Chinese versions of the massively popular MOBA videogame League of Legends have an intrusive new feature: If the game detects the player is under 18, it will limit the amount of time the minor can spend on the game to two hours.
League was developed by American studio Riot Games, but has a presence in China thanks to its majority stakeholder, Chinese internet giant Tencent. To put the game’s popularity in China into perspective: according to Abacus News, the League of Legends World Championship was watched 200 million times in China alone, and a Chinese team, Invictus Gaming, won the tournament.
The restrictions are in line with the Chinese’s government’s increasingly zealous war against a supposed game addiction crisis sweeping the nation. According to the L.A. Times, the Chinese government began last year vocally blaming gaming addiction for a variety of social ills, including “increasing rates of nearsightedness among youth to potential national security vulnerabilities from mobile gaming addiction among military personnel.” The ramp-up of criticism was backed by a policy change that temporarily banned games like Fortnite and Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (they eventually returned, for unclear reasons) and froze new game approvals from March through December of 2018. The regulatory thaw in 2019 that let companies like Tencent gain approval for new games seems to have been accompanied by official pressure to control the game’s addictiveness among youth. Tencent apparently faced pressure to add an anti-addiction system to League, too.
In League, the system accurately identifies a player’s age by requiring them to provide a national ID number when creating an account, which is mandatory to play the game. That means players can’t lie about their age to trick the system, or make multiple accounts to circumvent the strict two-hour limit on playtime. A very similar system has reportedly been put into place this year in Epic Games’ Fortnite, as well.
China has pressured companies for anti-addiction systems for years; Blizzard’s World of Warcraft added their three-hour cap way back in 2006. What’s new, however, is the tying of the player’s national ID to their online accounts. While the systems, currently, are innocuous, they raise the troubling question of how much Western developers should comply with Chinese surveillance requests. What hangs over these new game updates is China’s planned social credit system that will reportedly factor online behaviors and habits into a score that could affect a person’s ability to get loans, buy property or even buy plane tickets. By tying ID numbers with player’s accounts, Riot Games opens the door for its player’s habits to potentially be monitored and scored. In fact, one pilot social credit scorer, Sesame Credit, explicitly lists too much time playing videogames as something that could negatively affect your score.
The L.A. Times quotes a member of the Digital Privacy Alliance, an internet privacy advocacy group: “There is no right to privacy in China. Any information collected to make sure kids aren’t playing too many videogames will definitely be used by the government and the police for whatever purpose they see fit.”
UPDATE: Zhima Credit (referred to above as Sesame Credit) responded to Paste with these points:
Zhima Credit is an independent, private, alternative credit assessment service run by Ant Financial that is in no way contracted to run or affiliated with China’s social credit system, and it is not a pilot program of the Chinese government’s social credit system.
Zhima does not attempt to measure qualitative characteristics like character but rather the example of playing videogames was intended to illustrate how transaction history and behavior preferences are considered in Zhima’s algorithm. In fact, the datasets that are analyzed to determine a user’s score are outlined clearly in this FAQ the Ant Financial released on Zhima online (here).
Zhima is only available to those Alipay users who opt-in to the service.
Updated 5:36 p.m. ET on July 31, 2019