A mobile video game goes viral, it is downloaded by millions in India, many get glued to their mobile phones and it's not long before it comes under the lens of the authorities. It is the story of arguably the most popular smartphone video game in India.
PUBG Mobile probably happened to be in just the right place at the right time. Big displays, ever-growing graphics capabilities of smartphones, cheap data, all came together to make it so successful in India. Most of all, it is the large young population which provided the video game a fertile ground to flourish in the country.
It is this young population for whose sake, it is claimed, there have been attempts made to restrict the video game by not just the police, but also political leaders, religious groups, even school-going students. A multiplayer battle royale game, its players aim to kill others to become the last person standing.
The current situation
The Bombay High Court is hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by 11-year-old Ahad Nizam in April. The court has asked the Union Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) to review the content of the popular video game and issue necessary directions if any objectionable content is found.
If the complainant is to be believed, PUBG mobile “promotes violence, murder, aggression, loot, gaming addiction, and cyberbullying”.
The game has already witnessed crackdown in some parts of India as well as some other countries including Nepal, Jordan, and Iraq. The game is not available even in China, the country where its developer Tencent is based, though that's down to a regulatory issue instead of any health-related or other concerns.
During a hearing of the case this month, however, MeitY informed the High Court that it is technically difficult to ban the game from all the sources unless the creator removes the game from circulation or puts some restrictions.
Is it addictive and does it promote violence?
“I have no doubt that the game is addictive,” Salman (name changed), a 23-year-old Delhi student, tells Gadgets 360. “It's difficult to stop [playing PUBG Mobile] before getting at least one chicken dinner, he said, adding that he plays for around 3-4 hours a day.
"Even older games like Candy Crush and Temple Run can be called addictive. But the whole controversy is because PUBG has gained a huge player base in a very small time," he adds.
World Health Organisation, a few months ago, declared too much gaming as a disorder. It said gaming disorder was “a pattern of gaming behaviour characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”
Salman adds, “I don't think PUBG promotes violence. There are hundreds of games out there with similar shoot-to-kill approach, but singling out PUBG Mobile is not fair. We have grown up playing games like Ghost Recon and Counter-Strike, why not label them violent and call for a ban.
Outright ban a no-go
“Unless there is a blatant violation of a specific law, there is no point of banning games,” says N. S. Nappinai, Supreme Court advocate and cyber-law expert. She adds that once a game is launched, banning the game is anyway going to be very difficult given the multiple means the Internet provides to bypass bans.
Apar Gupta and his group Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) have opposed a previous ban on PUBG Mobile and they had appealed against the ban in Gujarat.
“To immediately reach on a ban shows not only impatience while dealing with problems which are caused by technology but it is an absolute decision which does not take into account the benefits which also flow from the use of these technologies,” Gupta tells Gadgets 360.
He points out that there are certain benefits of video games as well. “Online gaming leads to better hand-eye coordination, it also leads to younger people forming communities and groups online where they are able to meet people if they are introverted and talk to them and develop their skills.”
The case for a regulatory body
Salman, the Delhi student, says he doesn't allow PUBG to affect his academics and enjoys the game whenever he gets time. “People should learn to maintain a balance between having fun and work,” he says. He said banning the game would not be right but “some sort of age restriction and maximum gameplay time per user can be thought about”.
Nappinai, the Supreme Court advocate, on the other hand, believes that regulations are the way to go. "There is a need to bring sufficient laws to regulate app stores, so that onus is put on the stores to ensure that the laws are complied with," she says.
She indicates toward dealing with the issues even before games are released for the masses. “It would be better if there are regulations specifying the does and don'ts when an app or a video game is being developed,” Nappinai mentioned. This way, the apps will be caught at the closest point of entry,” she says.
“The government has general laws and nothing specific for the evolving domains. Therefore, there has to be certainty and uniformity in the course of action,” Nappinai adds.
Prashant Mali, an advocate and a cyber law expert said that putting in place a ban on a video game should be the last resort in a democracy. “India needs an ‘Online Gaming & App Regulator' which will principally evaluate apps and games before their release," he says. He adds that awareness amongst parents, children, and teachers in schools and colleges about the pros and cons of video games needs to be increased.
And the case against
Apar Gupta from IFF suggests an alternate view on the situation. He says, “Experts from the field of mental health, curriculum development, and digital rights should to come together as stakeholders and device ways to address any kind of potential harm from the video game.”
“There is a range of public policies which are not only going beyond bans but even [beyond] the need for regulation which presupposes the need to create law,” he adds. “We first need to look at what can be legal as well as non-legal measures. For instance, if there is a need for parental supervision and intervention, you don't need regulation.”
“You don't need a law [to handle this situation] when a school can device an engaging curriculum and can make sure that components for studies can be addressed through technology. [You don't need a law] when the testing patterns are not in a way promoting a sense of fear in children, where they need to get away from it and play a video game.”
Gupta says he believes bans don't make the problem go away — it's like sweeping dust under the carpet.