Monthly Archives: April 2017

A Chinese video game rakes in cash

More than 200 million people in China play Honor of Kings, the social media-focused app that has become the biggest moneymaking smartphone game in the world. On Wednesday, its creator, the Chinese internet conglomerate Tencent Holdings, said that Honor of Kings helped power a nearly 40 percent rise in its game revenue in the three months that ended in June.

But the game’s popularity among the young has alarmed Chinese officials. In response, Tencent has added restrictions that limit those under age 12 to an hour of play a day, and those between 12 and 18 to two hours a day.

As savvy Chinese internet users have done for years, many players have found workarounds.

One is Min Jingxi, a 17-year-old student. She plays the game as many as five or six hours a day during her summer vacation — often as a character named Wang Zhaojun, a famous beauty from Chinese history — thanks to a fake identity she has established online.

“If you don’t do real-name verification for your new accounts, the system has no way to know how old you are, so there won’t be any limits,” Ms. Min said. “I have two accounts, and most of my friends also do this to bypass the restrictions.”

Honor of Kings offers swashbuckling sword-and-sorcery action through characters familiar to Chinese players. The game pits one team of up to five players against another in a magical land. Adding to its addictive gameplay, friends can fight with or against one another in private rooms and see each others’ scores on social media.

Tencent already allowed parents to monitor their children’s use of the game, but it imposed the tougher restrictions last month, one day after People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main newspaper, called Honor of Kings “poison to the teenager.” This month, an official military newspaper warned that the game could distract soldiers from their duties.

China has tightened its grip on its domestic internet in recent months, in part because officials are seeking stability ahead of an important Communist Party meeting this fall. Last week, it ordered top online platforms to crack down on objectionable content.

The game reflects the paternalistic side of Chinese censorship, one that addresses the impact of modern media on society rather than on politics. Previous censorship drives included crackdowns on larger topics like pornography and violence, as well as smaller targets like onscreen smokingand displays of cleavage, as China’s leaders sought to channel the country’s culture in ways that it considered healthy and productive.

Those efforts are effective to an extent, but the various ways that young Chinese have found to play Honor of Kings show how difficult it can be to guide culture. In shadowy pockets of China’s internet, users teach one another how to surmount a vast censorship apparatus. On video sites, uncensored versions of American television shows are available to download, often under different titles — “Scandal” becomes “The Bossy President in Love With Me,” and “Breaking Bad” is renamed “Coke Daddy.”

So it goes with Honor of Kings.

Xianyu, an online secondhand trading platform, carries listings that offer to sell adult IDs for as little as $2, and tutorials on more ways to circumvent the restrictions. Game accounts started by others can sell for $30 to $500, depending on how powerful and well-equipped the accounts are.

Tencent said in a statement that it was seeking to stop workarounds by younger players. “We are going to continue to cooperate with the government and make a joint effort to tackle this problem,” the statement said.

Xianyu is owned by the Alibaba Group, China’s e-commerce giant.

A representative for Alibaba did not respond to requests for comment.

Tencent so far has borne the brunt of official pressure, but experts say the Chinese government and the internet industry should work together to develop ratings systems and other methods to help govern how much time children spend playing the games.

“Mere restrictions through technical means aren’t sufficient to prevent game addicts, but can actually be counterproductive and increase its social influence instead, bringing more publicity and interests to the game,” said Tian Feng, the deputy director of the Juvenile and Social Problems Department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Honor of Kings caters to Chinese sensibilities. Players can take the guise of figures from China’s past or its legends. Like many games, players can use real-world money to make their characters more powerful. Players can connect through WeChat, Tencent’s social-messaging and e-commerce app, which it says has nearly a billion users.

According to CNG, which runs a Chinese video game industry database, Honor of Kings generated about $828 million in revenue in the first three months of this year. That would make the game the biggest revenue generator among smartphone games globally, according to data from App Annie, a market research firm that tracks app performance.

The game is especially popular among the young. According to a report by Jiguang, a Chinese consulting firm, a little more than half of its players are less than 24 years old, while a quarter are under 18.

The game presents Chinese parents with a question well known in other countries: How much screen time should their children be allowed?

“Now it’s summer vacation, so I think my son can play a bit more because almost all of his classmates are playing,” said Ma Hong, mother of a third-grade student in Beijing. “You certainly don’t want your son to be left out in his social life at school.”

Joining the office Powerball pool

With winner pools, the process of claiming and splitting the money can get complicated. For starters, it’s harder to do what experts advise in big lottery wins: Stay anonymous while you figure out a plan for the money.

Ideally, you’d have time to hire experts, like a lawyer, financial advisor and accountant, to figure out the best way to claim and manage that jackpot before the media crush brings attention and outstretched hands to your doorstep.

But sharing the prize means more people know at the outset. Someone is likely to spill the beans.

It could take longer to get your money, too, with each participant consulting his or her own team of experts.

“The last thing you want is 20 lawyers involved in anything,” said Kurland.

Some states have limitations on how many checks can be cut, meaning a larger group could need to settle on a more complex solution, like forming a trust.

“If you’re going to take those crazy odds, you’re better off doing it on your own so you don’t have to split it.”-Jason Kurland, The Lottery Lawyer

Then there are the tax consequences. Taxes on lottery winnings can vary by where you live and where you bought the ticket, so commuters who live in one state and work in another could lose a bigger percentage of their winnings to taxes.

If one person or a few from a large group claim the prize on behalf of everyone, they take on the full income-tax burden. Money shared after claiming the prize would be considered a gift, said Melissa Labant, director of tax advocacy for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. With a prize this large, the gift giver is likely to incur gift tax, and have estate tax consequences.

Despite those downsides, handing over a few bucks for the office Powerball pool is cheap peace of mind. After all, who wants to be the only person at the office on Thursday while co-workers are out rolling around in piles of money?

 Powerball fever spreads as jackpot hits $700 million  

So if you’re joining a pool, take steps to make sure it’s well executed. A number of lawsuits have been filed over the years from workers claiming colleagues unjustly cut them out of an office pool’s winnings.

So formalize the process: Keep a record of who contributes, and ask each participant to sign an acknowledgement that they’ve put in money and joined the pool. Scan in tickets purchased for the group and send them in an email to the participants with a note along the line of “Here are our numbers, this is the group,” said Kurland.

Those steps make it clear who’s splitting the prize and will head off thorny issues, like whether the winning ticket was part of the pool or one the organizer bought for himself.

Check to make sure your pool doesn’t run afoul of office solicitation policies, said Claire Bissot, managing director of CBIZ HR Services. Managers generally see such office pools as a good opportunity for camaraderie, she said, but you could be in for a reprimand if colleagues feel bullied into contribution or wrongly excluded from participating.

The Powerball Winner

The Powerball winner nabbed a $758.7 million jackpot, the second-largest lottery prize in U.S. history and the largest payout ever awarded to a single ticket.

While the identity of whoever bought the ticket for Wednesday night’s drawing at a store in Chicopee, Massachusetts, is still unknown, a few things should top his or her to-do list:

1. Keep the ticket close

Make sure to sign the winning ticket and make several copies. If you are somehow separated from the ticket, your signature should help ensure you still get the prize. To avoid that separation in the first place, put the original in a protected place, like a safe deposit box.

 2. Remain anonymous if possible

It’s best not to announce to the world that you’ve won. An attorney can help create a legal entity — i.e., a revocable trust or a family limited partnership — that protects your identity. If you can’t avoid publicity (some states require publishing your identity), consider changing your phone number or living somewhere else temporarily to avoid media attention and sudden money requests from long-lost friends or relatives you never knew you had.

3. Chill

Typically, lottery winners have three months to present their ticket. Before you decide to prove you’ve won, however, it’s best to first enlist the help of a team of pros: an attorney (this should be your first call), a financial planner and an accountant. It’s not uncommon for winners to face legal claims, sometimes from co-workers who either went in on a ticket or declined to — but now want a piece of the action

4. Take a deep breath

Before spending a dime, think about what this sudden wealth means. Not only financially, but emotionally. Before giving in to the temptation to fill your driveway with multiple Teslas, give yourself time to process the magnitude of your win. This is often when winners begin to think about their legacy and what societal contributions they want to make. Some even set up their own charitable organizations.

5. Choose a lump sum or annual payments

Figure out whether to take the lump sum or 30 allotments over 29 years. This decision is often made based on your tax situation. Either way, winning $750 million would put you in the highest tax bracket (currently 39.6 percent). This is when relying on the advice of pros (not family) makes sense.

Video Games Can Teach Your Brain to Fight Depression

Video game play is literally the neurological opposite of depression.

In the past few years, multiple fMRIstudies, including a seminal one conducted at Stanford University, have peered into the brains of gamers. Their results show that when we play video games, two regions of the brain are continually hyperstimulated: the region most associated with motivation and goal-orientation (often referred to as “the reward pathways”) and the region most associated with learning and memory (the hippocampus). When you think about the experience of playing a video game, it makes perfect sense that these two regions of the brain would be hyperactivated. When we play games, we’re immediately and constantly focused on a goal. Whether it’s to solve a puzzle, find hidden objects, reach a finish line, or score more points than other players, the goal focuses our attention and creates a sense of motivation and determination. As we anticipate our potential success, our reward pathways light up.

Meanwhile, all video games—not just “educational” games—are designed to be learning experiences. Level 1 of any game is easy, because players are usually not very good at a new game the first time they try it. Immediately, the learning process kicks in, as they figure out the rules, test different strategies, and improve their skills. Crucially, as players succeed and advance in any video game, it gets harder, which requires players to continue to learn and improve for as long as they’re playing. This experience of consistently getting better at something is perhaps the signature pleasure of all video games. When there is nothing else to learn, and no way to keep improving, we usually stop playing. This is why adults don’t play tic-tac-toe! But as long as the game requires us to improve, our hippocampus will be engaged.

If you’ve ever wondered how you—or a loved one—can fail 20 times in a row at an Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga level and yet still be enthusiastic and determined to try just one more time, this distinct neurological activation pattern is the reason why. To nonplayers, this tendency to keep trying again and again to finish a game level can seem obsessive and irrational. But it’s exactly the resilient behavior you would expect from someone whose brain has been primed both to stay focused on her goal and to gain confidence in her ability to learn and get better.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting to researchers like me who are interested in the connection between gameplay and depression: These two regions of the brain, the reward pathways and the hippocampus, are the same two regions that get chronically understimulated, and that even shrink over time, when we’re clinically depressed.

In other words: Video game play is literally the neurological opposite of depression.

When the reward pathways are underactivated, we can’t anticipate success. As a result, we feel pessimistic and lack the motivation to do—well, anything. And a lack of blood flow to, or even shrinking gray matter in, the hippocampus is associated with difficulty learning new skills or developing effective coping strategies—which makes it all the harder to get better at anything, let alone from depression.

No wonder several major video game studies have showed a correlation between playing more than 20 or 30 hours a week (depending on the study) and depression! Some researchers originally interpreted this as evidence that video games can cause depression. But today, a more common interpretation among the researchers that I compare notes with is that many depressed players are actually attempting to self-medicate with games. They experience a dramatic sense of relief from their symptoms while playing, and therefore, the more depressed they feel, the more they play.

Self-medicating with games can be a dangerous path to go down. If you play games with an “escapist” mindset—that is, to ignore your problems, to block unpleasant emotions, or to avoid confronting stressful situations—you’re more likely to suffer some of the negative effects that many studies have found associated with playing games, like anxiety, depression, or social isolation. That’s because the more depressed you feel or the more stressful your life gets, the more you play games—and the less time and effort you put into action that could help solve your real-life problems. Your problems therefore get worse, so you spend more time gaming to escape them. It’s a vicious cycle. If you know someone who is addicted to games, they are almost certainly playing with an escapist mindset. In fact, researchers have found that “the use of games to escape daily life” is the No. 1 factor that predicts excessive or pathological game play.

Alarmingly, a whopping 41 percent of frequent game players say they “play video games to escape daily life.” Well-meaning parents, spouses, and educators make the situation worse by admonishing gamers to “put down the game and do something real,” or to “stop wasting so much time.” This kind of nudging, while well intentioned, conditions gamers to believe that play has no purpose, no meaningful connection to everyday life. In turn, this makes them more likely to view games as an “escape” from reality—and therefore, more likely to become addicted or negatively impacted by them.

But playing games to change our mood doesn’t have to be problematic. The key is to play your favorite games with a purpose—with a positive goal, such as developing your creativity (in a game like Minecraft), learning to solve new problems (in a game like Portal), strengthening relationships with friends and family (with Words With Friends), getting better at bouncing back from failure (in Call of Duty), or improving your performance in high-pressure situations (with League of Legends).

Researchers have found that this kind of purposeful game play builds self-confidence and real-world problem-solving skills. More important, it has the opposite impact of escapism: Playing to get better at something (anything!) really does help you become less depressed, better connected, and more resilient in real life. That’s because every time you play, you think about the mental, emotional, and social resources you’re building up. You don’t see game play as artificially divorced from “real life.” Instead, you see play as an important way to help you practice real and meaningful skills.

You don’t have to change the games you play—you just need to focus on the way the games are making you better. When you do, you become more likely to believe that the strengths you build while playing are strengths that you can bring to your everyday challenges. In fact, as I show in my new book Superbetter, the more you consciously think about how games help you get better, the easier it becomes to activate your gameful mindset—the mindset characterized by increased activity in the reward pathways and the hippocampus, the mindset that represents the neurological opposite of depression—in the face of real-life obstacles.

I’ve tested this hypothesis in my own work over the past five years to see if individuals battling depression, anxiety, and traumatic brain injury can be taught to apply “gameful” ways of thinking and problem-solving to their real-life health challenges. So far, the results have been compelling. In a randomized controlled study conducted last year with psychology researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, we found that after 30 days of being coached to approach their daily challenges like a game, clinically depressed individuals were significantly less depressed and anxious, and experienced better moods and higher self-efficacy, or the feeling that they had the skills and abilities necessary to successfully solve their own problems. (Participants used an app called “SuperBetter” specifically designed for this purpose.) And in a clinical trial completed earlier this year, funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by Ohio State University Medical Research Center, we found a similar reduction in depression and improvement in mood among patients with mild to moderate traumatic brain injury who followed the same SuperBetter program.

I’m excited about the potential for a systematic approach like SuperBetter to help people learn to be as mentally and emotionally resilient in everyday life as they are games. But you don’t need a special program to benefit from the idea that the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression. Anyone can learn to be more mentally and emotionally resilient in the face of tough obstacles, just by beginning to think and talk about the ways that games help them get better. Although everyday life may not always activate your brain in the same way as a video game, you can start to see yourself as someone who is goal-oriented, resilient in the face of setbacks, and always able to learn and improve.