Capitalism meets its match?

Chinese games are too good. So the CCP -- the ultimate Big Boss -- decided to level up.

The timing was eerie. Barely 24 hours before the publication of my most recent freelance article, a reported feature for Increment on what mobile software developers in the West could learn from China’s booming gaming industry, the Chinese government imposed stringent limitations on how often minors can play online games.

Teenagers in China are now permitted to play online for just one hour a day on weekends and holiday evenings. As anyone familiar with normal teenage gaming habits could have predicted, game company stock prices promptly plunged.

I’d like to think that my article, submitted and edited months before this breaking news, inadvertently gets at the core of why the Chinese government made its move. I took a close look at the international smash hit Genshin Impact, “a Chinese mobile game featuring adorable sword- and sorcery-wielding anime characters wandering through a lush fantasy world.” The gist: Genshin Impact is a perfect example of how Chinese mobile gaming developers have gotten insanely good at creating revenue-generating addictive experiences. Nobody in the world has more experience at figuring out how to turn smartphone entertainment into consistent profits.

I am routinely horrified by each new iteration of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party relentless expansion of totalitarian thought control. But I have to admit some sympathy for the motivation behind the gaming ban. As I finally learned for myself around 15 years ago, multiple hours spent gaming were not good for my health, my relationships, or my creative path. There is merit to the Chinese state media critique that gaming is “spiritual opium.” As a parent, I imposed strict screen time limits well into the high-school era.

Ultimately, however, I gave up. At some point you have to let your children grow up and make their own choices. And the games, I recognized, were just too good.  Who was I to try to fight against the tide? A look at my Netflix and Disney+ binging habits is all the proof one needs that despite the best of intentions one solitary man cannot resist the addictive power of 21st century entertainment capitalism.

But I guess the Chinese Communist Party is made of sterner stuff. Because there is a very big story buried underneath the gaming headlines. As one of the people I interviewed in my article noted, there are ways in which contemporary China has created “the most capitalistic market in the whole world.” There has always been much irony to be mined from the fact that this achievement comes in the context of a nation that purports to organize itself under Marxist dogma. But there is no irony in Xi Jinping’s intent to exert state control over capitalist excess. China’s recent crackdowns on big tech companies, for-profit private tutoring and gaming are all part of a comprehensive effort to reap the rewards of capitalist economic growth while at the same time stomping out anything the Communist Party regards as a negative side effect.

It’s an experiment that is both chilling and fascinating. China used to be a case study in how top-down collective control did not work. But maybe Chairman Mao was just incompetent.