China takes fears of video game addiction among kids very, very seriously. It’s one of several countries that enforces a “gaming curfew” for those under 18, and now gaming heavyweight Tencent has implemented government-approved ID checks in dozens of popular mobile titles. These games will now use facial recognition to make sure no one underage is playing games too late at night. This is only the start—Tencent says its “Midnight Patrol” technology is coming to more games soon.
Back in 2019, the Chinese government rolled out the curfew, which requires players to sign in with an ID number and real names. It became clear pretty quickly that kids who wanted to keep playing popular mobile games at all hours were finding ways. For example, they could use an older family member’s login or borrow a phone from someone else. It’s going to be harder to skirt the rules now that Midnight Patrol is rolling out.
The first wave of games with Midnight Patrol includes some that are hugely popular with Chinese players, like Honor of Kings, but few of them have any presence outside the country. When a gamer fires up one of the affected titles during the nationally mandated curfew, they’ll have to submit to a facial recognition scan. The game will also interrupt the player after a period of time to do another scan, ensuring the authorized adult didn’t just hand the device to someone underage.
There’s a lot we don’t know about how this system works. Is it just estimating age based on facial characteristics? There are plenty of people who look much younger than they are. Perhaps the system is matching facial scans with an existing database to verify identities? China is famously obsessed with facial recognition, which it uses to monitor the populace. These efforts are particularly blatant in areas like Xinjiang where the government has been accused of oppressing Muslim minorities.
Regardless of how the system works, even Chinese gamers who have become accustomed to constant tracking are expressing unhappiness. Some don’t trust the company’s software and consider it a privacy violation. Others believe Tencent should not be stepping in for the parents who are the ones responsible for limiting game time. Judging by the tone of Tencent’s announcement, it won’t change course. The penalties for companies that fail to keep kids offline during curfew are steep, and Tencent is nothing if not a good corporate citizen in China.