Deep Dive: Gaming Addiction in China

I’m at a salon in Shanghai getting my hair cut for the summer when I start up a game of Arena of Valor on my cellphone.

“Oh, you play that game, too?” my hairdresser asks. “I play that game a lot, anytime I have free time.”

Arena of Valor is the Western port of a Chinese game developed by Tencent, Kings of Glory, which is immensely popular here in China. I’m not surprised the hairdresser recognizes the game – Kings of Glory has 200 million registered users and as many as 70 million active players per day.

The game is so popular, Tencent recently implement restrictions on young players to preempt government regulations after the game received criticism for its “addictive nature.”

Although the WHO has only recently decided to classify “gaming disorder” as a new mental health disorder in their 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases, video game addiction has been a serious concern in China, both for parents and for the Chinese government, for years. According to documents from the Internet Culture Office and Ministry of Culture, which outlines video game content guidelines for video game developers, games, “should not include factors that cause minors to become addicted to the game.” Some have even likened video games to electronic heroin or opium, drawing parallels to the fall of the Qing Dynasty.

“The allure of Internet games for children is like the poison of opium in China so many years ago; it doesn’t discriminate between the poor and the rich, between those of high or low position,” anti-Internet crusader Zhang Chunliang said in an interview with a Guangdong newspaper. “The highest hopes of innumerable parents for their children’s future may well be destroyed by Internet games.”

This sentiment has trickled down even to gamers themselves. Bowen Li, an employee at a recruiting firm that partners with videogame companies and an avid gamer himself, said that China’s young generation is under a lot of pressure.

“You know the Gini index?” he asks, referring to a way of measuring a nation’s wealth distribution. “They need something to deal with it. Compared with drugs, video games are more widely accepted.”

When asked if he thought China had a higher rate of video game addiction than other countries, Li answered, “Yes. Some games made in China are designed to attract people to get them addicted.”

Another gamer, Estelle Chen, agreed.

“I haven’t seen any research numbers,” she said. “But I personally think China has a higher rate compared to other countries.”

One recent study done by Giant Interactive and Eguan conducted in mainland China found that 67.5 percent of gamers said they knew friends who might have gaming addiction.

Numbers on addiction are hard to come by, especially for mainland China.

The percentage of the population estimated to be addicted to video games is 3 percent in the Netherlands, 5 percent in Australia, 8.5 percent in the United States, 8.7 percent in Singapore, 9.4 percent in Canada, and 9.9 percent in Spain, according to studies published in Australian Journal of Psychology, Psychological Science, The Annals Academy of Medicine, International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.

There are very few studies done in mainland China aimed at determining an addiction rate. A number often repeated in Chinese newspapers is a claim from clinics that treat addiction that 24 million young Chinese are addicted to video games. But that number appears low: with a population of 1.34 billion, that would be less than 2 percent of the population.

My own research suggests the number might be closer to 13 percent, which would be higher than the above mentioned countries.

Is the addiction rate high enough to warrant government regulations meant to curb it?

Li and Chen think so.

“The parents are not always so reliable,” Li said. “I think it is necessary to set some restrictions for the developers. I think it’s important to try to control game addiction.”

Chen agreed.

“I think the main responsibility is on the government,” she said. “They’re the ones that defined video game addiction in the first place, so it’s necessary for them to put forward preventative measures.”

That concern mentioned before over video games’ opium-like properties has fostered an environment where the government can impose restrictions on games in the name of limiting their addictive factors.

China has imposed the most extensive censorship on games compared to other countries. Historically, the Chinese Communist Party has acted as the protectors of national, cultural, and family values in China, and has used censorship as means of addressing social concerns. In fact, the author of “The Sociopolitical Internet in China”, Lokman Tsui, argued that the controversial nature of gaming addiction in China makes censorship, “not only acceptable to the public, but even creating a demand for regulation.”

As with other forms of addiction, there is a criteria for identifying problem video game playing that goes beyond simple over-indulgence. There is, however, no standardized, reliable, and valid instrument, nor is there an agreed upon definition of problem video game playing. Many researchers outside of mainland China rely on adapted DSM III-R and DSM-IV criteria for pathological gambling.

The most important factors, according to these researchers, include disregard for consequences (skipping class or work, lying, stealing, arguing, or fighting with someone in order to play video games), family or school disruption, withdrawal (restless or irritable when unable to play), lies and deception (hiding video game playing from friends or family), tolerance (needing to play more and more), loss of control (unable to stop playing or playing longer than intended), preoccupation (remembering past games and planning the next), and repetition or relapse (playing again and again to achieve one’s goal).

When reported on by Chinese media, journalists called those suffering from addiction “brain damaged” and people who are diagnosed as addicted are sent to rehabilitation facilities that mimic boot camps and are even subjected to electric shock therapy, a myriad of pills, and IV drips of sedatives. Many clinic directors view gaming addiction as no different than a drug addiction, and even use pharmaceutical regimens to treat patients as a substitute for the Internet.

This isn’t to say that people unconditionally look down on video games. Coco Yang, the parent of a sixth-grade son, said she allows her son to play video games an hour each week, depending on his performance at school. “I let him play games that develop intelligence,” she says, “but games that promote violence, young love, and encourage players to spend money should be supervised by government agencies.”

“I’m not completely opposed [to videogames],” says Jean Zhang, the vice-principle of a Shanghai primary school. “You need to make the best of new opportunities.”

“First of all, there is no need to worry too much about online games. They are a new way for children to understand the world, study the world, and sometimes relax themselves,” Zhang goes on. For parents who are worried their children might become addicted, she says, “Guide your child to play games at a reasonable time and for a reasonable duration, and develop agreements and arrangements that everyone is able to follow.”

Tencent says creating age restrictions on their games won’t impact them economically. As they told Reuters, “(Those) under 12 years old constitute a small proportion of our total user base and a smaller percentage of our paying user base. We do not expect these measures will have a material impact on our overall financial results.”

However, many indie companies might run into trouble if the government begins to force anti-addiction compliance. Many of these companies rely on a single IP to bring in revenue, and new regulations may require them to completely rework features in their games.

Government regulation of games is strict: one developer from Guangdong, Xu Youzhen, said his game was blocked from publication because it did not comply with family planning laws (the One Child Policy at that time). He said, “The administrative department requires that childbearing in our video games comply with family planning. That is to say that if you have second child in the game, we have to fine you a virtual social support fee. I am not making this up.”

Developers abroad looking to break into the mainland Chinese gaming market need to also take note. China’s recent laws regarding loot boxes, also related to curbing gaming addiction, caused Blizzard Entertainment to change the way they distribute loot boxes in China.

China has the largest number of online gamers (604 million in 2017) and the highest total game revenue in the world. That’s a huge market to leave untapped out of fear of potential regulations. Market researcher Niko Partners predicts the number of Chinese gamers will rise to 768 million in 2022.

The afternoon after my haircut, I’m settled in at my desk at work trying to finish an Arena of Valor game before my lunch break ends. The fourth grade math teacher that sits behind me stands up and leans over: “Oh, you play that game, too?” she asks.


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