China is inching closer to lifting a ban on video consoles like the PlayStation, Xbox, and Wii that has been in place since 2000 to prevent “potential harm to the physical and mental development of the young.” The South China Morning Post reports that the reversal would come with strings attached: manufacturers like Sony and Nintendo would have to assemble the consoles in the new Shanghai free trade zone, which Beijing is trying to promote as a new economic hotspot.
The video game ban never made much sense. Aside from the irony of outlawing devices that are manufactured in China in the first place, the ban was unevenly enforced and easily subverted by grey market imports from Hong Kong. As for its stated goal of protecting the youth, it ignored the fact that you don’t need a console to play video games—indeed, online gaming on personal computers is wildly popular in China, causing periodic outbreaks of hysteria about gaming “addiction.”
Even when consoles become legal in China, it will probably be too late: they are well on their way to becoming obsolete. As Quartz has reported, games on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are now ascendant, and expensive console games are being eclipsed by the likes of Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga. That trend will be especially strong in China, the world’s biggest smartphone market. Gamers there are also accustomed to getting their games via piracy, so any attempt to establish a console business will face a dauntingly steep climb.
Early rumors about China lifting its console ban caused a spike in the stock prices of Sony and Nintendo earlier this year. But console makers have already missed their moment to make it big in China.