China is Playing Video Games with God
“China’s strict limits on how long minors can play online videogames just got stricter. Chinese children and teenagers are barred from online gaming on school days, and limited to one hour a day on weekend and holiday evenings, under government rules issued Monday.
Parents had complained that was too generous and had been laxly enforced, the administration said. The new rule sets the permitted gameplay hour to 8 to 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The government said it would step up inspections to ensure that gaming companies were enforcing the restrictions.
“Recently many parents have reported that game addiction among some youths and children is seriously harming their normal study, life and mental and physical health,” the administration said in an online question-and-answer explanation about the new rules. Parents, it said, had demanded “further restrictions and reductions in the time provided for minors by online gaming services.”
The new rules also reflect the government’s intensifying push for companies to jettison what the Chinese Communist Party says are unhealthy influences, especially among teenagers and children.”
I want to consider the possibility that this was an absolutely catastrophic policy decision by the CCP.
My sources are the 2.5 articles I read about the new video game restrictions and a few conversations with some 17 year old Chinese students of mine. My goal here isn’t necessarily to make predictions or provide any kind of exhaustive analysis, but to make a broader argument about why it might be (very) dangerous to enact social engineering policies at such a massive scale, particularly those that affect angsty teens. This is why I’m not really worried about the question of enforcement; what I’ve gathered from discussions with my students was that there are some ways around the ban (like playing on a grandparent’s account or finding black market user logins) so it’s unclear how much this will actually reduce gaming. I assume for the sake of discussion that this ban has the stated effect of drastically curtailing gaming.
Although the focus of this essay will be on the potentially disastrous consequences of the ban, we should not discount the possibility that it will have a largely positive effect. To a 31 year old American that grew up playing excessive amounts of video games such as myself, it is almost impossible for me to admit that this could be a good idea — it kind of goes against everything I believe in. I just don’t want to live in a world where an authoritarian anti-fun policy like this has demonstrably positive short-term and long-term effects on youth health and educational outcomes. This bias is all the more reason for me to consider the possibility that I am wrong. However, I refuse to do so because (1) of course I don’t actually think I am wrong and (2) I find the arguments for limiting video game play to be fairly self-evident and uninteresting (less video game addiction and kids will be happier/smarter/healthier, or something like that).
A more cynical view of the CCP’s motivation here is also possible. In a recent Bloomberg article, Tyler Cowen argues that the self-contained nature of games marks a profound transformation in human affairs, particularly as it pertains to culture and government regulation.
“It is easy to become a world-class performer in a game without knowing much about the broader culture. By the same token, most of today’s cultural experts know very little about gaming, and they get on just fine. The worlds of culture and gaming are largely separate.”
“The self-contained nature of games also means they will be breaking down government regulation. Plenty of trading already takes place in games — involving currencies, markets, prices and contracts. Game creators and players set and enforce the rules, and it is harder for government regulators to play a central role.
The lesson is clear: If you wish to create a new economic institution, put it inside a game. Or how about an app that gamifies share trading? Do you wish to experiment with a new kind of stock exchange or security outside the purview of traditional government regulation? Try the world of gaming, perhaps combined with crypto, and eventually your “game” just might influence events in the real world.”
Maybe this is giving them too much credit, but it’s possible that the the new video game policy is a preemptive strike by the CCP to prevent self-contained gaming worlds from becoming a breeding ground for all that they wish to control and suppress.
Let’s imagine a few scenarios for how this plays out.
(1) Kids lose out on the positive effects of playing video games (improved problem solving skills, spatial reasoning abilities, manual dexterity, etc.) but they find other stuff to do that offers similarly valuable benefits (some form of athletics in most cases) and ultimately the ban ends up not having any kind of significant impact (certainly the most likely outcome).
(2) Maybe the Chinese (and all of us) have failed to appreciate how important video games are for what we might call applied creative intelligence, particularly as it pertains to scientific and technological thinking There is a certain kind of young person for whom video games can serve as an inspiration towards technical or artistic mastery, a stretcher of imagination, and a welcoming social environment, all in one. These are the people that often end up becoming the next generation’s scientists, engineers, programmers, etc. (speaking stereotypically here obviously). Without video games, we can imagine that these people are just a little less motivated, a little less happy, a little less creative and innovative. The one domain where they were free to imagine and compete and create — the one domain where they were free from the rules and constraints of the adult world — has now been limited, censored, corrupted. On a societal level, this manifests as an innovative malaise, a subtle deficiency in techno-scientific imagination. There are just a few less Big Ideas.
This should be very concerning for a culture that already worries about its lack of creativity. Conrad Bastable describes another reason why we should allow kids to play video games to excess:
“The reason to play games “For Glory” (i.e. individually competitive games) to wanton excess is not to become a professional gamer, but to learn the meta-skills of rapid skill acquisition and ruthless self-evaluation. These are incredibly useful in the complex modern world, where self-education is the only kind of education that makes a difference.”
In this view, videogames train a kind of applied competitive intelligence (something that is surely useful in the scientific and economic domains), akin to how sports train athleticism, a kind of applied competitive fitness if you will.
(3) The video game ban foments a revolution that topples the CCP.1
The restriction sows seeds of discontent — a deep-seated bitterness, a latent anti-authoritarian streak — amongst a generation of gamers. Given the gender imbalance (119 boys per 100 girls for ages 10-19), this translates to a large number of angry young men in China (some evidence shows a link between population of young men in a country and political instability, however this may not be linked to marital rates as is commonly supposed). This is dangerous enough for any society, but it may be especially dangerous for one like China. In The Cult Deficit: Speculation and Analysis, I referenced a recent simulation study by Muthukrishna and Schaller (2020) that suggests tighter (i.e. the enforcement of social norms) and more collectivist cultures are prone to rapid cultural transformations that “may proceed at a pace that more closely fits the subjective perception of a “revolution”. From a blog post that Muthukrishna wrote about the study:
The researchers devised a computer model which aimed to replicate these different types of societies. The societies were built with varying degrees of certain characteristics, such as an individual’s tendency to connect with others, and how liable they were to be influenced by their peers.
The initial results that came out of the model showed its credibility; if societies are more collectivist and conformist, they tend to consolidate majority opinion more quickly, explained by the tight connections and influence over peers.
The researchers then tested what would happen if a well-connected messiah-like figure started to promote the kind of radical ideas that could lead to a revolution. Would they be more likely to see it succeed in a conformist, collectivist society like China, or in the looser and more individualistic United States?
The results showed that the ‘messiah’ would have a difficult time making a breakthrough in a country like China. But if they did succeed, their ideas would spread quickly, with cataclysmic and transformative results, potentially building to a revolution.
In an individualistic country like the US, the messiah figure would find making an initial breakthrough less difficult, but the upheaval would be confined to small groups within a society, rather than spreading rapidly across the entire nation.
Dr Muthukrishna says: “In the US, there are many examples of cults that attract a small number of loyal followers. They achieve a small-scale breakthrough but don’t engineer the kind of transformative social change we have seen so many times in places like China.”
“The irony of these results is that in a collectivist and conformist society, these vast, highly disruptive revolutions are more likely. Their culture leads to the paradox of long periods of stability followed by rapid change.”
Maybe in 2052, there will be a Gamer Messiah, a Jesus of the Joystick, a Buddha of the Button that leads an insurrection against the CCP — and then the world.
Jokes aside, I think this study points to a higher-than-you-think possibility that change could come swiftly and unexpectedly in China. Sure, this specific scenario is highly unlikely (i.e. a destabilizing of the world’s largest nation because of a video game restriction), but the general contours of the story might not be as improbable as they seem. Video games may be trivial in the grand scheme of things, but what’s not trivial is stopping 280 million people (the number of Chinese people 0-19) from enjoying their free time how they please. The ban also comes at a time in which young people are starting to “lie flat” as a protest against the ever-quickening rat race of modern life.
In April, a user named Kind-Hearted Traveler shared a post on Chinese search engine Baidu about why he lives a minimalist life.
"I haven’t been working for two years, I have just been hanging around and I don’t see anything wrong with this. Pressure mainly comes from comparisons with your peers and the values of the older generation. These pressures keep popping up…But, we don’t have to abide by these (norms). I can live like Diogenes and sleep inside a wooden bucket, enjoying sunshine. I can live like Heraclitus in a cave, thinking about the “logos.” Since this land has never had a school of thought that upholds human subjectivity, I can develop one on my own. Lying down is my philosophical movement. Only through lying flat can humans become the measure of all things.”
Fed up with a culture of overwork, through-the-roof housing prices and skyrocketing living costs, many Chinese youth are "lying flat" to express their frustration with the lack of upward social mobility.
Lying flat includes opting out of getting married, having children, purchasing a home or car, and joining the corporate money-making machine. The tang ping (“lying flat”) movement embraces doing the bare minimum to maintain a minimalist lifestyle. It rejects the so-called "996 life" of working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, a tech industry schedule that has bled into other sectors and often fails to provide sufficient income for exhausted workers to get ahead.”
“Chinese youngsters, or in general the working population, have experienced huge societal and political changes in the past nine years, [leading them to realize] that there is neither the possibility for initiating a revolution nor the freedom of expression. Under such a condition, lying down has become the only option,” Wu told Quartz.
How would you feel if the government controlled how you spent your free time as a teenager, and then as a adult you had no free time because you were working a 996 job for shit pay? And then on top of that, when you try to simply drop out of the rat race, they censor you and admonish you for laziness.
In a sign of the Party’s concern over the idea’s popularity, Chinese social media platform Douban has censored a discussion group of nearly 10,000 members about lying flat, while some state-owned media have urged young people to ditch the idea. “The new generation is not a generation that chooses to lie flat, but one that chooses to work hard!” the Xinhua news agency said in an article in May, citing examples of young medical professionals fighting hard against the pandemic.
“The fear is such trends, after gaining online traction can mobilize public support and quickly turn into protest movements,” said Valarie Tan, an analyst at German think tank Merics whose research focuses on Chinese elites and societal and media debates. That concern is heightened given the 100th anniversary of the Party in July. “So that is why the movement was quickly censored or publicly criticized to mitigate its popularity.”
Of course, the lying flat trend has yet to, or probably never will become an organized political movement. But it is the deep discontent expressed behind the thinking that has Beijing worried. A generation that no longer wants to enter an endless rat race could slow consumption and therefore economic growth, undermining the key moral justification for one-party rule. Moreover, while the Party is good at using its security apparatus to suppress protests, the very passivity of lying flat make the idea much harder for the regime to counter.
“The essence of lying flat is the dismantling of the Party’s control of people,” a young Chinese student in the US told Quartz.
While letting discontent simmer on social media doesn’t seem like a particularly good option either, I wonder if censoring a social philosophy that is inherently passive and non-violent is setting up a kind of civilizational Streisand Effect that will serve to turn sentiment against the CCP and destabilize their authority in the coming decades.
I don’t think any of this will actually happen (not least because teens will work around the restriction and figure out how to keep gaming). But it could.
The reason I am wary of the unintended consequences from the video game ban is that it feels an awful lot like the CCP is “playing god”.
The charge of “playing god” is commonly levied against scientists and engineers who would tamper with those fundamental aspects of nature that have traditionally been seen as the domain of a deity — life, death, forces of nature; things like genetic engineering, cloning, weather engineering, abortion, in vitro fertilization, euthanasia, etc. are seen as foolish overreaches of science that will only anger god. Although the idea of playing god may be expressed most often in religious contexts, there is a deeper intuition here, one that is shared by the secular as well, which goes something like this: “Beware of screwing with complex systems that you don’t fully understand (and you almost certainly don’t understand them as well as you think you do). Unintended consequences abound. Hubris is the downfall of Man.” When this intuition of “playing god” occurs, the complex system that is being screwed with is usually something like human biology or the climate/weather, but human psychology and social dynamics are every bit as complex and intricate, if not more so. Even a seemingly innocuous restriction on video games is interfering with teenage psychology (perhaps the most complex phenomenon in the known universe as most parents can attest to I’m sure) on a mass scale and frustrating a very core feature of the human mind — the innate desire for freedom of play. While the accusation of playing god probably gets thrown around much too freely, if this isn’t a textbook case then I don’t know what is.
While I definitely would like to stick up for video game playing youth around the globe, my concern here is much broader. The CCP, and to a lesser extent the US government (and to an even lesser extent other less powerful governments), Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are like nouveau gods, drunk off their newfound power, blinded by arrogance and self-interest to the complexity and delicacy of that which they seek to control — all omnipotence and no omniscience. To be clear, this is not geopolitical power (in which case the US would be more powerful and google/facebook/twitter would not be in the same class of organizations), but the ability to change the day-to-day behavior and thinking of people. In this respect, the power of the CCP is unprecedented — never before in history has an organization been able to so powerfully control the day-to-day life of such a vast number of people. My worry is that these gods have grown up too fast and don’t realize the full danger of their powers, like testosterone-fueled teenagers binge drinking for the first time (ah those were the days). If we don’t learn how to reign in these drunken gods, a ban on video game playing might be the least of our worries (as in there will be an existential catastrophe and video games won’t even exist anymore, just in case that wasn’t clear).
So how exactly can we reign in these drunken gods? For starters, we should acknowledge that there is a new class of entity on this planet which is qualitatively different from previous organizations. The recent call to give Facebook and Amazon a seat at the United Nations is a step towards recognizing this truth. Second, we should see these entities for what they truly are: hybrid superintelligences made of technologically-augmented networks of humans (i.e. information technology + humans).
“Although we we do not always perceive it, hybrid superintelligences such as nation-states and corporations have their own emergent goals. Although they are built by and for humans, they often act like independent intelligent entities, and their actions are not always aligned with the interests of the people who created them. The state is not always for the citizen, nor the company for the shareholder. Nor do not-for-profits, religious orders, or political parties always act in furtherance of their founding principles. Intuitively, we recognize that their actions are guided by internal goals, which is why we personify them, both legally and in our habits of thought. When talking about "what China wants" or "what General Motors is trying to do," we are not speaking in metaphors. These organizations act as intelligences that perceive, decide, and act. Like the goals of individual humans, the goals of organizations are Complex and often self contradictory, but they are true goals in the sense that they direct action. Those goals depend somewhat on the goals of the people within the organization, but they are not identical.”
— from Danny Hillis’ essay in Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI
Our challenge then is to align the interests and goals of these hybrid superintelligences (primarily growth and self-preservation) with those of humanity (self-preservation as well but also equality, justice, peace, the advancement of knowledge, etc.). If this is starting to sound like the AI alignment problem, that’s because it is — the twist here is that we ourselves are part of the intelligent entity that needs aligning. Hillis continues:
The components' (i.e. the humans) good intentions are not a guarantee of the emergent system's good behavior. Governments and corporations, both built partly of humans, are naturally motivated to at least appear to share the goals of the humans they depend upon. They could not function without the people, so they need to keep them cooperative. When such organizations appear to behave altruistically, this is often part of their motive. I once complimented the CEO of a large corporation on the contribution his company made toward a humanitarian relief effort. The CEO responded, without a trace of irony, "Yes. We have decided to do more things like that to make our brand more likable." Individuals who compose a hybrid superintelligence may occasionally exert a "humanizing" influence—for example, an employee may break company policies to accommodate the needs of another human. The employee may act out of true human empathy, but we should not attribute any such empathy to the superintelligence. These hybrid machines have goals, and their citizens/customers/employees are some of the resources they use to accomplish them.
The hybrid intelligence (HI) alignment problem is not new — we’ve been struggling to align the interests of rulers with those of the unwashed masses since the dawn of civilization. What’s new is that our nation-states and corporations have ascended to a level of power in which they truly are as gods to us. Misalignment of our values and goals is now an existential threat in a way that it wasn’t when the most powerful organizations on the planet had cannonballs and the pony express.
I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that our deepest questions and most serious problems will ultimately avail themselves of the strangest and most unexpected solutions. In that spirit, I have an unorthodox proposal, one that is in some ways a call for a return to the past: to solve the HI alignment problem, we should worship these hybrid entities as if they were literally gods and engage them with all of the same cognitive and cultural machinery that we typically reserve for religion and spirituality.2
First, it is essential for us to that realize that there is no going back — humanity needs these organizations and their god-like power because we now face problems of such a scale that only a god can solve them (climate change/ecological degradation, AI safety, prevention of nuclear or biotechnological disaster (please god if you are out there help us with COVID-19). From this awareness, a new spirituality must be forged, one that orients our action and emotion towards keeping the gods in check and aligning them to humanity’s deepest values and goals. This does not mean that we need to bend the knee and worship the CCP, the US government, Google, and other such entities with dogmatic obedience; quite the contrary — protest, civil disobedience, whistle-blowing, and boycotting should be seen as the highest forms of worship. At the same time, we should want these entities to be the best gods they can be, and to do that they need our trust and belief, even when it seems irrational to give it to them. If this seems contradictory — trust institutions as you would trust your god but also regard forms of protest as worship — that’s because it is.
Such is spirituality. Embrace the paradox.
It has been said that man is made in the image of god, but in the new religion each man is a neuron in the mind of a god. It follows that if we want that god to align with the highest ideals and values of humanity (Wisdom, Truth, Beauty, Love, Compassion, Justice), then we must embody them ourselves. Those with the most control over the minds of the gods — politicians and CEOs — should be our greatest exemplars.
Crazy idea, right?
Some may object that we should not worry about the CCP being destabilized and potentially overthrown. I might be inclined to agree, but on the other hand it’s not hard to argue that there are other outcomes which do better on a purely utilitarian calculus (e.g. China gradually becomes less authoritarian and more humane) and that we should aim to work towards those potential futures instead.
To be clear, I am not saying that this form of religious engagement is any kind of replacement for more rational means (scientific/tech, political, economic) of aligning governments/corporations with the collective interests of humanity. Quite the opposite in fact — I would like us to realize the seriousness of our situation and bring an almost religious level of devotion to these activities (e.g. how can we best use technology to elicit real-time feedback from citizens and then integrate that information into policy decisions?)