Online gaming companies play big on rural kids

Cao Xinyu
With the monotony that stems from the rural-urban divide, boarding schools and rural environment, online gaming is gradually becoming rural children's only road to escape.
Cao Xinyu

Rural children, compared to children living in cities, are more likely to experience a sense of meaninglessness in their lives. With the monotony that stems from the rural-urban divide, boarding schools and rural environment, online gaming is gradually becoming rural children’s only road to escape.

But how did online gaming seep into rural areas and deepen its influence? Where will it lead the left-behind children? These are some of the questions a research team from the China Agricultural University are concerned with. Over the years, they have studied rural children in Henan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Hunan and Guizhou provinces, seeking to unravel what impact games may have on them.

The daily routine of ten-year-old Xiao Chen was to squat outside an Internet bar and use the Wi-Fi to play “King of Glory” with friends. Because of his meager pocket money — 5 yuan (74 US cents) — he could only afford to play occasionally. Xiao Chen believes children will be happier if parents are around. But to him, good parents are those who buy children cellphones and give pocket money generously. Although he understands his parents’ money is hard earned, he thinks money is meant to be spent, otherwise what’s the point of earning it? He doesn’t see there’s much difference between the virtual world and the real one — both of them require money.

The research team believes that money plays an increasingly important role in left-behind children’s relationship with their family and peers. Their view on money is altering and may shift toward materialism. Due to the dwindling fertility rate in rural areas, left-behind children are getting more “precious,” especially in the eyes of their grandparents. As a way of compensating, grandparents tend to satisfy children’s daily needs. Many don’t regard children’s excessive gaming as a problem.

Xiao Long hoped his father could be with him. But he didn’t think it would make much of a difference whether his father was at home or not. He recalled that even when his father was by his side, he didn’t have much interaction with him or his sister. He just tossed his phone to children and let them play themselves.

Lao Gui, 58, has raised four grandchildren. To him, children nowadays are so smart that they seem to know how to use the cellphone the minute they pick it up. Though he was worried that his grandson might be using the phone excessively, he still handed over his phone just to keep the child quiet. He admitted that he lacks energy to discipline children, and ultimately, it’s parents’ responsibility to keep their children in line.

Researchers believe that more and more people in rural areas are using phones as babysitters. Villages are much quieter than before. In the alleys or on the streets, the once common sight of frolicking children has given way to them hunching over cellphones and playing games wherever there’s Wi-Fi. They are so absorbed, with eyes glued to screens and finger tapping fanatically. They play cooperatively and adjust tactics according to different opponents.

The team discovered that contrary to these children’s cooperation in games, they barely talk in real life. It is believed that though games can, to some extent, help foster certain skills, like logical thinking and cooperation, what games inspire may remain in the games. In reality, rural children don’t communicate much and their communication skills may be on the wane.

Xiao Gang spent two hours every day at an Internet bar. Every time he played there, he would be surrounded by a crowd. Every victory would win him a compliment. Though his daily trips to the Internet bar has drained his pocket money, he enjoyed the thrill of conquering and being admired. The “desire to conquer” that the left-behind children get from gaming is, in essence, confidence and respect.

The research team thinks it is inappropriate to ascribe left-behind children’s game addiction to the game itself or children’s poor self-discipline.

Constrained by multiple social factors, many children are confronted with a sense of meaninglessness. To fill that void, they turn to online games, which makes them vulnerable to addiction.

However, the research team also believes that once online games affect children’s social networks, the impact on the individual’s behavior and psychology can be significant.

Therefore, to rid children of the negative effects of the games, we need to think from the overall perspective, taking in factors both “beyond the games” and “within the games.”

This article is adapted from a report on China Youth Daily on January 7.

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