The origins of the humble video game can be traced to the 1950s, when academics designed simple programs for their own amusement on giant computers that were used for research simulations. In the 1970s and 1980s, coin-operated arcade games, gaming consoles, and then personal computers brought Pong and Space Invaders to mainstream audiences. In the decades since, video games have exploded in creativity and intricacy.
Gaming is now ingrained in popular culture, a far cry from a niche pastime of the educated elite. Fortnite is a cultural phenomenon with a World Cup that packed Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, and made six mainly teen players instant millionaires. Retro-classic releases appeal to greying gamers who look back at the classic games of their youth. The releases of big titles are covered in the mainstream media, much like the summer blockbuster movies of old.
It is big business, particularly in Asia, home to three of the four top gaming nations globally, according to insights by Newzoo. China’s gaming market alone will generate an estimated US$36.5 billion in revenue for 2019, narrowly behind the United States at US$36.9 billion. Like Japan, in third position, and South Korea, in fourth, growth is being fuelled by a middle class with increasing levels of disposable income, high internet usage and almost complete penetration of smartphone ownership.
Cheaper and faster smartphones, the spread of wireless internet, and popular mobile games such as Candy Crush and Honor of Kings have created a new generation of casual players. Many of them have been drawn into the console market. Tencent and Sony, the world’s two biggest gaming companies, both from Asia, are well-placed to serve the estimated 2.3 billion gamers worldwide – 30% of the global population.
A new world of worry
Opposition groups and regulators around the world have voiced concerns that video gaming can have a negative effect on mental and physical health. Indeed, the World Health Organization recognized gaming disorder as a disease in 2018. Besides screen addiction and nearsightedness, video games are also blamed for desensitizing players to violence and for promoting antisocial behavior. To some degree, history is repeating itself – other cultural phenomenons such as comic books, rock and subsequently rap music have been blamed for many of society’s ills.
Video games have created new worries, too. In-game marketing that promotes the purchase of online weapons, outfits or special skills has drawn accusations of “predatory” youth-targeted practices. It’s a virtual industry that is entirely new to this era. This has resulted in calls to ban microtransactions of virtual goods such as extra lives, short cuts or loot boxes. These are seen as tantalizing to kids who have a limited understanding of real money, let alone the bounty that is offered in the virtual world. Game developers argue that the sale of virtual items funds many games. Without this revenue stream, many “free” games would not be viable.
China has been the most-aggressive nation when it comes to regulating gaming. Last year, the authorities implemented strict rules for approving new games, with a temporary suspension of new titles forcing a giant backlog. This year, the Chinese government announced curfews and time restrictions for gamers under the age of 18. Minors will be restricted to 90 minutes of game time per day, relaxed to three hours on national holidays. It is also expanding its age-verification scheme to help enforce the rules.
China has also targeted microtransactions by setting spending limits per month, dependant on age. Adult gamers are affected, too. An official stated that everyone, regardless of age, is prohibited from playing games that depict “sexual explicitness, goriness, violence and gambling.”
This censorship seems very limiting, and it’s not just China that’s at it. In South Korea, youths under the age of 15 are banned from online gaming between midnight and 6 a.m., a “curfew” enacted to curb problems of internet addiction. Japan has its own set of rules, which mainly relate to e-sports and online gambling.
Being adult about this
There’s no doubt that the gaming industry has a responsibility to protect children. It must safeguard them from being exposed to inappropriate content. Robust age verification procedures will help. So, too, will the implementation of strict age restrictions on games with content warning systems advising of themes such as violence and bad language, as well as references to sex, alcohol and drugs.
However adult consumers should have the right to enjoy games from a wide range of genres without censorship. This includes titles that represent gritty realities and outlandish fantasies that some administrators and regimes might find unpalatable. While we look back fondly at Pac Man, today’s games are now big-budget entertainment. They should be treated more like films than the arcade games of the past.
Sophisticated marketing practices are not unique to the gaming industry, and in-game microtransactions fund the games that so many enjoy. Regulators and games companies need to strike the right balance between protecting the interests of consumers, particularly minors, while still allowing developers to operate as profitable companies.
Gaming is evolving alongside technology, and our tastes in entertainment. The landscape will undoubtedly change dramatically over the next decade. Cloud gaming, game streaming and new revenue models will likely require us to revise our rules, in real time, as they develop. But now is the time for regulators to work with the gaming industry, to develop a framework of rules that can adapt alongside the games. Nanny states should leave the parenting to parents themselves.