It’s 10.30pm. Gaurav Jeyaraman, 30, has just finished dinner with his family and launched PUBG on his iPad when he is welcomed by a message from the game’s creators: TAKE IT EASY.
From high-prize tournaments in university campuses to Prime Minister Narendra Modi making a reference to the game during an interaction with students and parents, Tencent-backed PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds has quickly risen to popularity in India in the last one year.
The battle royale game, which blends survival and exploration with last-man-standing gameplay, is however under the scanner of government authorities as at least three cities in PM’s home state Gujarat have banned PUBG citing its addictive and violent nature. Local authorities even allow arrest of users violating the ban, as ten users in Rajkot experienced two weeks ago.
To muzzle the negative reports, PUBG Corp is internally discussing ways to promote self-regulation among users. How does it plan to do it? The warning served to Jeyaraman, cautioning him about the hours spent playing the game has been PUBG’s way of addressing the issue at hand.
“After the Gujarat issue, the game asked me to update the app. Once I logged in again, a screen appeared on my screen that said PUBG will monitor the number of hours I’m using the game and will warn if I’m playing it excessively,” said Jeyaraman, who has been playing PUBG for almost a year.
Many other users The Passage spoke to said they were warned to stop playing the game once they hit the two-hour mark. One health message asks users to talk to people and “enjoy the scenery around you if there is one or just close your eyes off for a while (without falling asleep).”
‘My child is not the same anymore’
PUBG is a game of survival. People are dropped on an island in real-time and the last standing person wins the game. One can either choose to go solo or play with a team, and use ammunition and weapons spread over the island to kill opponents and out-survive them. The live-chat feature that enables team players to make strategies to survive and kill gives the game an edge.
The main criticism from users, parents and doctors is this — PUBG is super-addictive.
In January this year, an 11-year-old boy filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Bombay high court seeking a ban on the game on grounds of it being aggressive and promoting cyber bullying. Many schools and colleges have imposed a ban on playing PUBG inside their premises.
However, the matter escalated when Gujarat Child Rights Body complained to local authorities and asked National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to look into the matter. While three cities including Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Gir Somnath issued a public notification prohibiting people from playing PUBG, NCPCR sought attention of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity).
While talking to The Passage, NCPCR chairperson Priyank Kanoongo said they have received multiple complaints on PUBG. He said NCPCR seeks a reply from the government once the legitimacy of the complaint is verified. After it receives an ATR (Action Taken Report) from local authorities, it will send recommendations to the government.
Meity did not respond to The Passage’s request for a comment.
In 2014, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) in Bengaluru had started a special cell to tackle addiction from excessive use of technology. Dr Manoj Sharma, who heads SHUT (Services for Healthy Use of Technology) clinic, said from Dota 2 and Clash of Clans, the clinic has moved on to patients addicted to PUBG.
Though Sharma said there is no national data available on PUBG addiction, “I can say that treatment-seeking behaviour is up, and we are now getting six to seven cases per week of addiction to PUBG.”
Most patients who visit Sharma range between the ages of 15 and 20, and dedicate eight to ten continuous hours playing PUBG. ‘My child is not the same anymore after PUBG’ is a comment he often hears from parents.
While Sharma cites lack of study to prove a “change in nature” due to PUBG addiction, he said parents have seen increase in verbal and physical violence among their kids once they’ve been stopped from playing the game.
“These games involve the tendency to kill other players and survive at any cost. When this instinct comes, they become more aggressive. Such tendencies sometimes leak out into the offline world too since they spend so many hours on the game. But how much of it is because of PUBG, we cannot be sure,” Sharma said.
Screenshot of the health message from PUBG
PUBG’s reaction to the concerns has been to reiterate that it is a game. In a statement earlier this month, PUBG said, “It is meant merely for entertainment and should be enjoyed in a healthy and responsible manner. In consonance with our endeavour to continue promoting responsible gaming experience, we are working on the introduction of a healthy gameplay system in India to promote balanced, responsible gaming, including limiting play time for under-aged players.”
PUBG also expressed surprise to learn that local authorities in some cities had decided to impose a ban on playing their game. “We are working to understand the legal basis of such bans, and hope we can have a constructive dialogue with relevant authorities to explain our objectives and that they withdraw the prohibition.”
The plan: Stay away from a ban
To ensure it doesn’t get caught in any government regulatory affairs in India, PUBG is taking the self-regulatory measures seriously. To begin with, it has started sending health messages, titled ‘Healthy Gaming Practices’. These messages remind users to drink enough water, keep the room well lit and take “regular breaks to minimise the stress of looking at the screen.”
It also asks users if they are below 18, which it didn’t ask earlier. To be sure, PUBG is for users over 16 years old on Google Play Store. There is however no strict way to impose this age limit.
The gaming industry hasn’t had it easier in China. The state-run People’s Daily once called Tencent’s game Arena of Valor “poison”. Last year, China asked gaming companies to complete KYC (know your customer) for users, which required players to prove their age and identity by showing their national ID cards.
According to the tightened rules for mobile and video games in China, if users play for three continuous hours they will be logged out for 15 minutes. Once a user passes the daily limit of seven hours of total gameplay, they will be logged out every hour for 15 minutes.
“Unfortunately, the Indian government is a bit lackadaisical about these matters and there is no regulatory authority for gaming or media in general,” said Anand Lunia, founding partner at Mumbai-based fund India Quotient.
Seeking to take advantage of a missing dominant player in India’s gaming market, Tencent has launched the games Fortnite and Dream11. The segment is currently led by Dream11, which has raised over USD 100 million and claimed to have clocked a user base of 50 million in February this year. VCCircle reported that Dream 11 has held talks with Hong Kong-based hedge fund Steadview Capital for a fresh round of investment which may value it at USD 1 billion.
A joint study by Google and KPMG said that India’s gaming industry will be worth USD 1 billion by 2021, a market too big for a player to be busy with bans and regulatory quagmires.
Lunia warned that the chances of gaming companies becoming collateral damage is real if the trend of banning catches up instead. “It is important that these companies engage proactively with the government and until then declare proper self-regulation norms and also establish an India office,” he said.