China gets tough on protection of minors online

Previous measures have significantly reduced the time minors spend playing games online. Now the rules are crystal clear – three hours each week.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By CUI Peng


China’s rules to prevent kids from getting hooked on online video games are strict. People under the age of 18 are only allowed to play between 8pm and 9pm on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays.

"We open the games to kids at 8 and kick them off at 9," ZHENG Lei told Jiemian News. "Tencent Games hosts hundreds of products. We have hundreds of millions of users, so it is pretty tricky to keep everything within the rules.”

Childish ingenuity

Zheng Lei, “the child catcher,” oversees Tencent's juvenile protection system. At the very first, his work was not appreciated, but now, Zheng and hundreds like him are key to the survival of gaming in China, a 300-billion-yuan industry serving almost 700 million consumers.

With these numbers, the gaming industry should be a heavyweight in the national economy, but its historical failure to protect minors has always been a major obstacle. The penetration rate of the internet is nearly 95 percent among Chinese minors. Society needs to enable children to lead healthy digital lives.

Tencent, as a company that makes billions from gaming, is obliged to take the lead in a process that is nothing like changing the wheel on your car. This is more like changing all the wheels on a high-speed train, at high speed.

"You have to move forward. There is no way to retreat," Zheng told Jiemian News. Preventing minors from indulging in games is not his ultimate goal, Tencent wants children to adapt to the entire digital age.

From the early days, anti-addiction has been a bolt-on accessory to products. In 2005, an anti-addiction system was tested on famous online games such as Legend and World of Warcraft. The system was not connected to the public security system and children could get through it with a random ID number. In 2017, Tencent began to make real-life efforts to help minors.

"An anti-addiction system can’t just be a function the users can turn off whenever they feel like it," Zheng said. ID card verification was the first step but has done little to lessen the problem. Indeed, all previous attempts to curtail minors’ screentime, have spurred innovation in circumventing the rules: borrowing, renting and trading game accounts; changing devices, using other people’s phones to play.

Pony Ma, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Tencent, once found many players using his own identity information. "Children search for a celebrity's information and get through the system. It’s not just bad for kids in an ordinary way, but is the gateway to the whole illegal online industry, said Zheng.

It’s a nonstop battle of wits with children who are both remarkably creative and relentless. It is close to impossible to find and fix all the loopholes. Of course, children don’t just break through the gate and frolic freely in the virtual meadow, they are constantly harassed by a barrage of algorithms, including facial recognition, which breeds a constant stream of new tricks. Children play games on their grandparents' phones or directly ask them to pass the facial recognition tests. One kid played games as his grandma passed more than a dozen facial recognition tests.

Brief and clear

Last October, Tencent began to shout to parents, literally. A voice booms out when a facial recognition test is failed, in theory alerting parents to nearby illicit game-playing activity. Even adults are required to do a facial screening if they appear to be online too much. NetEase, another tech firm that relies heavily on its gaming products, including World of Warcraft, allows other players to report suspected minors.

There are signs that the measures are having some effect, but they are hardly conclusive. The time minors spend on games and the turnover generated has decreased significantly. Minors accounted for 0.7 percent of domestic game time in September, down from 6.4 percent in the previous year. Turnover dropped to 1.1 percent from 4.8 percent.

Gamers and game makers are all for protection to become a normal, passive operation performed 24/7, 365 days a year. But for most game companies, it is too difficult a task to handle right now. Facial recognition, for example, is not just about looking at a picture. The technology and links involved are very complicated and commensurately expensive.

Behind the technology is another team that protects the network from attack. Identity authentication demands an interface with public security organs. It is a very cumbersome internal collaboration with huge costs. Several top game companies told Jiemian News that they have plans to use facial recognition, but are not in a hurry. It’s expensive and they want to wait and see how it goes with Tencent. Tencent has a “complete” solution including rules, engines, algorithms, behavior analysis, and facial recognition.

If the industry proves itself incapable of self-regulation, regulations will be imposed, and no one really wants to go in that direction. No matter how the games evolve, the protection of minors will be crucial. On August 30, new rules were unveiled, and companies were given two days to implement them. According to Tencent, new rules usually take 2 to 3 weeks to build into the system. There was no time for the traditional tests, greyscale test, and go-live process - bugs were inevitable. Some games reduced functionality, but Tencent made the necessary tweaks with plenty of time to spare.

The new policy is brief and clear. It leaves no room for interpretation. Minors are only allowed to play between 8pm and 9pm on Fridays to Sundays and on public holidays. The rules are easy for parents and schools: three hours of video games per week.

Blockage and guidance

The technical approach to anti-addiction will always be a game of catch me if you can. Tencent speaks of "blockage" and "guidance". An anti-addiction system can block children's access to games, but guidance is the job of family, educators, and social services. Tencent claims some games have positive value, including interesting content about science, culture, and society.

The process of normalizing gaming has some curious side effects. Many adults are fraudulently demanding refunds on the basis that their accounts were used by children. Children call customer service simply to vent their anger. Some imitate their parents, clogging up customer service for those with real problems.

"We need to let children see that games can be valuable, not just entertaining," Zheng said.