Does freedom begin with gaming?

The duty of states to protect their youth

by Dr. Eliane Perret, curative educator and psychologist

The increasing media consumption of children and adolescents always gives rise to discussions. When the People’s Republic of China announced new regulations at the end of August this year to protect its adolescent generation, many press reports appeared criticising this approach. However, it would be time to seriously address this issue.

Football training, piano playing, ballet, floorball – and where is the gaming?

After the summer vacations, the students of the upper school introduced themselves to each other with a profile. It was about their favourite subject, their favourite colour, their favourite drink, their favourite leisure activity and other favourite things. They talked about intensive soccer training, playing the piano, ballet, floorball, building remote-controlled cars and other things. I was amazed, because I had read that most young people in Switzerland spend several hours a day in front of a screen and that the amount of time young people spend on their mobile phones has increased significantly compared to the last survey, especially on weekends. 40% of young people regularly play video games, get information via social media and communicate with their friends and relatives via mobile phone. Everyday media life has been dominated by mobile phones and the Internet for quite some time, and hardly any young person does not use a mobile phone or the Internet on a daily basis, according to the James Study 2020. However, “chilling out”, “hanging out with friends”, or even “gaming” came last in the aforementioned profiles, if at all, and only somewhat coyly. Were our students among the rare exceptions?

China: Restricting online gaming time

During the same period, there were reports in the media that the Chinese government wanted to restrict the online gaming time of its children and young people. The commentaries in our press were consistently skeptical to dismissive, with talk of “rigorous methods”, “absurd regulations” and “drastic measures”. Such unanimity always invites closer scrutiny! – China’s National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) had announced that henceforth online game providers would have to ensure that they would only offer their services to minors (under 18 years of age) on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, and for one hour at a time from 8 to 9 pm. In addition, the companies would have to ensure that users log in and register with their real names, thus revealing their age. Online companies that fail to implement these measures would be subject to legal prosecution. According to press reports, the Chinese tech company Tencent has already implemented this directive with a corresponding technology.

A good environment for healthy development

So in China, children and teenagers will no longer be allowed to play on the computer on school days in the future. The announcement urges families, schools and other sectors of society to fulfil their responsibility to protect minors in accordance with the law and create a good environment for the healthy development of minors.
  The business newspaper “Economic Information Daily”, part of the state-run Xinhua news agency, had previously called for gaming platforms to take social responsibility and not simply chase profits, stating that video games have become a “spiritual opiate” and “electronic drugs” that prevent children from learning and alienate them from their own culture. A characterisation reminiscent of the Opium War, which began the period of China's subjugation to the economic interests of major Western powers. A description that should not simply be shelved, even if the newspaper article in question was subsequently revised and toned down.

Family trouble spot – justified concern

As I read this, a conversation with a mother and her son crossed my mind as we discussed his school development. We were concerned that for some time he had seemed unsleeping in the mornings, seemed absent from class, and had severe mood swings. When the conversation turned to his leisure activities, the temperature in the room dropped at least ten degrees, and the son looked at his mother with an icy stare. She told that she was very worried about her son's “gaming”. They had regulations, but her son would have a thousand excuses and find ways around them. She suspected that he was online at night and therefore unsleeping, although they had taken measures against that as well. Unfortunately, her husband and she would not agree; he himself would also often play online games. What the mother described to us was not unusual. For a long time, this topic has been part of many school discussions, often in connection with poorer performance, conspicuous tiredness and unusual lack of interest. Apparently, this is not only a Chinese problem!

Chinese online gaming industry – a long story

In China, too, computer games have long since ceased to lead a niche existence. The country has been the world’s largest market for online games since 2009. In 2013, it grew by 33 % compared to the previous year (it was more than ten billion Swiss francs), and the plan was for a growth rate of at least 22 % per year until 2017. The biggest growth was in mobile games, which can be played on smartphones or tablet computers. The Chinese online gaming industry is dominated by private investors. In the beginning, the government supported the development of the games industry and saw in games opportunities to strengthen national consciousness. The majority of games produced in China were therefore set in fictional game worlds with a historical background. The most popular games, however, have long come from the USA and Korea.

Possible negative influence not an issue at first

In the early days of computer games, a possible negative influence of computer games on violent, aggressive behaviour was not a topic of discussion in China. On the contrary, competitive computer gaming was recognised as an official sport by the Chinese National Sports Association as early as 2003. Ten years later, the Chinese sports administration founded the official national team for computer games. Today, we speak of e-sports. The number of regular online gamers increased rapidly between 2004 and 2014 from 20 to around 340 million Chinese (half of all Chinese internet users). Game consoles (PlayStation, X-Box) were banned for a long time. Most games could be downloaded for free, but buying game time and tools to make the game a success was a lucrative business. In 2003, after a proliferation of games, the Ministry of Culture classified online games as cultural activities on the internet that needed a permit. For a few years, the government supported the production of domestic games, which were supposed to convey the national spirit, the zeitgeist and a healthy upbringing of the youth. However, foreign games such as World of Warcraft (WoW) remained the most popular. Over time, they became aware of the problems associated with the games and in March 2018, the licensing authority restructured itself. It should henceforth examine games for possible ethical problems and also effectively counter the increasingly spreading internet addiction and physical problems such as rampant short-sightedness.

No carnage, no blood, no revealing depictions

As a result, the game market stood still for a few months. Then the new Ethics Committee for Online Games reviewed the first twenty games. Eleven of them had to be remedied, the remaining nine were banned, among them Fortenite, which is played worldwide and known to be highly addictive, while WoW and League of Legends had to be remedied. They no longer wanted games with revealingly depicted women, blood, carnage and content that distorted history. Finally, new regulations were introduced in 2019. Underage users were prohibited from consuming online games between 10pm and 8am. The maximum playing time was set at one and a half hours on weekdays and three hours for weekends and public holidays, with one hour allowed daily during holidays. In addition, 8 to 16-year-old gamers were allowed to spend a maximum of 28 Swiss francs per month on additional in-game purchases, while 16 to 18-year-olds were allowed twice that amount. These regulations were the first attempt to protect the mental and physical health of the growing generation and to prevent children and young people from slipping into an addiction to online games

Reaction to the gambling industry's unchecked appetite for profit

However, there was only limited compliance with the regulations and ways were found to circumvent them. For example, clever game developers tricked the “blood ban” by changing the colour of the blood. Therefore, the existing problems remained and led to the regulations published in August 2021. With them, such games can be denied a licence to sell.
  The current government measures are therefore not in a vacuum, but a reaction to a development that made them necessary. “It is time for our country to tackle this problem head on,” commented Tong Lihua, director of the Beijing Child Rights Aid and Research Centre, on the latest regulations, adding that the latest move was a reaction to the gambling industry’s unchecked desire for profit, which was betting on the high probability of addiction.1

Gaming addiction – a heavy burden for all

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has included computer game addiction with the code 6C51 in the latest version of the classification system of mental diseases. It is due to come into force on 1 January 2022. An addiction is a heavy burden for the person affected and his or her entire environment. This is impressively shown in a film by Swiss television about the life of a 30-year-old man whose life revolved around computer games for ten years.2 He spent up to 20 hours a day gaming, became increasingly neglected and was hardly capable of real interpersonal contact. By the time he was 20, he had quit his apprenticeship and spent his time in front of the screen, cut off from the world around him and run down. It took a determined push from outside for him to venture into rehab on a farm in the Bernese Oberland and attempt a new start in life. The long time in which he had refused the tasks of life became obvious and he had to learn to cope with a normal everyday life. But the addiction caught up with him again and again, so that he finally had to decide on inpatient treatment in an addiction clinic.
  Who would wish that on our growing children?

And for us? – Motion for funding!

Two years ago, in the German Bundestag, the parliamentary group of the FDP submitted the motion Smart Germany – Games – Driver for Innovation and Creativity.3 Based on the statement that in 2018 games and game consoles generated 4.4 billion euros, the applicants want to improve Germany as a gaming location and make it a know-how leader. To this end, they demand the recognition of e-sports as a sport that teaches team spirit, social behaviour, the ability to express oneself through language and foreign language, and media competence, and that also requires training, diligence and excellent motor skills. Furthermore, the applicants describe online games as an important economic and cultural asset. They emphasise the importance of Serious Games in medicine, therapy, companies, the military and education. Among other things, the petitioners demanded that a comprehensive games promotion be established and financially supported at the federal level in the federal budget and that the “German Computer Game Award be made a top award with international lighthouse character.” A single sentence was dedicated to the German children and young people who are now affected by media addiction and in need of treatment, numbering around 700,000. The motion was later rejected. However, the CDU, CSU and SPD agreed to allocate 50 million euros to the federal budget in 2019 for the introduction of a games fund, with a further 50 million each per year to be made available until 2023. It was described as a historic step for games funding in Germany.
  In July 2021, Swiss game developers also wrote to the Federal Council seeking financial support in the face of the current crisis. They see themselves as an industry that tinkers with new visual storytelling and sets the highest artistic standards for itself, and emphasise the opportunities to participate in the global market for computer games, which last year turned over between 160 and 173 billion dollars. At the federal level, the issue is a draft law to “protect minors from content in films and video games that may endanger their physical, mental, psychological, moral or social development”, in the awareness that children and young people are currently not sufficiently protected from harmful content and that this would also be made more difficult by the global context of the internet and the internationality of the market. This was preceded by several motions and stand initiatives, some of which had called for a complete ban on video games that glorify violence. The draft law focuses on the protection of young people through the declaration and observance of age limits by means of clearly visible age labels and additional content information and the promotion of media competence.4

Working together on the problem

Back to the beginning and China’s efforts to protect the mental and physical health of the growing generation, as is the task of every state. Wouldn’t it be time to rethink what we provide (or even expect) as “mental food” for our children and young people? To connect globally, to treat the efforts of other countries with respect, to evaluate each other’s experiences and learn from each other? Perhaps the thoughts of Tien Haibo, a Chinese online game developer, would not be a bad guide, who said in light of the new regulations: “Those who believe that they will lose business opportunities or that their business model will suffer as a result of this policy are probably producing content that deserves to be taken off the market. A healthy gaming market should not produce such games in the first place.”  •



1 http://www.news.cn/english/2021-09/02/c_1310164734.htm. “Why China acts tough to limit online gaming for minors?” accessed 17 October 2021.
2 “Game Over – Im Sog der Computerspielsucht.» (Game over – In the Wake of Computer Game Addiction) Documentary from 12 March 2020. www.srf.ch, retrieved 15 October 2021
3 Smart Germany – Games – Treiber für Innovation und Kreativität. Deutscher Bundestag, 19. Wahlperiode, Drucksache 19/14059. (Smart Germany – Games – Driver for Innovation and Creativity. German Bundestag, 19th legislative period, printed matter 19/14059). 16 October 2019
4 Swiss Federal Act on the Protection of Minors in the Areas of Film and Video Games (JSFVG) and Dispatch on the Federal Act on the Protection of Minors in the Areas of Film and Video Games. www.news.admin.ch, retrieved 19 October 2021

Tencent

The world’s most successful operator of online games is by far the Chinese Internet company Tencent. Foreign companies do not have direct access in China to distribute their games, only Chinese companies are entitled to the appropriate licenses. Tencent has a marked-dominating role in the distribution of non-Chinese games. With a volume of eight billion US dollars between June 2014 and June 2015, it was the global bestseller, since then the group has further consolidated its position by taking over major foreign online game providers.

 

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