Saving the world from aliens

By Kim Kan

Let me confess. I have absolutely no interest in video games.

I am old enough to remember when the first one to hit the big time came out – Space Invaders in 1978 — but entirely failed to see the attraction.

Annoyingly ubiquitous electronic beeps and squawks of Space Invaders ravaged the quiet of every bar and ruined the taste of booze, at least for me.

Space Invaders was a very primitive game by today’s standards. But there was no escaping it.

It was so popular that it even spawned a 1984 movie, The Last Starfighter, in which a teenager was recruited to defend the universe in an interstellar war against aliens because of his skill in video games.

I don’t remember why I watched that movie. Probably some cute but brainless chick dragged me along. But I do remember that I thought it utterly stupid and was bored witless.

Dismissing the entire topic from my mind, I paid no further attention to video games (and that chick).

Hence I was puzzled when, earlier this year, I learnt that China had severely restricted young people’s access to video games. Dubbing them ‘spiritual opium’, it had entirely banned playing video games on school weekdays, and restricted play to an hour a day on Fridays and weekends.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party had asserted stronger controls over the tech sector, social media, and private education. Whether you agreed with them or not, those moves were broadly understandable.

But video games? That seemed like taking a sledge-hammer to a butterfly. I decided to investigate further.

To my surprise, video games had grown into a serious global industry worth over US$ 179 billion in global revenue for hardware and software in 2020, with China contributing the major share.

As of January 2021, in China, more than 88% of internet users aged 16 to 64 played video games.

East Asian countries were generally above or around the global average of 86.9%.

Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam were all over 90%. Malaysia was 88.9%. In Taiwan it was 92%; Hong Kong 86.6%; South Korea 83.6%. Singapore and Japan were almost laggards at 81.8% and 74.6% respectively.

In 2020, video-gamers spent an average of 6 hours 20 minutes a week playing, with 17% playing more than 12 hours a week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger gamers aged 18 to 35 played for the longest times.

This year, YouTube reported watch time for video game live streaming grew to more than 10 billion hours. So probably as many, if not more, watched even if they did not play.

Millions upon millions of people around the world, particularly young people, lounging about indoors staring at video screens cannot be without effect.

I don’t think it is entirely coincidental that short-sightedness has become something of a global epidemic, with 33% (2548 million) of the world’s population suffering from myopia in 2020. The percentage of the myopic is projected to rise to 40% by 2030 and 52% by 2050.

The prevalence of myopia is particularly bad in East Asia where it is already around 50% in China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

Myopia can lead to blindness and other types of visual disabilities.

These figures shocked me and I began to dig deeper. Common sense suggested that hours of inactivity would have effects on waistlines and butts as well as eyes.

Fortunately, here the correlation seemed less conclusive. The percentage of the obese in Malaysia (15.6%), and Thailand (10%) seemed high and both also had high percentages of gamers.

But the percentage of the obese in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and China, was only round 6%, while in South Korea and Japan it was just above 4%, although all these countries had high percentages of gamers.

Still, for whatever reason, the world is undoubtedly getting flabbier.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. 39% of adults aged 18 years and older were overweight in 2016 and 13% were obese.

The WHO also reported that overweight and obesity among children and adolescents aged 5-19 has risen dramatically from just 4% in 1975 to over 18% in 2016.

Perhaps it is a tad unfair to single out video games. Today if someone tells you he is keen on football (or hockey, or tennis, or cricket or almost any sport) it does not mean that he kicks a ball around. Odds are what he really means is that he watches it on a digital device.

The rise of professional sports has spawned a new class of modern-day gladiators. Their ever more physically demanding (and fabulously paid) job is to keep the rest of us entertained while we degenerate into short-sighted couch potatoes.

Far from saving us from bug-eyed aliens, the Last Starfighter may be a cock-eyed, flabby, potential Jabba the Hutt.

My quick and admittedly superficial research made China’s actions more understandable. But I am not sure what is to be done.

A lucrative global industry is not going away. Few, if any, political systems can take the drastic measures that China had taken. And notwithstanding the health effects, it is not self-evidently desirable to try strangle an industry of great promise and wide multiplier effects.

Obviously, the solution is to mitigate the industry’s ill-effects without stifling its creativity.

I’ll leave that to wiser minds.

Me, now that gaming has moved into the mainstream and in homes, I’m content to drink in peace in bars, now thankfully safe from the beeps and squawks of aliens being blasted into oblivion.

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