China has some of the strictest gaming regulations in the world. The government has long argued that it has to protect minors from gaming addiction, and it’s done so by pushing companies to limit anyone under 18 years old to just 90 minutes of gameplay a day—and three hours on holidays.
But this hasn’t stopped kids from playing their favorite games and racking up huge bills from in-game spending. It’s become such a big problem that state news agency Xinhua published an article this week accusing gaming firms of deliberately turning a blind eye to the situation.
As regulations get stricter, though, kids are finding more creative workarounds. But the phenomenon itself isn’t exactly new. Daniel Ahmad, gaming analyst at Niko Partners, says that kids have been learning new ways to game the system ever since real-name registration systems were introduced in 2007.
“Due to technical limitations, there have always been loopholes that allow minors to enter fake information, buy adult accounts, or use their parents’ account to bypass restrictions,” Ahmad said.
High demand from young gamers has now created a cottage industry dedicated to supplying minors with fake adult credentials for real-name registration. And purchasing these credentials is as easy as searching on e-commerce platforms like Alibaba’s Taobao or Xianyu. Those who don’t want to buy their own credentials can just show up to a smartphone arcade—a place similar to an internet cafe where kids can play games to their heart’s content for just 1 yuan (USD 0.14) an hour.
Not all games require going to such lengths to get around restrictions. Last year, the China Consumer Association found that 17 games out of the 50 popular titles it tested could be easily accessed with fake ID numbers.
Things seem to have gotten worse during the gaming boom resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many parents have now found that their kids are squandering their savings on games. A consumer protection council in China’s southern tech hub of Shenzhen received 360% more complaints about children’s spending in games during the country’s mandatory lockdown period than the same period last year. Nearly 14% of the complaints said kids spent more than 10,000 yuan (USD 1,400), Xinhua reported.
Stopping this massive increase in spending has proven difficult. The country introduced its strictest anti-addiction measures yet last November. The State Administration of Press and Publications (SAPP), the body in charge of regulating games, restricted both gameplay time and how much money minors can spend.
Chinese gaming giants Tencent and NetEase had already introduced stricter rules for their games, as they have a lot of incentive to keep gaming regulators happy. Honor of Kings and the local version of PUBG Mobile, two immensely popular Tencent games in China, cross-check IDs with police databases. And both companies offer parents an option to kick their kids out of the game whenever they want.
Tencent also uses more high-tech tools like facial recognition and machine learning to try to ensure kids are sticking to game restrictions. Face scans have been used since 2018 in Honor of Kings, a game Chinese state media once called “poison.”
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But it seems not even advanced solutions from tech giants can get between kids and the games they want to play. Tencent previously reported some of creative ways kids have tried to get around their restrictions—like scanning a mother’s face while she’s sleeping after secretly registering with her name.
Another ruse involved asking a person working at a snack bar to impersonate a parent to convince customer service that a game doesn’t need to be restricted. Kids who can’t convince an adult to make the call might also try pinching their throats to impersonate a grandparent.
Tencent recently updated its anti-addiction system and said it will slowly roll out to other games. The company previously explained that it will use machine learning to determine whether a player is a minor by evaluating in-game behavior. Players over 60 years old, for instance, are more scrutinized.
To keep circumvention tricks from turning up on the black market, Tencent is keeping the full list of criteria that it analyzes a secret for now. And it’s possible Tencent might find some success here as technology advances.
“Minors will always look to find loopholes in the system so they can bypass restrictions, but it is becoming harder as tech-based anti-addiction solutions become more sophisticated,” Ahmad said.
Unlike Tencent and NetEase, though, it’s harder for smaller gaming companies to implement their own anti-addiction systems. But Tencent is now working to license its own system. By the end of the month, regulators will start checking for games that don’t comply with the required restrictions on minors. The ones that don’t will have to comply as soon as possible, Ahmad said.
The South China Morning Post is owned by Alibaba.
This article was first published in Abacus News.