Caging the Predator: How the Gaming Industry Targets Your Kids
Recently, there's been a lot of attention paid to online gaming in China. For a bit of context, however, according to Limelight Networks, Chinese gamers averaged 12.4 hours a day, well over the global average of 8.5 hours. It is particularly concerning for children and a recent Xinhua article went so far as to blast the industry for pedaling “spiritual opium.” As a result, the government has announced a slew of new laws over the past few months, regulating everything from the amount of time children can play to the ways in which companies can monetize gaming services.
To get a different perspective and find out if the industry is really as predatory as it’s made out to be, I spoke with industry insider Ben “Books” Schwartz, a narrative game designer who previously worked with Microfun Inc. in Beijing.
"Unfortunately, yes. Many Chinese game companies use wildly unethical and predatory design approaches, many borrowed from casinos and other forms of gambling. They lure in players with false promises of huge rewards (often carefully worded to avoid actually promising anything), they block off exciting content behind paywalls, and they make progress impossible without powerful characters and upgrades that can only be won from what is essentially a slot machine (a gachapon, in industry terms). These problems are also not unique to China and are being handled differently in different parts of the world. In some countries like Japan, these practices are regulated by the government; in other parts of the game industry, these practices are regulated by community morality. In China, they are unfortunately widespread and show no signs of abating. Notably, these practices almost never come from the actual game designers, as they make the games much less fun to play! Instead, they come from the monetization and marketing departments, following directives from company heads and outside investors who are just out to make as much money as they can from their players."
"I think it's a complicated situation. There is very much a current push in media and government in China demonizing video games as having a negative influence on youth and consuming their time and money. On the other hand, many games in China are in fact predatory and manipulative towards their players, many of whom are young."
"To an extent, but I also know that kids are smart – they've been finding ways around similar restrictions for years, and I'm sure they'll figure out ways around these too. (For example, many just register accounts in their parents' names, avoiding the limits on under-18 players.)"
"Absolutely, yes. Many Chinese game companies are frustrated with the regulations placed on games released in China, and so are pivoting to focus more and more on making games that will appeal to players outside China. It's much easier in a logistical sense to release games for Western markets, but the hard part is making games that Westerners actually want to play. This is where people like me come in – Western designers brought in by Chinese game studios to help them do just that."
With 720 million gamers active in China, the industry isn’t going anywhere and will continue to evolve. Tencent has already begun using facial recognition software on its wildly popular Honor of Kings game as a way of identifying and enforcing laws aimed at minors. Ultimately, however, only time will tell if these rules are effective and capable of curbing gaming addiction and predatory practices.