Tencent has revealed it will limit how long younger gamers in China can spend playing 'Honour of Kings', the world's highest-grossing mobile game with over 50 million daily users. The Chinese video-gaming and social-media titan deserves kudos for trying to tackle an important problem, but clever players are bound to find ways around its restrictions.
The company made the move after several young gamers reportedly died or badly injured themselves last month, ostensibly due to their addiction to 'Honour of Kings' (known as 'Strike of Kings' in the US). A 17-year-old suffered a stroke after playing the game for 40 hours straight, while a 13-year-old leapt out of a third-floor window after his parents cut him off, breaking both his legs. State-run media's coverage of the incidents and calls for regulation have heaped additional pressure on Tencent to take action.
Tencent plans to restrict under-12s to one hour of playtime per day, and ban them from logging in after 9pm. Users aged 12 to 18 will be limited to two hours a day. Video games have weathered plenty of criticism in recent years for their addictive nature and sometimes graphic violence and nudity, but few if any companies have implemented hard limits on playtime. Instead, companies such as Apple and Microsoft allow parents to control when children can use household devices and which applications they can access. Video-game studios provide similar tools: Blizzard Entertainment offers parental controls for games such as World of Warcraft, allowing parents to limit daily or weekly playtime, turn off in-game purchases or access to voice chat, and receive summaries of their children's online activity in weekly emails.
Unfortunately, resourceful young gamers will find ways to bypass Tencent's restrictions. They might set up multiple accounts across different devices; register accounts in the names of their parents, older siblings or friends; or download software that can fool Tencent's servers into thinking they're over 18 or living in a country that isn't subject to the new rules. The limits could even have unintended consequences: young gamers might divide their time across several accounts and play more in order to make progress.
From 'torrenting' songs and movies to illegally streaming 'Game of Thrones', digital natives are adept at flouting the rules and accessing the content they want. In China specifically, citizens access banned websites such as Facebook and Twitter using virtual private networks (VPN) that mask their location. Although the restrictions may fall short and could even backfire, Tencent is making a laudable attempt to restrict usage of its service; it's hard to imagine alcohol or cigarette companies voluntarily enforcing limits on daily or weekly purchases of their products. True, Tencent will receive its monthly subscription fees whether its users play seven hours a week or 70, but it could see in-game purchases - another key revenue stream - decline.
Tencent may be pre-empting a government crackdown and introducing playtime limits before it's forced to, but it deserves kudos for taking the initiative. The decision could improve its brand image and potentially avoid bad press about children dying due to their addiction to its games. Although some of its users will skirt the restrictions, the company has stepped up and taken responsibility. If only parents would do the same.