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New gaming proposals to tackle child overspending

Parents in China whose children spend excessively on gaming without permission may soon have a clearer path to refunds, thanks to new guidelines issued by an industry body emphasizing shared responsibility.

Concerns have risen in the world’s largest video gaming market over children accruing hefty bills. Recently, a video went viral showing vegetable sellers in Sichuan whose 12-year-old spent 800,000 yuan (US$110,000) in a year on mobile games. Another viral video from April showed a father slapping himself after discovering his nine-year-old son had spent over 13,000 yuan (US$1,800) on the game Eggy Party, sparking a debate about accountability.

On Tuesday (May 28), the Internet Society of China, a non-profit industry body, released draft guidelines for public consultation to address these issues. If formalized, these guidelines could expedite refunds through dedicated channels.

The guidelines, now with legal status under China’s revised Standardisation Law, serve as industry standards. Enterprises that voluntarily adopt these measures must comply with them. The public consultation period lasts until June 27.

The proposals stipulate that online gaming providers will be responsible for any overspending by gamers under 18 if they do not have systems to authenticate users’ real names or enforce spending limits. If such restrictions are in place but a parent helps the child bypass them or fails to supervise properly, companies will bear 30 to 70 percent of the responsibility, depending on the effectiveness of their measures. Parents are also expected to act as gatekeepers.

Parents may be held fully responsible for repeat guideline violations, such as multiple refund requests or prolonged overspending by minors.

Spending is Easy but Refunds are Complicated

Most parents in China are unaware of their children’s gaming expenditures, which can quickly escalate from purchases of virtual items like character skins or power-ups. According to a 2023 report by the China Game Publishers Association, only 15.4 percent of Chinese parents knew about their children’s video game spending. Many parents have complained about the complexity of the refund process, citing gaming companies’ intricate procedures, unclear refund policies, and stringent evidence requirements to prove unauthorized spending by a child.

Companies, on the other hand, find it difficult to verify whether guardians are genuinely unaware and not exploiting refund rules. Adult users sometimes falsely claim to be underage to obtain refunds.

The new guidelines “provide a standardized path for minors and parents to advocate for their rights and interests, and a template for how enterprises should respond to refund demands,” said Yao Zhiwei, a law professor from Guangdong University of Finance and Economics, to The Paper.

Rules to Protect Child Gamers Tightened in Recent Years

In recent years, China has introduced stricter regulations to prevent minors from spending large amounts of money on video games.

Spending Limits: Companies are prohibited from providing paid services to users under the age of eight. Users aged eight to 16 are limited to spending up to 200 yuan (US$28) per month, while those aged 16 to 18 can spend up to 400 yuan per month.

Anti-Addiction Measures: In 2021, a law was enacted limiting minors to three hours of gaming per week. Companies must enforce this rule through real-name registration systems.

These measures have had a significant impact. In the first quarter of 2023, Tencent, a major Chinese gaming company, reported a 90% reduction in minors’ in-game spending and a 96% drop in their gaming time compared to the same period in 2020.

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