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China’s regulators are on the march again, pushing one of the country’s most valuable technology companies, Tencent, into announcing fresh curbs designed to limit the time children spend playing its computer games. The announcement may have led to a collapse in Tencent’s shares, but the measures will be eyed with mild jealousy by many western parents.
Minors playing the company’s hit title Honor of Kings will now only be allowed to play for a single hour each day, and two hours on holidays. It will also block children under 12 from spending money in-game.
Such restrictions are nothing new. Honor of Kings already limited the time young players could spend in-game, though with slightly more generous limits. In 2018, it even began trialling a new technology it called the “midnight-patrol”: using facial recognition to identify young players trying to log-on to their accounts between 10 at night and 8am. Last month, the company rolled that technology out across 60 of its games.
In an effort to stay ahead of the censors, Tencent has proposed going even further, suggesting the state should issue a complete ban on gaming for those under 12s, and announcing plans to work with its competition to tackle gaming addiction.
The company’s roots lie in WeChat, a Chinese social media and messaging app that combines elements of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and PayPal into an all-in-one experience that is the backbone of digital life for most of the country. It has invested the windfall from that success in gaming properties, both domestic and international.
The company owns 40% of Fortnite maker Epic Games, 81.4% of Clash of Clans company Supercell, and 5% of gaming giant Activision Blizzard, behind both World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. It also owns ouright Riot Games, maker of League of Legends, and its most popular domestic title, Honor of Kings, is a thinly veiled clone of Riot’s own game – albeit one with 100 million daily players.
The investments provide more than just steady cashflow: Tencent typically has first refusal on adapting the titles for the Chinese market. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, since western developers are effectively locked out of China’s enormous player base unless they partner with a Chinese company, or are prepared to only access the much smaller number of Chinese gamers with access to imported consoles or VPN connections.
China’s government has shown no sign of demanding Tencent implement similar restrictions to its overseas properties, which already feature content unlikely to pass muster domestically.
Beyond criticism of the addictive nature of the company’s games, Tencent also faces problems that are standard for many of the nation’s creative industries. State censorship, for instance, is focused on not only politically inflammatory material, but frequently also acts against violent or sexual content.
Since the censors rarely make exceptions for the intended age of the audience, instead preferring an approach that forces all media to be family-friendly, that has made it hard for western games to be adapted for the domestic market, and hard for Chinese developers to successfully export their creations.
But the focus on family-friendly gaming has also led to the Chinese state being held up as an unusually forward-thinking nation by some. Tencent’s launch of the “midnight patrol” system comes as British age verification providers are themselves gearing up to offer facial analysis-based online age checks. The systems would scan a user’s face to determine their age as part of the sign-up process for a social media, gaming or pornographic sites, developers such as Yoti suggest, which could be required to abide by the terms of the forthcoming Age Appropriate Design Code.
Similarly, the idea of a time-limit on gaming is nothing new, and many services, from Apple’s iPhone to Nintendo’s Switch, contain built-in parental controls which allow parents and carers to limit children’s gaming. However, in a nation where children’s understanding of technology frequently outstrips that of their parents, the ability to know that such controls would be set centrally – and to have a cast-iron rebuttal to pester-power demands for one more round – could be appealing to some.
Tencent’s top five
1 Honor of Kings (2015, £3.24bn) Tencent’s most profitable game, Honor of Kings, is a Moba, or “multiplayer online battle arena”. Players join in teams of five, each picking a unique hero to play as, with an array of special powers. Honor of Kings is one of the first major entries in the genre built from the ground up for the Chinese market, and it is huge, with 100m players each day.
2 League of Legends (2009, £1.47bn ) Tencent’s most successful acquisition, League of Legends is produced by the American developer Riot Games. First launched in 2009, League was one of the initial mobas, and it has grown since to become one of the world’s largest games and most popular e-sports. It is also extremely similar to Honor of Kings, a fact that caused tensions within the company. The hostility ultimately sank attempts to launch a westernised version of Honor of Kings, called Arena of Valor.
3 Dungeon Fighter Online (2005, £1.12bn) Developed by another acquisition – South Korea’s Nexon – Dungeon Fighter Online is a 2D side-scrolling beat-’em-up game that involves players taking on hordes of monsters with rapid attacks. It lets players power up their characters the more they play, making it a compulsive experience for fans. An early western launch flopped and was shut down in 2013, but a second attempt starting the year after has recorded moderate success.
4 CrossFire (2008, £0.98bn) What Honor of Kings is to League of Legends, CrossFire is to Call of Duty. A first-person shooter that involves players joining two-sided battles in teams of 8, it is unusual in Tencent’s stable in that it is being developed by an independent company, South Korea’s Smilegate. A western-focused adaptation, from the critically acclaimed Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment, is set to be launched later this year.
5 Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (2017, £0.84bn) Fortnite may have turned the “Battle Royale” style of game – in which a hundred players battle it out in huge arenas to become the last one standing – into a phenomenon, but Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds was the first, and still the most popular across much of the world. Pubg, as it’s known, didn’t invent the genre, but it was so influential in popularising it that as Fortnite took off, the company launched a lawsuit against Epic Games for breach of copyright.