In response to an apparent plague of video game addiction among young people, China has set strict limits on playing video games for people under 18 years old that restricts them to three hours a week. This builds upon much looser restrictions on gaming imposed in 2019 which allowed for an hour and a half each day and three hours on holidays.
In the short term, this move has severe implications for video game companies, which are losing out on a huge market. According to The Epoch Times, “62.5 percent of Chinese minors often play games online, and 13.2 percent of underage mobile game users play mobile games for more than two hours a day on working days.” Losing this many users in one sweep has caused big companies like Tencent, Ubisoft, and Embracer to take losses after the announcement, with more to come.
In the long term though, the move brings up an important discussion, particularly among Catholics and conservatives, on striking an acceptable balance between the common good and individual freedom. Whatever might happen to the Chinese market for video games, the government is clearly trying to change individual behavior, limiting its young people’s freedom in the first place.
From the libertarian perspective, the Chinese government’s crackdown is a blatant abuse of its authority and an encroachment on human rights. The government has no right to coerce the choices of its citizens, particularly an innocuous activity like playing video games. Rather, its only role in the matter is to protect its citizens’ rights to partake in such activities and focus its efforts at those who stand to do direct harm to their neighbors. No one is hurt by a teenager bingeing on Fortnite, and if he wants to waste his time that way, that’s his problem.
Furthermore, if the CCP can justify limiting young people’s game time for their own good, what’s to stop them from stripping other freedoms for people of any age, like the freedom to drive, to meet with friends, to have an unpopular opinion. Instead of seeing this limit on gaming as an effort to make citizens happier and more productive, people should see it as part of the Chinese government’s greater effort to maximize control over its citizens and thus exploit them.
It’s important to note that this argument is not theoretical or specific to socialist countries like China. In this era of COVID-19, various Western nations, notably Australia and New Zealand, have followed the same logic that the CCP uses in restricting gaming, instead citing COVID-19 as their justification for upending all personal freedoms and forcing people to live a certain way. A controlled population deprived of so many freedoms turns out to be a compliant one with a diminished will to resist.
All that said, there’s a case from Catholic conservatism (also known as “common good conservatism”) that supports China’s move because it will help their young people lead better lives. A bit like Marge Simpson’s igniting a childhood Renaissance by having the children’s favorite cartoon ruined, perhaps the same could happen across China where kids leave their houses, make friends, learn skills, have hobbies, get exercise, and generally have more time to improve themselves.
Speaking as a former gamer myself, I can attest that video games can easily become a toxic habit. I will admit that I failed my physics class because of Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii. More generally, I missed out on so many friendships and opportunities in middle school and high school because I preferred the ease and amusement of video games. It’s one of the great regrets of my life, and it’s the main reason I try to go screen-free for my own children.
And I wasn’t even a true addict. There are people with crippling addictions to video games, playing them all hours of the day and needing regular therapy to simply function in the real world. This is certainly the case with younger gamers whose brains are still forming and who often lack the self-control to moderate their time.
In light of this, it’s not completely accurate to claim that limiting young people’s game time limits their freedom. While they may be losing the freedom to binge on a game, they are gaining the freedom that comes with giving up a huge time sink. They are free to be virtuous and spend their time more productively.
Interestingly, China has had experience with being brought down by mass addiction. The Opium Wars in the nineteenth century were caused by British merchants trafficking opium into China. When the Chinese leaders tried to resist, they were quickly subdued by the British and French and forced to concede to the demands of the European merchants, effectively making them a pawn to Western powers.
However, even if this history might explain a certain eagerness for the Chinese government to restrict gaming, it’s not really fair to compare video games to narcotics. In fact, taken in moderation, video games are a delightful pastime. Some games feature beautiful worlds with well-developed characters and interesting plots. Other games are incredibly instructive about the world and how it works. I still have pleasant memories of riding my horse through vast green fields under a blue sky in Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and I can credit my early aptitude for history and economics to the Civilization and SimCity games. Even after college, I’ve bonded with other guys while shooting zombies in Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead.
With this in mind, the real goal of any policy regulating minors playing video games should be moderation, not elimination. Moreover, the enforcement of such regulation should be restrained and focused more on prevention than punishment. Given the totalitarianism of the Chinese government, one can reasonably assume they will exploit such a law to conduct surveillance and expand its powers in the name of its new restrictions. Then again, one can reasonably assume that the Chinese government may actually exercise restraint in its enforcement since it already has this power over its citizens.
If it turns out that Chinese youth are benefitting from less gaming, doing better at school, and showing better physical and mental health overall, then maybe it could work here. However, for Americans, this would have to happen through the family, not the government. It is the responsibility of the parents to instill virtue, limit vice, and thereby enable a greater freedom. Already, parents concede far too much authority to the state to the ongoing detriment of their household.
Catholics need to remember there’s great merit in setting boundaries for their children and promoting excellence. If they don’t, the government will end up doing this. And today, this means preventing games from becoming an unhealthy compulsive escape instead of the entertaining art form they are designed to be. Not only will a limit on gaming help them appreciate real life more, but it may perhaps help them appreciate their video games more as well.
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