The Videogame that Shook a Nation: PUBG takes over India
Early in morning of March 14th of this year, six college students were arrested in Rajkot, Gujarat. Their crime: playing a video game on their mobile phones. Not just any game, however; they were in the midst of a competitive game of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG).
Since its release on the mobile platform, PUBG has caused a massive stir in India, and has been met with both fanatic praise and harsh criticism. In early February, several cities in the state of Gujarat issued a ban on the game, which eventually led to a statewide ban issued by the Gujarat state government. The arrested students, along with other violators of the ban, have been released on bail and are still awaiting trial. There have been no recent updates regarding the penalties the students might face. Media companies speculate the cases will be dismissed due to the unsteady nature of the ban and the notoriously long trial waiting periods in India.
What is PUBG?
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is a massively popular survival-themed shooting game. Players run around an island attempting to scavenge armor and weapons whilst still hunting other players. The sole objective of the game is to be the last player standing. The game was initially released for XBOX and PC in 2017. Later in 2018, the game was released for PlayStation and a free-to-play mobile version was created.
Inspired by famous Japanese film Battle Royal (2000) and The Hunger Games novels, players participate in a one-shot deathmatch as the safety zone on the map shrinks, forcing players to confront each other. The map is given a realistic touch, looking like the average rural farm area with buildings and vehicles dispersed around the map. The map is set up with a variety of hot spots where players can gather resources, thus forcing them to battle each other for weapons and armor.
While there haven’t been any official surveys conducted or released, a profile of Battle Royal style games conducted by eSports analytics company Newzoo yielded some interesting results. Firstly, PUBG players tend to be slightly older than those playing Fortnite (a counterpart battle royal game with similar global popularity). Fornite players range from 10 to 30 and are mostly reported being students while PUBG players are more likely to be full time employees. Additionally, players that play Fortnite categorized themselves as “casual gamers” while PUBG players more frequently put themselves in the “hardcore gamers” category.
The key addictive factors lie in the nature of the game itself. The closer you get to victory, the more bitterness you feel after you get killed. As soon as this happens you can begin a new game and try again with a new set of players. It’s this combination of easy startup and frustrating loss that keeps people hooked. Additional perks, such as custom weapons, newer avatar skins and in-game coins are given to players for completing various challenges, also keeping players online. A final component is PUBG’s skill algorithm; unique to this game, players can be sorted into matches with people of similar skills, thus increasing the odds and the allure of winning a round. Victory means movement up both international and national rankings.
What is the Controversy?
PUBG’s addictive nature has spread across the world but has significantly impacted India. The game’s updated mobile platform has undeniably contributed to its success in the region. India’s smartphone users massively outnumber the number of people who own laptops or desktops. Asian mobile companies such as OPPO and Vivo deliver premium smartphones at a fraction of the cost (ranging from between 150 USD to 300 USD) in comparison to Western flagships such as the iPhone or Samsung. With easy access to powerful mobile devices and cheap fast internet, conditions were perfect for PUBG to spread like wildfire.
In late 2018, Chinese mobile company OPPO hosted India’s largest esports event: Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds MOBILE Campus Championship 2018. The event saw more than 250,000 registrations across 1000 different universities. This event was hosted in tandem with the release of OPPO’s new smartphone—the OPPO F9 Pro. According to an OPPO press release, “Packed with powerful features, the F9 Pro is set to take the PUBG gaming experience to the next level.” Phone companies rarely employ such niche marketing strategies since their primary goal is to develop a wide market base. But OPPO was able to identify the massive potential of the Indian PUBG market.
Aside from official tournaments, online connectivity has allowed for under-the-table PUBG betting rings to start up since the game gained traction. Online gambling is barely taking off in India, with it being illegal in most states. Considering the ambiguity of laws concerning eSport gambling, one can assume it is considered illegal, especially considering the negative press PUBG already receives. Players can find groups online via Instagram, WhatsApp, or Facebook, and pay to join specific servers to compete for a cash prize.
Entry fees range from Rs. 20 to Rs.1000 and can be setup with a quick text and an online money transfer. After payment, the host will then connect you via a password to the server where players battle it out for the top payment. Some matches offer kill cash, giving players smaller amounts of money for each kill they make during the game.
But PUBG hasn’t been all fun and games over the last two years. Gaming addiction has caused huge problems in the country. Newspapers are citing a variety of addiction-related deaths—from physical exhaustion to players committing suicide. Sleep deprivation from gaming can quickly escalate into exhaustion and spiral into a cycle of depression. There are reports of people being so engrossed in the game that once it’s taken away from them by either parents or school administration, they decide to end their lives. Furkhan Qureshi, a high-school Senior, passed away earlier this month from cardiac arrest—which doctors attribute to playing PUBG for six hours straight and constantly being agitated by losses. Two men in their mid-twenties were reportedly run over by a train in Maharashtra while playing PUBG near a set of railway tracks.
Parents, educators, and most recently the police are keeping a sharp eye on the development of the situation. While no formal studies have been done, several cases have been brought up of students skipping school to play the game, in addition to failing their examinations. Petitions to ban the game are still being signed and it has generally taken on a negative connotation in the country. The general population sees it as a dangerous distraction for young people.
What will the future look like?
India isn’t the only country where PUBG has stirred up controversy. PUBG has been banned in Iraq, China, and temporarily in Nepal. In early April the Kathmandu District Court issued a ban on the game, forcing all internet service providers to block internet traffic originating from PUBG servers. The argument presented for the ban was that PUBG was a danger to society and a distraction to young people’s academics. The Nepal Supreme Court swiftly reversed the decision, arguing that the game was simply a form of entertainment, and that freedom of expression is protected by the Nepalese constitution.
Experts predict that India may go through a similar legal scenario as different cities have either implemented a ban or are considering it. Banning an online video game isn’t as easy as banning a website. Policing servers and removing an app from the various app downloading platforms are all drastic measures states can take, but with a bit of tech skill and dedication players can consistently find a way back to PUBG. In addition to the intrinsic difficulty of banning a video game, there is moral opposition to such a ban. The Internet Freedom Foundation has already filed a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) before the Gujarat High Court, arguing that the ban and subsequent arrests go against a variety of articles in the Indian Constitution.
PUBG Mobile hasn’t ignored the criticism. In February, after the first round of reported deaths and bans, the company released the following statement.
"We appreciate the support and trust given to us by our PUBG MOBILE players. While we strive to deliver the best possible gaming experience to our fans, we also believe that it is extremely important for us to be a responsible member of the gaming ecosystem. To this end, we constantly work and shall continue to work with different stakeholders, including parents, educators and government bodies, and listening to their feedback on what we can do to enhance the overall PUBG MOBILE experience."
Steps have been taken to address the issue by PUBG developers. Each time a player opens the PUBG Mobile app, they are greeted with a comprehensive warning pop up, urging players to take breaks in between games and “game responsibly”. Additionally, the game has now implemented an update that restricts players from playing for more than six hours a day. If you try to log on again after your daily quota has been met, the game will request you to log on the next day at 5:30AM.
These new regulations have divided fans, with heated debates across social media. For the average player a six-hour time limit would seem reasonable, but for dedicated players it starts to become a burden. Advisory gaming warnings have been implemented across games and platforms for several years, but time restrictions and legal action takes things to a whole new level.
PUBG’s challenges in India not only mark an interesting moment in gaming history; the situation reveals another difficult facet to the issue of free speech in an online world. As we move forward into further integration and more people online, the question remains as to who should control our information and entertainment. PUBG’s legal and cultural battle shows us just a small glimpse of what problems may arise. ❖