The introduction of new technologies often sparks moral panics. Socrates warned that writing degraded understanding. In the 19th century, passengers worried that women’s uteruses might fly out of their bodies if they travelled too fast on railway trains. And the lobbyist Jack Valenti told the US Congress that the video cassette recorder was as dangerous as the Boston strangler.
To that list must now be added China’s crackdown on video games, which were condemned in one recent article on state media (later removed) as “spiritual opium”. On Monday, the National Press and Publication Administration banned all children below 18 years of age from playing online video games at any time apart from 8pm to 9pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and on public holidays. Gaming companies were told to stop children from playing outside these periods and to ensure real name verification systems were in place. The shares of China’s Tencent, the world’s biggest creator of video games, duly dropped on the news.
Weary parents, who sometimes shout at teenage children to stop playing wretched computer games and go and do something more useful (I know, I’ve been there), may have sneaking sympathy with the move. But the Chinese crackdown is a wild overreaction and could prove ridiculously hard to enforce. Good luck trying to stop smart teenagers devising any number of fantastic workarounds to ensure they can continue to play their favourite games.
In a political system in which every decision must be viewed through the prism of Chinese Communist party control, the suspicion must be that this ban is as much about clamping down on alternative sources of influence as protecting children’s welfare. It also forms part of a broader regulatory crackdown against over-mighty tech companies.
It would be foolish to deny, though, that there are real concerns about video games. Somewhat controversially, the World Health Organization in 2018 recognised internet gaming disorder as a disease. To be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern would have to be of “sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning” for at least a year. A more recent report from the Harris polling organisation found that 72 per cent of those who played multiplayer games had witnessed toxic behaviour, including abuse or harassment.
Such concerns should be actively addressed. But as the cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell has explained, the way this has historically happened is that societies slowly develop new norms to shape uses of technology and more acceptable behaviour. This is indeed already happening with video games. Governments introduce sensible regulations. Age restrictions apply to violent games. Parents and teachers, many of whom are themselves games players, institute their own rules. Children learn among themselves that video games can be a waste of time. Therapists help wean players off serious addiction.
One six-year study of the impact of video games on adolescents found that they caused no harm or negative long-term consequences for 90 per cent of users. “There is a lot to really like about video games,” says Sarah Coyne, a professor at Brigham Young University and lead author of the study. “Computer games can help teenagers connect, especially during the pandemic.”
Pro-social games can have social, mental and educational benefits, Coyne says. They can also help older players counter cognitive decline. But video games have a dark side, too. In particular, she suggests, games companies must be pushed to balance their desire to make money from addictive games with their social responsibilities.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the moral panic over video games partly reflects the timeless concern of older generations about technologies they little use or understand. This phenomenon was memorably captured by the writer Douglas Adams in his three rules of technology:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.
When our children grow up, they will view video games as just a natural part of the way the world works. They will doubtless recognise them more as escapist entertainment than electronic drugs.