September 2022 marks the one-year anniversary of one of China’s strongest youth gamer protection regulations put in place by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA). The regulations restricted playing online video games to 8-9pm Friday, Saturday, Sunday and legal holidays, for a total of 3 hours per week only in that time slot, for all youth under age 18.

Niko Partners recognized the immense importance of this “3-hour rule” and built data and analysis around the impact of it. Two recent reports cover the topic in depth: 2022 China Regulations and Business Report (February) and 2022 China Youth Gamers Report (July).

A few key findings in the 92-slide July report (including a survey of 1,250 youth gamers) are:

  • 77% of Chinese youth gamers have reduced the amount of time they play each week as a direct result of the new regulations
  • 54% play 3 hours or less per week, within the approved hours
  • 17% play 3 hours or less per week, including outside approved hours
  • 29% play more than 3 hours a week, including outside the approved hours
  • The number of youth gamers declined to 82.6 million in 2022 from its peak of 122 million in 2020 as a direct result too
  • Niko forecasts a rebound from 2023 bringing back 36 million gamers by 2026, for a total of 114.6 million, as gamers, parents and developers adjust to the new system

Similar measures of youth protection may come about in other areas of online entertainment such as esports and live streaming. In May 2022 the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT) mandated that live streaming platforms to implement a youth mode to protect minors online and stop them from accessing services after 10pm daily.

The fifth session of the 13th National Committee of the China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference in March 2022 pushed for increased use of facial recognition to identify minors using adult accounts as a workaround, and that game account rental platforms should use real name ID to prevent sales to minors. There was also discussion about limiting the amount of data to be collected and stored regarding youth gamers. Tencent launched a two-month campaign this summer to ensure compliance with regulations and create a safe online gaming environment for youth gamers.

Authorities have warned and fined many game companies for failing to abide by regulations. While many large publishers are implementing technology and processes, some of the smaller companies struggle to adhere to the policy. For example, a game company in Shangrao, Jiangxi Province was found to be operating games without an anti-addiction system in place and was issued a formal warning. The company later had its illegally generated revenue confiscated and was fined RMB 110,000 (US$16,000).

Niko’s July report also shows that not all youth gamers comply with the 3-hour rule:

  • Of the 29% of gamers who do not comply with the 3-hour rule, 82% use an adult account (family or friend) to bypass the control measures
  • 36% of parents allow their children to use their own adult account to pay for games and content
  • The international version of Steam is the easiest way to access PC games without restriction, as that platform is unregulated yet widely available. It is also easy for youth gamers to access unapproved console games via the grey market.

Some positive thoughts to leave with the reader:

ESPORTS games are still very popular, youth and adults love watching esports competitions, and that interest increases as a person grows older. We worry that young gamers will not have enough practice time to develop into esports athletes, but those who are drawn to that occupation will find a way.

LOOPHOLES continue to exist and are being utilized, especially on PC and Console, to play games beyond the limit.

Our research also shows that youth START PLAYING games at a younger age today with 12–14-year-olds 2x more likely than 15-17 year olds to have started gaming before they were eight.

76% of youth believe video games have a POSITIVE INFLUENCE. Niko Partners remains optimistic that the number of youth gamers will return to near-peak levels by 2026, despite the decline over the past year.