Banning PUBG and arresting people is an ineffective solution to the core problem

PUBG has been banned in various parts of Gujarat and has now led to the arrest of ten people.

Update: The PUBG Mobile India team has issued a statement on the ban. "PUBG MOBILE is a game. 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. We were thus surprised to learn that local authorities in a few cities have decided to impose a ban on playing our 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. To PUBG MOBILE players, we want to assure you that we are on your side and we will try our best to find a reasonable solution."

It isn’t often that video games are in the news for law and order problems, but this on the rise in India, such as with the Blue Whale Challenge (now said to be a hoax), the Momo Challenge (both inducing suicide) and Pokemon Go (inducing distraction and trespass). The latest addition is the massively popular PUBG Mobile, which has been banned in various parts of Gujarat, and has now led to the arrest of ten people for playing the game, as per this media report.

When the playing of video games requires governmental intervention, it is crucial that this takes the right form. The ban with its direction of arrest, however, does little to actually resolve the issue, particularly considering that many of the players are school children, college goers and other young adults. The order, additionally, is issued under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, the same section that is used for internet shutdowns, which appears to be becoming the go-to provision for dealing with such issues, instead of exploring proper solutions, such as of a technical kind.

PUBG Mobile being played on Android smartphone. Image: tech2/Omkar

PUBG Mobile being played on Android smartphone. Image: tech2/Omkar

Media reports of violence leading to the ban

Media reports on the effect of PUBG Mobile have included an 11-year-old complaining of increased cyberbullying due to the game, a child who stole Rs 50,000/- from his father for the game, a child who committed suicide because he couldn’t play the game and a person who attacked a relative for not handing the charger to his phone for the game. A Circular from the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and a follow-up Circular from the Directorate of Education in Delhi, dated February 2019, in fact, addressed all schools on the need to sensitize parents and children on the adverse effects of playing violent video games, including PUBG and others. The advisory listed games such as PUBG, Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto Series, God of War, Hitman Series, Plague Inc. and Pokemon.

What the ban says

This Circular combined with these reports and increasing complaints from parents, appears to have led to the issue of the ban. As per an unofficial translation of the order (an official translation of the original order is as yet unavailable), the playing of the PUBG game, as well as the Momo challenge, has been banned, and anyone found to be doing so must be reported to the police. The reasons given include the impact on the studies, behaviour and speech of children and youth, along with the incitement of violence and anger in them.

The ineffectiveness of the ban

There is an important question of whether and how video games should be regulated, but for the present, there appears to be an urgent situation at hand that needs an immediate solution. A particular concern is with the impact the addictive nature of the game is having on children who are in the exam season at present.

Looking at the need to resolve this situation, the effectiveness of the ban issued in Gujarat is highly questionable. At best, the ban and the reported arrests might deter the playing of the game in the open, but there is still nothing to prevent the playing of the game in private. The requirement of reporting and arrest under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) is particularly futile since no one, least of all parents, is likely to report children and other young persons to the police.

A more effective solution

A more effective solution would be a temporary block of the servers to the game, considering that PUBG is a server based game. The result would be that even if a user has downloaded the game, he would still be unable to play the game. A related issue that arises is that such a block may apply at a national level instead of a state level, assuming that PUBG uses servers at a national level. However, this would be an immediate and effective solution to the problem at hand, and less invasive than the arrest of persons playing the game.

Looking for long-term solutions

The ban thus appears to be a knee-jerk reaction which does little to actually solve the problem, much like the orders of internet shutdowns which were for reasons as varied as to prevent rumour mongering or to prevent cheating in a public exam. Apart from immediate steps, the government and law enforcement need to look for more long-term and effective solutions.

Speaking to Niranjan Reddy, a cybersecurity expert, he suggests long-term solutions like restricting free access to the video game in question. This can start with having the game removed from the Indian version of the Play Store and other online stores. Further, the use of the game should be restricted to registered users via the Play Store, using devices or user specific codes for a given installable. This would prevent the peer-to-peer sharing of the installable apps outside of the official download and would restrict usage to registered players only. Alternately, he suggests that the playing of the game require payment, which can restrict the far reach of the free version of the game. He also recommends that schools restrict the bringing of smartphones onto the premises.

Looking into the DCPCR advisory, the document, in fact, contained recommendations similar Meity’s Blue Whale Advisory issued some time ago, such as of alerting parents of symptoms to watch out for in their children, as well as giving suggestions on how they are can deal with the issue. Solutions of this sort can have a more long-term effect in resolving the problem.

The need for governmental or regulatory intervention

Games that create law and order problems do need to be addressed, but bans of this nature will not do much. An important point of concern is that the persons arrested for playing PUBG were not, as per the report, engaged in any kind of violent or other illegal conduct. An order directing an arrest in such circumstances is a big concern. It is important to remember that the player may be a child, a young adult, or even a seasoned gamer, and the impact of the content can vary greatly for each. These factors, as well as looking at practically how the problem can be addressed are important.

Clearly, the potential of law and order problems created by video games is on the rise, and soon a solution will have to be found, be it in the form of a rating system (such as those used in the US), a self-regulatory system, or any other form. Bans of this nature, however, are not the solution.

The author is a lawyer specializing in technology, privacy and cyber laws.

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