Every midnight, millions of young Chinese gamers now face another foe — a digital ‘patrol’ using facial recognition technology that could boot them out of their virtual worlds.
The technology, dubbed ‘midnight patrol’, is designed to better enforce a Chinese government ban on gamers under the age of 18 playing between 10:00pm and 8:00am.
The system is being rolled out by China’s biggest internet game company Tencent, in a bid to keep a closer eye on users of their 60 different mobile and video games, after reports children were using adult identification to circumvent the curfew introduced in 2019.
China has put restrictions in place because of concerns about video game addiction in minors and the impacts it had on their physical and mental health and learning.
‘Midnight patrol’ uses an algorithm to identify underage players based on the time they play, how long they play, and their behaviours in the game.
Those users then have their faces scanned. If the scans don’t match the photo identification documents provided to the company, the user will be immediately kicked out of their game.
Player thinks he can still get past ‘midnight patrol’
Li Yuwei is a university student from Xi’an in northern China and a dedicated player of Tencent’s popular game Honor of Kings. He’s played the game for more than six years, since he was in high school.
Mr Li and his friends used to enjoy playing the game together overnight using their parents’ identification documents to avoid the curfew.
He said this loophole was common among teenage players in China and there were also other ways to get around the curfew.
Mr Li believes young players will still be able to circumvent the new digital patrol.
Facial recognition will enable more sophisticated surveillance
Tencent said the strategy had been widely welcomed and contributed greatly to the country’s minors protection law.
But technology ethics consultant Dr Jessica Baron is concerned about what the use of facial recognition technology entails.
“They like to remind us that technology is neutral and it’s how we use it that’s important,” she said.
According to Dr Baron, the potential harm caused by facial recognition technology outweighs the benefits.
Dr Baron said even if the company believed the technology would be used “for the common good”, they were actually building a more sophisticated surveillance system.
And children could still potentially find their way around the system, she added.
Even if the company is not storing data they collect from facial recognition, Dr Baron said it was still helping to improve the technology by feeding the algorithms more information and there is no reason to believe it will stop with children and video games.
Australian parents might love it
In June, China passed an amended minors protection law specifying obligations providers of web-based products and services will need to fulfil under the legislation.
Internet game providers, live streaming companies, audio and video channels, and social media platforms in China are required to set time limits and restrict access for minors.
Dr Hugh Davies from RMIT University has done research on games and play in the Asia Pacific region, particularly in China, Hong Kong and Japan.
He said it was worth exploring how game companies can use facial recognition to protect children.
“So for a lot of Australian parents, they sort of feel that, wow, I wish that the video game companies or the government in Australia would do something like that.”
Dr Davies said while he believes the effectiveness of Tencent’s technology is yet to be proven, the use of facial recognition technology today has become commonplace — such as Face ID to unlock the mobile phone.
He added that in his opinion, the Chinese government was “correct” about one thing — it was up to game companies to take a lot more responsibility for the products they made.
‘A parallel universe’
Barney Tan, an associate professor from the University of Sydney, expressed similar concerns over increased monitoring.
“There is no-one to check the Chinese government but themselves,” he said.
“The potential of technology may be initially unlocked for the most innocuous of reasons, but once that potential has been realised, it can then be abused.”
Professor Tan believes ‘midnight patrol’ was introduced by Tencent as part of regulatory compliance.
He said the government might have not formally announced it as policy, but a directive has been conveyed to Tencent from the regulator, and other gaming companies will eventually follow.
However, Dr Tan believes Tencent’s new technology for gamers in China shouldn’t be a concern for Western countries because Chinese firms always differentiated their services for domestic and international markets.
“If there are countries who mimic what Tencent has done in the future, those countries would likely be those with more collectivist cultures like South Korea and Singapore.”