Talking Points

Let the kids play video games

Pity the youth of China, who can no longer enjoy the quintessentially teenage experience of pwning noobs at 2 a.m.

On Monday, the Chinese government tightened restrictions on video games, sanctioning children under the age of 18 to no more than three hours of online gameplay a week, and only between the hours of 8 and 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Touted as a necessary precaution against the "spiritual opium" of video games — a means of "effectively [protecting] the physical and mental health of minors," per regulators — the move is an extraordinary flex of Beijing's cultural authoritarianism. 

It also hamstrings an entire generation.

In recent years, video games have grown as a "center of cultural life," Polygon reports, even as "they still carry the stigma of disapproval, of being an external force that's at least partly responsible for modern ills." Even in the U.S., games have been blamed for everything from male unemployment rates to glorifying violence. But in China — home to more than half a billion gamers — the government can do more than just talk. The country is tightening its recent crackdown, pressuring gaming companies to implement "real-name registration and facial-recognition technology" to keep youth offline, The Wall Street Journal reports.

But while video games, like anything, can be damaging in excess, there are enormous upsides too. In addition to studies that suggest games can alleviate stress and depression, and improve eyesight and motor skills, children who play video games may also be more creative. For digital natives, learning to communicate and make connections in online spaces is a vital social skill as well: "Video gameplay gives gamers the chance to develop different techniques for dealing with conflict, work out various resolutions, learn how to interact with their friends, and experience different emotions," Patrick Markey, the founder of Villanova University's Interpersonal Research Lab, told National Geographic.

While three hours might sound like a lot of time to spend playing video games, there are thousands of fully functioning citizens who play upwards of eight hours of games a week without it resulting in the end of civilization. Contrary to the alarmist regulators in China, a "gaming disorder" is a specific definition that describes "only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities." Additionally, three hours a week is nothing compared to the seven-plus hours per day many teens spend on their phones. In fact, a young person not playing video games in 2021 might actually be more isolated and alienated than if they were.

That's because online gaming in particular often connects strangers who wouldn't have otherwise talked to each other — and might not even live in the same country, time zone, or continent — and fosters collaboration, problem-solving, and the sharing of ideas between them. And despite Beijing's lofty talk about games being distractions from school and family responsibilities, it might be the great, globalizing benefit of gaming that the authoritarian state actually fears.

China's youth, after all, will be losing out on more than just late-night gameplay of League of Legends. They're being robbed of the playground where they learn how to be digitally savvy 21st-century participants. That might benefit China's censorship goals in the short term, but for the country's youth, it's a disaster. It's in Beijing's best interest to let kids be kids — and play.