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Could the facial scans be coming to online gaming?

LYNNWOOD, Wash., July 26, 2021 – It may not be a household name in the US, but many Chinese and a fair number of video game enthusiasts are familiar with the juggernaut conglomerate called Tencent. The company has an estimated $259 billion worth of investments and has become a consistent staple in the gaming news industry with their relentless stream of purchases and acquisitions. One piece of news about Tencent really stuck out recently: the launch of facial recognition software to reportedly stop minors from playing games late into the evening.

Called the “Midnight Patrol,” the technology is said to be used to catch those under 18 from circumventing China’s video game curfew—from 10 p.m.-8 a.m. The curfew also limits weekday game time to 90 minutes, 3 hours on weekends and holidays, and caps spending per month depending on age.

China passed this curfew in 2019, citing gaming addiction as harmful to children’s health. It is largely enforced through requiring game account registration to include their official ID number, but some have unsurprisingly used adult IDs when registering. With the “midnight-patrol,” over 60 Tencent mobile games will require a facial scan after undisclosed time intervals. 

It should be noted that mobile gaming is a huge market in China. Tecent’s Honor of Kings is one of their top earners, making around $9.3 billion as of June 2021 since their launch in 2015. However, their international version only accounts for $461.5 million—roughly 5%—of that $9.3 billion. That is just an example of how popular mobile gaming is in China. 

Tencent also has stakes in several large names in the gaming industry. Many League of Legends players first learned of Tencent in 2011 with their $400 million purchase of 93% of Riot Games. They now own 100%. League of Legends still remains popular, generating an estimated revenue of $1.75 billion last year. Tencent owns roughly 40% of Fortnite creator Epic Games, which pulled in over $9 billion in 2018 and 2019 combined on just Fortnite. Tencent also worked with the Pokémon Company on Pokémon UNITE which just released on July 21. Those are just a few of their larger game stakes, as a full list would be far too long. 

Outside of gaming, Tencent owns messaging juggernauts WeChat and Tencent QQ. For those unfamiliar, WeChat is a messaging, mobile payment and social media app with over 1 billion monthly users. According to data from Amazon’s Alexa, QQ is the fourth most visited website in the world. So it isn’t a controversial claim to say Tencent’s reach is huge.

This is unfortunately where things get problematic. There have been multiple examples that show WeChat messages are tracked and monitored by Chinese authorities. While WeChat is obviously a separate entity from Tecent’s gaming ventures, they are not mutually exclusive. If Tencent has a history of working with the Chinese government, it is fair to ask if facial recognition data will also be shared. The company says that scans aren’t stored, but it sounds like it will pull and possibly add to the Chinese state facial recognition surveillance system—one that has been used for human rights abuses on millions of Uyghurs and other minorities. While it is currently only slated for use in China, could the facial scans be integrated into international Tencent games or the greater online gaming industry?

One would hope the answer would be no and that app stores would remove any app attempting to do so. However, U.S. companies seem to be increasingly willing to cave to China’s demands, lest they lose access to a market of billions. So while the facial scans in gaming don’t impact those outside of China, the thoughts on where this could all lead are troubling.

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