Last month, 19 people including college students from Rajkot, Gujarat, were arrested for playing a popular video game called PUBG. These arrests were made for violation of a Rajkot police notification that had banned the game. The rationale for the ban was attributed to an increase in “violent traits” in “youth and children”. This ban was adopted by at least five districts in Gujarat including Ahmedabad.
As the number of districts and arrests keep increasing, it is important to look at the current body of research on violent video games that patently invalidates the logic of the ban. While the legal aspect of this ban is murky, the science seems pretty clear. There is no evidence of any correlation between violent video games and an increase in aggression or “violent traits”.
Violence and video games
Gory video games are regularly demonised and blamed for violence. According to President Trump, they are partly responsible for school shootings in the US. An accusation that is contested by scientific research.
Scientists from Oxford University conducted a very robust experiment to find the link between violent video games and aggression. Around 2,000 teenagers and their parents participated in the study. The researchers used standardised ratings of the video games the subjects were playing (to estimate how violent they are) and asked their parents to rate their children’s aggression on a number of objective and subjective parameters over the course of the study.
In February 2019, they published their results which found no correlation between violent video games and increased aggression in the adolescent players. This research was systematic and well planned. For instance, instead of relying on self-reported data from 14- and 15-year-old participants, they relied on responses from their parents. Along with statistical tools like regression, they also used anecdotal evidence on a case-by-case basis.
Psychological research has been dealing with a reproducibility crisis with the rampant spread of practices such as p-hacking and HARK-ing where researchers are willing to manipulate data to arrive at a result of their choice. To combat this, the registered reports protocol is followed where the researchers list the size and the statistical design of their study before conducting it. This ensures that the data collected after the experiment is not choreographed or cherry-picked. Registered reports is an earmark of good research and the Oxford study on violent video games followed it.
A similar pre-registered study found no link between violent video games and an increase in aggressive behaviour. In a 2017 study, German scientists studied MRI data from seasoned players who play violent video games found that there was no long term desensitization or blunting of empathy. Re-analysis of older data that suggested possible association have been found to be overstated and exaggerated because of methodological flaws and biases.
Something as abstract as violent content and aggression is hard to study. Violent content is everywhere—in our news, sports, novels, movies, TV series, history books, etc. It is hard to study something that is so ubiquitously fixed all over our timeline. While it will be hard to find conclusive evidence to vindicate violent games, the current body of evidence does invalidate this poorly chalked PUBG ban.
So why are teenagers pugnacious and aggressive? Because they are teenagers! That’s how they behave in their natural state. Intimidating them out this behaviour by pointing the gun at proxies like PUBG is delusional. And frankly, if video games make you any violent, which ones are the Bajrang Dal playing?
The adhesive addiction
Aggression aside, addiction is a big problem when it comes to video games. PUBG is a milestone in the Indian gaming space. Immersive and graphics-heavy games were traditionally limited to expensive hardware consoles like Xbox and PlayStation. PUBG is one of the first games that changed it. Just download the app and you can play and share a survival game with your friends in real time. PUBG is not an isolated experience, it is a social one. This one-click accessibility has given the game its instant fame. It is hard to exit such an adhesive treat at will.
In developing countries where video games are a way of life, addiction has a different place in the cultural fabric. In 2018, WHO decided to include Gaming Disorder in International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). This resolve was met with a lot of criticism by experts who were concerned about the low quality of the research base and the genuine risk of abuse of diagnoses. They believe that a number of high quality, pre-registered studies are needed before the clinical utility of formalisation of gaming addiction as a disorder can be ascertained.
Excessive gaming can certainly be a problem if your school and work life start to evaporate in the face of these games. But it is important to understand that addiction is a characteristic of the Internet as a whole and not just gaming alone. Endlessly pulling up your Twitter timeline or binging on Netflix at the expense of your offline life is an equally unhealthy problem that requires addressing. Teenagers who don’t have the critical faculty to understand excess can’t be expected to cross such a labyrinth. But that doesn’t mean you forcefully pull them out of it. By depriving them, we only inspire them further to find innovative ways around such bans.
We need to stop treating PUBG as a digital drug. This ban relies on a reductionist view of causation and addiction. Excessive use of the Internet by teenagers is a problem and addressing it starts by talking to our children and not jailing them. This quick fix sets a dangerous precedent for all the uncomfortable things that the Internet is going to bring.
Beyond the gamers
This does not vindicate the developers of PUBG who have done very little to address the rampant bullying on their platform. PUBG is essentially a video game over a conference call. Trash talking and abuse often manifest as cyberbullying and harassment. It is one of the major problems that the e-sport (online gaming) industry has repeatedly failed to address.
Bullied by the ban, PUBG developers have added a six-hour per day restriction on their game. This limit certainly does not help the cause. Ask any PUBG veteran; they will guide you to at least five different ways to bypass such futile hurdles.
The PUBG ban has also fueled the debate on infringement of personal rights. How do you defend an unreasonable ban on a video game in a free democracy? In response to the public outrage over the ban, the Ahmedabad Police has acknowledged the concerns regarding the bureaucratic overreach.
Equating video games as a form of art, in 2011 the US Supreme Court overruled a law that prohibited the sale of violent video games to minors. With a 7-2 majority, the bench found the law to be a violation of the freedom of speech.
Last month, a PIL was filed by an 11-year-old boy who wanted to ban the game because of its violent and addictive nature. The Young Persons (Harmful Publication) Act of 1956 prohibits publication and distribution of “act of violence or cruelty” that “would tend to corrupt a young person”. This act is certainly very broad would include almost all of the Internet. It is a good time for Parliament and the judiciary to decide the lines that we will draw on the Internet. The well-being of our netizens is a non-partisan issue, but freedom of expression is not.
The Internet has radically catalysed the evolution of our culture and our means of entertainment. Some choose novels or daily soaps for recreation while others go with PUBG. No choice is more virtuous or better than the other. Banning any of these harmless activities in the guise of public safety is naive if not unconstitutional.
If video games are harmful, so is the national pastime of taking selfies which have killed more than 160 Indians in the last few years. Using state forces to apprehend young girls and boys for playing video games is outrageous. It is a traumatising experience for teenagers to get arrested for playing a video game. Along with revoking the ban, the IPS who issued the order should apologise to them. Muscle-flexing by police to set an example should not be at the cost of mentally scarring students and young gamers.
Last week, Google launched its gaming platform Stadia. It emulates the same strategy of immersive experience and high accessibility. Stadia is meant to revolutionise the $900 million dollar e-sports industry and bring to closer to gamers in developing countries like India. These games are often both, violent and addictive. How will stop them then?
Banning is certainly not the way forward. Reasonable regulation and dialogue with young gamers is a good place to start.