Billions of Hours, Little Change: New Study Questions Video Game Restrictions

Young Child Playing Video Games

A study found no evidence of reduced heavy gaming in China despite legal restrictions on youth gaming hours since 2019. This first-of-its-kind research using big data suggests that such policies’ effectiveness should be assessed independently, especially as countries grapple with regulating digital technology’s societal impact.

A recent study suggests that the regulations limiting gaming hours for young individuals in China might not be as impactful as initially anticipated.

To gauge the efficacy of this policy, a research group led by the University of York examined more than 7 billion hours of gaming activity from a vast array of games. This data was sourced from over two billion user accounts in China, a country that has enforced legal playtime limits for its youth since 2019.

The research team, however, did not find evidence of a decrease in heavy play of games after these restrictions were put in place.

The video games industry has witnessed a surge in popularity, and as many as 4 billion people are now estimated to engage in gaming worldwide each year.

Many countries across the globe have expressed concerns about the number of hours young people spend playing video games and the potential impact of this on well-being. In response to these concerns, in 2019 China restricted playtime for people under 18.


Dr. David Zendle, from the University of York’s Department of Computer Science, said: “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 well-being to inform future decision-making.

“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.”

Wellbeing concerns

China is one of the first countries to explore legal means of restricting gameplay for young people with the aim of limiting the potential risks of gaming to well-being, and the policy was assumed to be effective, with some bodies suggesting that it had resolved issues relating to disordered gaming.

Dr. Catherine Flick, from De Montfort University, said: “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.”

This research represents the first time big data has been used to evaluate the effect of public policy in games.


Leon Y. Xiao, from the IT University of Copenhagen, emphasized the importance of independent research when evaluating 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.

“These results now suggest that the potential effectiveness of such policymaking could benefit from being monitored by non-industry-affiliated, independent researchers.”

The research is published at a time when there are growing global efforts to regulate technology and its impact on society. The UK’s Online Safety Bill, the European Parliament’s rules on in-game purchases, and the ongoing focus on regulating social media in the USA, are current examples of how governments worldwide are seeking to address digital challenges, particularly concerning the protection of children. The research suggests a path forward for such efforts.

Big data

Professor Anders Drachen, from the University of Southern Denmark, emphasized the potential of this data-led approach in evaluating technology regulation, stating “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.”

Reference: “No evidence that Chinese playtime mandates reduced heavy gaming in one segment of the video games industry” by David Zendle, Catherine Flick, Elena Gordon-Petrovskaya, Nick Ballou, Leon Y. Xiao, and Anders Drachen, 10 August 2023, Nature Human Behaviour.
DOI: 10.1038/s41562-023-01669-8

The research was conducted by members of the Digital Observatory Research Cluster, a non-profit cross-institutional academic research group focused on delivering data-driven insights and observations about digital life.

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