New Limits Give Chinese E-Gamers Whiplash

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Many in China’s gaming industry agree that games have some downsides. The most popular games in the country are made for smartphones and are free to play, meaning the businesses making them live and die based on how well they draw users in and get them to pay for extras. The game makers have become experts at hooking players.

But top-down attempts to wean children off games — what state media has called “poison” and “spiritual pollution” — have sometimes been worse than the problem itself. Boot camps fond of military discipline have proliferated. So have Chinese media accounts of abuses, like beatings, electroconvulsive therapy and solitary confinement.

Even the country’s past ban on consoles like the PlayStation made things worse, Mr. Shi said. That ban helped propel the popularity of the free-to-play mobile games. Studios selling games for consoles are motivated to make high-quality games, like blockbuster movies. Not so, he said, with free-to-play games, which are motivated to maximize what they can get out of players.

For Mr. Shi, the government’s new limits are similar to the ones his mother imposed on him growing up. During weekdays, his PlayStation 2 stayed locked away in a cabinet. Each disc he bought was scrutinized. Plenty of them were deemed inappropriate.

When he got to college, he entered a period that he called “payback,” trying to make up for the years when he had strict limits. Even now, he sometimes indulges his gaming habits or spends more than he should. What’s important to understand, he said, is that for a generation that grew up largely without siblings, many with parents who worked late, video games offered a portal to a social world beyond the doldrums of school pressures.

“After school, I would finish supper alone, and it sounds pathetic. But what made it less pathetic was I had my gaming friends,” he said. He recalled that when his parents kept him from playing games, he would go online and watch others game.

“Banning people from doing something doesn’t mean people will do what you want them to do,” he said.