YORK, United Kingdom — Should the government have the power to tell young children and teens when it’s time to shut off their video games? China became one of the first countries to legally restrict video game playtime for minors in 2019. Since then, some have said the policy has proven successful at combating issues related to a condition called disordered gaming in the country. However, new research suggests that legal restrictions on video games are less effective than policymakers think.
A team at the University of York analyzed over seven billion hours of playing time data collected from tens of thousands of games and more than two billion Chinese player accounts to research this topic. Notably, they did not find any evidence pointing to a decline in heavy gameplay after these government restrictions were put in place.
The video game industry, meanwhile, is as popular as ever. Estimates show that as many as four billion people worldwide now engage in gaming each year. Many countries, China included, have expressed concern in recent years regarding the potential impact of excessive time spent gaming on youth well-being and development.
“Policymakers around the world have been discussing how to understand the impact of video gameplay, particularly on young people, for some time now, and how to ensure a healthy relationship with games. The UK government, for example, has recently issued guidelines for high quality research into gaming and wellbeing to inform future decision making,” says Dr. David Zendle, from the University of York’s Department of Computer Science, in a media release.
“The restrictions in China allowed us to look, for the first time, at the real behavioral impact of regulation on reducing the time people spent in gameplay and whether this policy had the desired effect.”
“We found no evidence of a decrease in the prevalence of heavy play and more research is needed to understand why, but the work certainly highlights that this kind of analysis can be useful for policymakers, anywhere in the world, to move forward confidently in discussions around regulations in the digital space.”
“We hope that the work will provide a case study for understanding how a government’s policy decisions affect – or do not affect – the lives of real people on a grand scale, and form a blueprint for future data-led public policy evaluation to lead to better and more effective policymaking,” adds Dr. Catherine Flick from De Montfort University.
These findings represent the first time ever that big data has been used to evaluate the effect of public policy on video games. Leon Y. Xiao, from the IT University of Copenhagen, emphasizes the importance of independent research when it comes to the evaluation of policymaking.
“Given previous industry-affiliated claims that this policy has ‘solved video game addiction,’ it made sense in a Chinese context to consider scaling it up to other domains. In fact, the Chinese government is currently consulting on limiting screen time amongst young people by law, although parents may override those limits,” Xiao explains.
“These results now suggest that the potential effectiveness of such policymaking could benefit from being monitored by non-industry-affiliated, independent researchers.”
It certainly isn’t just China looking to use legislation to control kids’ controllers. The United Kingdom’s Online Safety Bill, the European Parliament’s rules on in-game purchases, and the ongoing focus on regulating social media in the United States are just a few relevant examples. Professor Anders Drachen, from the University of Southern Denmark, articulates the potential of a data-led approach when evaluating technology regulation.
“It is now possible to tractably analyze billions of hours of digital behavioral data, which can help lead to a better understanding of how to develop effective policies around online behavior. This study is an example of how we can use such data to assess whether a policy actually impacts citizens or companies in the way it is intended to,” Drachen concludes.
The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
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