Video games get age-based ratings in China under new guidelines long sought by parents and gamers upset by censorship

Josh Ye
·4-min read

China’s video games watchdog has announced a new age-based rating system, the latest sign that China is stepping up regulations on what is now the largest industry in the country’s entertainment sector.

The China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association (CADPA), a government-backed industry group, revealed the new system at the Chinese Games Industry Annual Conference (China GIAC) in Guangzhou on Wednesday. Formally known as the Online Game Age-Appropriateness Warning, the new standards have officially entered a pilot phase, said Zhang Yijun, the first deputy chairman of CADPA.

The new standard divides games into three age categories: eight, 12 and 16 and older, represented by green, blue and yellow labels respectively. The guidelines state that games must display ratings on their website, registration page, login screen and other relevant materials.

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“The focus of this standard is very clear,” Zhang said. “It highlights compliant publishing and the appropriate use of online games. It is primarily aimed at providing positive guidance for underage consumers.”

Liao Xuhua, an analyst for Beijing-based consultancy Analysys, agreed that it was about offering guidance to buyers, differentiating the new system from guidelines that companies might use to create age-appropriate content.

“It is more similar to parental guidance, letting parents know what games are appropriate for minors,” Liao said.

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Age ratings for video games are already common practice around the world. Most famously, the industry in North America established the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulatory organisation, to assign age and content ratings to video games after the US Congress put video game violence under the spotlight in the early 1990s.

In recent years, Chinese regulators have also become increasingly concerned about the amount of time children spend on video games. The country voted last month on new regulations that revise the Minor Protection Law and are expected to go into effect next year. The regulations require online game providers to “classify video games, give age-appropriateness prompts and stop minors from accessing inappropriate games or gaming features.”

The rising concern over video games mirrors the industry’s rise in China, which is now the world’s largest video game market. The latest CADPA report, published in November, estimated that China had 661 million gamers. The Covid-19 pandemic has also led to a surge in video game consumption as people spent more time at home amid lockdowns and quarantines this year. In the first quarter, industry revenue hit a record high of 73.2 billion yuan (US$11.2 billion).

Some consumers have also long wanted an age-based rating system for games. While parents complained about their children playing games with inappropriate content, adult gamers have lamented China’s gaming restrictions that censor violence and mature themes in overseas titles.

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After a government crackdown in 2018, gaming companies started to make a bigger push for an age rating system. In June last year, more than 10 of the country’s top gaming companies, including Tencent Holdings and NetEase, joined together to propose new standards to the government. However, the system unveiled this week is different from what the companies submitted last year, which divided players into four age groups: six, 12, 16 and 18 and older.

Tencent, NetEase and other gaming companies also cooperated in drafting the new standards, which altogether had 54 participating organisations, according to Chinese media outlet National Business Daily. The standards were reportedly revised 41 times before getting government approval.

China already has some of the strictest gaming regulations in the world. Current rules for protecting minors restrict how much time they can play and how much money they can spend. Cui Chenyu, a senior research analyst at London-based consultancy Omdia, also said the new system could be used to better enforce content restrictions in the future, selectively enforcing rules based on age.

“It‘s a milestone for our games regulation system,” she said. “Also, perhaps in the future, the anti-addiction system from games publishers could vary based on the age rating system.”

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