Tencent, the world’s largest gaming company, is introducing facial recognition technology that is likely to scan the faces of many gamers every night to catch minors breaking a game ban and preventing video game addiction (via Gizmodo). That’s a lot of controversial concepts in one sentence, aren’t they?

Here’s what’s going on, according to the company and Chinese games industry analyst Daniel Ahmad.

In China, video game addiction prevention is literally the law of the country that has been evolving for many years but has recently reached some major milestones. In 2019, China has passed a law that prohibited minors from playing video games between 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. or from playing for more than 90 minutes on a weekday. And starting June 1, 2021, every game in the country will have to add a new authentication system that verifies a player’s Chinese national identity (including their age) to prevent underage players from exceeding these limits, all in the name of preventing video game addiction.

Tencent had actually used Chinese ID cards for a couple of years, under other attempts to Curb addiction, but the company tells us that underage gamblers kept finding ways to bypass them – such as their parents’ accounts.

The so-called “Midnight Patrol” facial recognition system is an attempt to check whether an “adult” is actually an adult. It launched on July 5th in over 60 mobile games, including the hits Honor of kings and Game for peace – also known as China’s more patriotic version of PUBG. The facial recognition system is only available for China and only for mobile games, the company confirms, so PC games like League of Legends are currently excluded. It’s all part of the company’s ongoing Balanced Online Entertainment System initiative, Tencentcent says The edge, which also includes the Parental Guardian Platform and Healthy Gameplay System, which let parents know what their kids are up to and remind users when they’ve played too long.

According to Ahmad, whose company Niko Partners sometimes works with Tencent, the facial recognition part of the system works like this: “It will essentially detect whether the person playing the game after midnight is doing it for an extended period of time or is spending a certain amount of money in the game, and it will tick a box in Tencent’s backend and ask the user to verify their identity through facial recognition, either through this database or through a database they are already using, ”says Ahmad.

Tencent says it doesn’t save any of the new scans itself; Instead, it sounds like it builds on China’s already established state-run facial recognition system, and all of the scans Chinese users have already given Tencent. Ahmad says all Tencent games in China use WeChat IDs to log in, and the Midnight Patrol can also use China’s national citizen database of face photos to match them. China’s surveillance engine, of course, has also been used for more worrying things, like the country’s human rights violations against Uighur Muslims.

However, Tencent makes it sound like it doesn’t necessarily scan the faces of minors. If a user playing games outside of business hours is asked to do a face scan, they can simply decline, which according to a machine translation will be treated as a minor and booted out of the game the Tencent press release.

Tencent actually started testing this facial recognition system in 2018, and Ahmad says not much has changed since then. He says the company started doing these types of checks last year when Tencent discovered that many children are likely to steal their grandparents’ accounts. “A lot of children live with their grandparents because their parents work in the city, so they are probably using their grandparents’ accounts without their knowledge,” says Ahmad.

Ahmad thinks the move is likely not that controversial in China as the facial exams, while intrusive but primarily concern adults, and the online sentiment seem pretty predictable so far. “If you look online and read the comments, a lot of older parents say that’s great because gaming is awful,” he says. “It’s always the older generations who say that games ruin our children, so there is some acceptance among the older generation that it should be like that.”

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