Play Time Is Over
Perhaps this is somewhat sports adjacent, but there’s one sport that I can almost guarantee China will fall behind the rest of the world. And that sport is competitive gaming, which, depending on your perspective, either is or absolutely is not part of the greater competitive sports complex. Regardless, it’s played around the world, has a huge fan base that watches on places like twitch and other platforms you’ve barely heard of if you’ve over the age of 30, and is even now a varsity sports program in several American Universities. It’s like snowboarding without the broken bones and frostbite. And not surprisingly, it’s a sport dominated by athletes, and I use the term liberally, typically barely old enough to legally drive much less drink.
But China, which has become a global sporting superpower, has damaged any chance of developing emerging gaming stars by largely handcuffing the talent development process. That’s because China has just limited online gaming for those under the age of 18 to three hours a week and only on weekends. This is a reduction from the previous cap of 90 minutes per weekday and up to three hours every weekend day. That means the hard work of spending hours in a dark room playing video games against competitors around the world is now basically impossible. Video games are, if nothing else, a sport of repetition. So three hours a week is like telling aspiring Olympic marathoners they’re allowed one jog around the neighborhood, and only on Saturday.
The reason given for this ban is to keep kids from getting addicted to video games. The Chinese government has also said this reflects the wishes of Chinese parents, who, like the government, think online gaming addiction affects teenagers’ academics and physical and mental health, all which lead to a series of social ills. To be clear, as the parent of a 14 and an 11-year-old, I can’t say I really disagree, even if I don’t love the Big Brother approach. We spend a fair amount of time in our house discouraging too much time on gaming systems we bought anyway. I suppose at least in China, there’s someone else to blame when you tell them it’s time to stop playing.
There’s other likely motivations for this new ruling, including China’s ongoing dispute with the tech industry and the obvious governmental intent to control information and access, something we know less in the social media wild west that is America. Online gaming is, perhaps more than anything, another form of mediated communication, perhaps more like Facebook than football. Which means it might be a tough open commodity in a country build upon message control.
What’s perhaps most surprising about this rule is its dichotomy with how China address pretty much every other sport, particularly those fought on the world stage in international championships like the Olympics. Where China was years ago an Olympic afterthought, it’s now the second leading global power after the US, something that’s both representative of and in concert with their global economic rise. Winning in sports, particularly against other global powers, was yet another way the Chinese government showed the world of their ascent of economic capitalism. Which is also why elite Chinese sport is far more overseen by government agencies who identify talent early and ensure its success – far different than the corporatized sociological experiment that is American elite sport, where companies and schools and media converge to make money off aspiring athletes. The same seems to be happening here in professional gaming, as colleges create varsity teams for young gaming stars who’ve been supported by massive gaming companies that make billions off the millions of kids who do actually play online games for hours every week, including weekdays.
So, what does this mean for aspiring Chinese gamers. For now, it’s probably not good, at least for all those who just want to have fun. But I suspect that the Chinese sports authorities will find a way to identify young folks who have the potential to be elite gamers and ensure their success – only just under the government’s control. I’m sure there will eventually be elite gaming academies run by the government, just like there’s schools for elite gymnasts and swimmers and so on. It just won’t be at home on a weeknight when your parents aren’t watching.
Until then, well, I suppose if you’re an elite gamer not in China, the road to victory just got a bit easier.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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