Cash-rich tournaments. A billion dollars in revenue last year. Over 87 million users every day. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), launched on smartphones in March 2018, is, by any yardstick, a success. But instead of being hailed, the fifth-highest selling game ever has found itself in the dock for contributing to a wide gamut of social ills: poor academic performance, violence, theft, even suicide.
Surat was the first jurisdiction to impose a ban on PUBG Mobile, on 8 March, followed by Rajkot, Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, and other districts. The ban in Ahmedabad was lifted on 28 March. The bans might have flown under the radar, but things were different this time around. Not only did several reports explicitly tie PUBG to youth delinquency, in addition to suicides and thefts, but several PUBG players were arrested in Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Himmatnagar for merely playing the game.
United in fear
In 2016, a petitioner in Gujarat had asked the courts to ban Pokémon Go, accusing it of everything from hurting religious sentiments to posing a threat to national security. Just two years before that, publishing powerhouse EA had held off the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition in India, ostensibly over fears that it would violate obscenity laws.
Controversies over games are relatively new in India. In the US, critics have long accused games (as they did rock music at one point) of playing a role in suicides and violent crime. But it was the infamous Columbine school shooting in 1999 that made games the unwitting villains on the global stage, after it was revealed that the school shooters were fans of the path-breaking First-Person Shooter (FPS) game, Doom.
More recently, the perpetrator of the mosque shootings in New Zealand namechecked a famous gaming and YouTube star PewDiePie—and recorded his deadly rampage in a style reminiscent of FPS games.
While the US’ free speech laws protect games from bans (some titles, however, get an adults-only rating, which reduces availability as many retailers do not sell such games), this is not true of other countries. Australia regulates content for a variety of reasons—from sexual material to violence. Postal 2, one of the first mainstream games to attract flak over violent content, had trouble with certification in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Malaysia.
It was only in 2018 that Germany rescinded its total ban on Nazi symbols in games (which now get the same treatment as films, with artistic or dramatic use allowed). As for China, bans are the norm, not the exception, with approval necessary before the launch of any new title.
Pushing the boundaries
Video games are art, say players and creators. And just as with other forms of art, games have pushed the boundaries many times. Even hits such as Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt have come under criticism for misogyny and violence; a handful of indie titles have pushed the boundaries even further—letting players participate in virtual depictions of sexual violence, mass killings and genocide—to the point that many publishers have refused to sell these.
What’s the way out?
Do violent games make us anti-social? A study published in March 2018 in Molecular Psychiatry concluded: “No significant changes were observed, neither when comparing the group playing a violent video game to a group playing a non-violent game, nor to a passive control group.” But some studies have reached a different conclusion. A meta study by researchers at Dartmouth College, which analysed 24 experimental studies from across the world, showed that violent “video game play is associated with increases in aggression”.
Meanwhile, in 2018, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its list of diseases, with the rider that “only a small proportion of people” were at risk.
While the jury may be out on the games’ harmful effects, the positives are well known—from boosting teamwork skills to improving hand-eye coordination: A study conducted in 2004 revealed that surgeons who played video games were 37% less likely to make mistakes. Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, which has challenged the ban (and arrests) in the Gujarat high court, says that games may, contrary to popular opinion, reduce social isolation by offering access to new peer groups via their inbuilt social channels.
Was the ban overkill?
According to Gupta, while he “would not completely dismiss concerns on addiction or violent behaviour,” there was a need to deal with the “central issue—adolescent health”. Pointing out that “moral panic” has always existed, whether over the internet, TV, music or pornography, he says the furore over PUBG is another example of society “not trusting the choices made by youth”.
Warning that the bans also set a bad precedent, he raises the prospect of “addiction” being used as an excuse to clamp down on popular shows on streaming services. And then there’s the possibility of such bans being counterproductive, alienating youth and promoting cynicism and distrust in society.
But it is the arrests that worry him the most: “Sending someone to jail is a disproportionate response,” he says. A better alternative, according to him, is engagement “through scientific study as well as educational and awareness measures which lead to better impulse control”.
Gamers, meanwhile, are befuddled by the furore. According to Ankkita Chauhan, a well-known gamer and YouTuber, games add as much value to society as “art, music and movies”.
Condemning the bans and the subsequent arrests that “took it way too far”, Chauhan admits that video-game violence can be a “tricky” issue: “It really depends on the person at the end of the day. Maybe kids that are too young could get under the wrong influence if left completely unmonitored. But otherwise it’s just about the mental stability of the person playing the game. Everyone who watches and enjoys violent action movies and shows doesn’t go outside trying to beat everybody up. Why would you think playing a game would make people do that?”