Earlier this month, 19 people including 6 college students were arrested in Gujarat’s Rajkot for playing PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds) on their mobiles in public despite a ban on the online multiplayer video game. The students were arrested under Section 188 of the IPC which penalizes disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant.
As per section 188 any person who despite knowing that such an order is to be adhered to, does not abstain from a certain act or disobeys such direction – in that such disobedience “causes or tends to cause obstruction, annoyance or injury, or risk of obstruction, annoyance or injury, to any person lawfully employed” and/or “danger to human life, health or safety” shall be penalized with imprisonment and/or fine as specified under the law. These arrests were made keeping in line with a ban issued on PUBG early this March via a notification issued by Manoj Agarwal, IPS and Commissioner of Police, Rajkot city. The ban was introduced due to an alleged increase in violent behaviour and addictive tendencies amongst children and youth, which was consequently also affecting their studies, language and behaviour.
Launched in March 2018 PUBG, as it is popularly known, is a Battle Royale video game that soon went on to become a sensation in the gaming world, raking up a download count of 200 million as on December 2018. Although available on PC, Xbox and PlayStation, its free smartphone version is the preferred one making it a few notches more addictive for the online gaming-obsessed youth in India. In fact, if reports are to be believed, the Indian youth spends as many as eight hours weekly on the game (most of it at night) while using the gaming platform’s in-app communication tool to also chat with players on non-gaming topics. Not only that, players end up making in-app purchases as well on the game. Unfortunately, the game’s ubiquitousness was perceived as a red flag by the Gujarat State Government and they issued a ban following the plea of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
Online video gaming is not all harmless fun
While the PUBG ban may look absurd and unfair to most of the population in the know, a recall of the hazards of the 2016 Blue Whale is imperative to understand these otherwise perceived authoritarian concerns of the government. Blue Whale that became a social networking phenomenon was a 50-task game which required players to inflict self-harm in numerous ways (including carving a whale on their hand) and finish the game by committing suicide, often by jumping off a tall building.
The game that was built around psychological manipulation and intimidation of players resulted in hundreds of children and teens taking their own lives, barring a few lucky ones who managed to survive the game. The chilling impact of the game was such that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) in India had to send an official request to Google, Facebook and other social networking sites to get the links to the game removed.
Scientifically, there is evidence regarding the ill-effects of gaming on young, developing minds, and is characterized by what is known as the ‘Mean World Syndrome’. This syndrome makes a person assume that everything they see/hear on TV, Gaming and social networking sites is a reflection of real life and that the world is more dangerous than it really is. Unable to distinguish the two different spaces, the person is then led to act out violently on the pretext of self-defence.
While the Gujarat government’s concern is understandable, playing a harmless video game should not have to attract archaic laws like section 188 which were drafted as far as back in 1860 and had obviously not taken into account the internet and its workings, says Pavan Duggal, advocate and an expert in the cyber law space.
The public too lampooned the ban and subsequent arrests on social media and elsewhere by stating that it impinged on an individual’s freedom to choose and that such bans are largely ineffective because they only generate further curiosity about the subject-matter without truly solving the issue at hand.
The ban has now been lifted in Ahmadabad and the game has moved to private spaces, even as debates around the game’s continuance in India continue to occupy space online and offline. On an international level as well, the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO) have labelled the obsession of playing games as a mental health condition calling it the “Gaming Disorder”. Accordingly, WHO campaigns and endorsements have come together to help governments, families and health care workers in identifying the risk of developing this disorder.
On a personal front, as guardians, it is certainly not possible to absolutely control and monitor children’s gadget use at all hours. Restriction and setting a certain amount of play time may not always work. This is where governments and gaming companies need to collaborate and develop a healthy gameplay system (for example, using login IDs akin to UID) where responsible gaming is encouraged, with time limits and other suitable stipulations imposed on under-age players. Much like sex education, there ought to be a dialogue on the consequences of violent gaming and absorbing the Mean World Syndrome via such games.