restricting their use.
Chinese society’s criticism of online games has developed alongside the emergence of the online games industry itself. As soon as online games entered the market in early 2000, He Zouma, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Sciences warned against the negative impact online games could have on the life of young people. Around the same time, the Party paper People’s Daily delivered a commentary on online games, labeling them “electronic heroin,” spreading violent and pornographic content and falsifying history.
To minimize the impact of the games, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television in 2003 required all online games operating in China to clearly post warnings, reminding players not to overindulge in games.
The “anti-addiction systems” followed around two years later. Based on real-name registration requiring players to input their ID card numbers to play, Chinese online games were able to shut their doors to minors or restrict the amount of time minors could play by forcing them out or decreasing in-game bonuses if the children played beyond the time limit.
However, some of these anti-addiction methods have become less and less effective as countermeasures and workarounds have advanced, and more importantly, as a new way of playing has taken over: smartphones. In contrast to computers, which parents could easily keep their children away from, mobile phones are insidious and hard to supervise. According to the 2017 annual Statistical Report on Internet Development in China released by the China Internet Network Information Center, China was home to 750 million Internet users by the end of 2016, 724 million of whom accessed the Internet via mobile phones and 422 million of whom were playing online games.
It seemed that the online game industry had entered a vicious cycle: on the one hand, the developers were trying their best to design games catering to the largest possible range of users – some of the projects were even supported by local governments due to their contribution to local economies. On the other, the developers constantly upgraded or increased anti-addiction measures to respond to social criticism that games were “poisoning” teenagers. The developers naturally denied these claims.
“The anti-addiction systems have actually impaired users’ experiences, which all industries value,” said game developer Hu Chao at a recent forum on Arena of Valor held by the magazine Beijing Cultural Review. “Technically speaking, it is easy for us developers to set up an anti-addiction system, but we have to think why we have to control our games,” he continued.
“We don’t have an anti-addiction system for smoking which is proven to be harmful to health, so why should we adopt them in games when it still remains disputed whether or not games are harmful?” he added.
To draw more customers, a restaurant in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, offers a special service – they invite expert players of Arena of Valor to play the game on behalf of diners
A student who has completed a six-month course bows to the head teacher at the Qide Education Center in Beijing, June 11, 2014. The Qide Education Center is a military-style boot camp which offers treatment for internet addiction
Hu’s view was shared by two other experts present at the forum. Liu Mengfei, an online game researcher at the Chinese Digital Games Research Association, said that she felt shocked that Chinese people have been so clearly biased against games for over a decade. “It may relate to Confucian thinking that Chinese people always consider games to be ‘bad,’ since in the old agricultural era there was no clear boundary between work and play, and games were always related to a ‘misplaced soul’,” said Liu.
“However, we have to note that games have actually played a role in social development since olden times… As we entered the industrial era where both time and space have taken on distinct boundaries – for example, home and workplace, work time and spare time – games should no longer be deemed negative. We have to learn to regard them more neutrally and make use of their properties,” she added.
According to Liu, one of the most beneficial properties of online games is their rapid feedback. In an RPG (role play game), for example, players receive bonuses if they, for example, help villagers repel enemies. In a multi online battle arena (MOBA) game like Arena of Valor, words of praise will pop up on screen when players become the first in the team to kill an enemy or when they kill the highest number of enemies. Such feedback generates a sense of achievement and urges people to play on.
“Games satisfy people’s curiosity and meet their demands for social acknowledgement … they imagine themselves as the character they are playing in the game and feel self-realized,” said Ren Wenqi, professor at the Gansu Institute of Political Science and Law.
It is what Liu calls the positive aspect of games, which she believes could be introduced in children’s education. Liu experimented by using games to teach a class about the routes of ancient voyages. She partitioned the routes into an array of tasks to complete as RPG games often do, and divided the class into two groups to compete with each other. She found that the students maintained high levels of enthusiasm during the class and quickly absorbed what they were being taught.
Tian Feng, who researches youth issues at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also supported “rectifying” games. He revealed that he played Arena of Valor extensively when he was preparing for an exam for promotion. On the premise of reasonable time distribution, he believes games are effective in reducing stress. According to Tian, managing gameplay is actually about time management. If a parent could help children properly arrange study and play, the games would not pose any harm, but rather may benefit the children.
Yet, a majority of Chinese parents still simply classify games as “harmful things,” with many even believing that Internet or game addiction is a kind of disease to be cured. Against such a background, so-called anti-Internet-addiction schools have emerged across the country, many of which were reported to take extreme measures to “cure” people whom they called “Internet addicts.”
For example, earlier this year, an anti-Internet-addiction school in Linyi, Shandong Province, was alleged to have punished students with electric shocks. Many students from the school told the media that they were forced by their parents to attend the school which was run like a concentration camp. Attendees had to strictly obey the rules or would be given electric shocks.
No matter how terrified they became or injured by the shocks, their parents stayed silent. Some of them managed to escape the school, only to be sent back by their parents and punished more harshly.
Despite the public outcry after the news got out, no police or authority went to investigate the school. Yang Yongxin, the school’s founder, dubbed “evil” by netizens, came to defend himself following the media coverage, arguing that many parents need and believe in him.
He was not lying. Media reports alleged that the school was backed by a so called “parents group,” which took charge of supervising the students and catching and bringing back any who escaped. Many netizens exclaimed that such schools will continue to exist if parents do not change their opinion that online games are bad and addiction to them is a disease.
As physiologist Wang Xiaoli sees it, however, children’s addiction to games is often due to parents’ failure to help their children balance play and study. She revealed that she has worked out a schedule to help her own 10-year-old son manage his time, and her son has stuck to it. “I told my son that you have the right to control your spare time if you have finished what you should do,” she said. “My son is also playing Arena of Valor, but I don’t worry that he will get into it.”
Wang has come into contact with many children addicted to the games and has found that behind their addiction lies a variety of mental issues. “We have to find out what kind of role such games have played in a child’s life … Some children are not happy in real life, some feel they are not respected, and some lack a sense of achievement … all of these will lead them to turn to games,” Wang explained, revealing that most of the children coming to her have problems with their parents.
Tian Feng attributes parents and teachers’ bias against games to the “powerful culture” overwhelming less powerful individuals, a feature of a fast-changing society. “People naturally reject new things that they have never seen before. Today’s parents’ distrust of games is just like the older generation’s bias against kungfu novels which today’s parents loved in their childhood … parents just don’t want to find out about what their children like,” he explained.
“If children have enough [interesting] social activities to do, they will have less time and space for playing games. If every adult around a minor could guide him in how to play games, games themselves would not a big problem,” said Ren Leyi, a professor of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.
According to experts interviewed, parents and teachers have little understanding of which games are good and which not. Despite its popularity, Arena of Valor is not believed to be “good enough,” at least according to Liu and Tian. Just a few months ago, Arena of Valor was heavily criticized by the media and some experts for altering Chinese history by making historical figures the game’s heroes after revising their stories and changing their appearance and even gender.
“Saying games are not harmful does not mean that all games are good,” Liu said. “As many experts and schools recommend students good books and movies, no one recommends them a good game.”
As early as 2001, Chinese experts were proposing the introduction of a classification system for online games as the West has done. The proposal, however, remains just a scrap of paper. Ren Leyi attributed the absence of a classification system to the poor legislative environment of the Chinese Internet. “The Internet develops much faster than relevant legislation. The authorities may worry that some cultural products which they do not want to see in the Chinese market will manipulate the classification system to find a way to come back,” he explained.
“We don’t even have a classification system for movies, let alone online games. China’s online game industry actually has not yet come to a phase of agreement… And, relevant authorities have neither an understanding of the idea of classifying games nor wish to,” said Ren Wenqi.
In September 2016, the Ministry of Education for the first time added “digital games and management” to the list of university majors, believed to be a milestone indicating people’s correction of a bias against online games. Yet, given China has neither a relevant theoretical framework nor qualified teachers and textbooks for the subject, people are not optimistic about the future of the new major.
According to Tian Feng, technical and social management are two focuses of online games management, with the latter being more efficient though requiring the cooperation of parents, schools and relevant authorities. However, it seems that none of the responsible parties are in any way prepared.
Zhou Tian and Yang Zhijie contributed to this story