Subhash* still remembers the phone call he received from his son’s college one afternoon four years ago. The college administration was upset that Subhash’s son Pranav, months into his postgraduate course, had not submitted key documents that were part of his admission procedure. “It seemed like a regular, disciplinary query from the college,” says Subhash . “But it was this call that led me to discover the truth about my child. Pranav had not remembered the deadline, or finished his college project, or even eaten anything for days because he was playing Dota 2 (a video game) for 35 hours at a stretch! I couldn't believe it.”
Dota 2 is a multiplayer game involving two teams of five players each. Each team guards a large structure called an Ancient and is tasked with destroying the opposite team’s Ancient. Subhash’s son was introduced to Dota 2 by his classmate. Not so incidentally, they were both pursuing a Masters in digital game design.
“Pranav would play the game whenever he came home for vacations,” says Subhash. “He would lock himself up in his room for six or seven hours. And if I tried to question it, he’d say it was part of his academics and I had to let it be. What I didn’t realise then was that it had become an addiction.”
Things got much worse when Subhash tried to force Pranav to step away from the game. “He had become so trapped in the game that he couldn’t survive without it,” says Subhash. “ He lost a lot of weight because he had begun to skip meals and sleep. It all seemed like it was straight out of Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju . There, Dutt was fighting drug addiction; here my son was fighting addiction to gaming and the Internet.”
Trapped in another world
Subhash especially recalls the two instances when Pranav’s addiction to Dota 2 took a frightening turn. “He broke a door in rage after we took away his laptop and mobile phone. Another time, he threatened to jump off the eighth floor of a building. My wife talked him out of it. It was a difficult time for us as a family.” Subhash took his son to several therapists including Manoj Sharma’s SHUT clinic (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru.
“What finally worked was the Panchakarma therapy, a detoxification regime advocated by Ayurveda,” says Subhash. “Even today, my son, who works as a game developer, plays Dota 2. Only, unlike before when it was a junoon , an obsession, it’s now more regulated.”
Last June, the World Health Organization (WHO) categorised addiction to gaming as a mental health disorder. In the manual, International Classification of Diseases, WHO describes gaming addiction — digital or video games — as “a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour that becomes so extensive that it takes precedence over other life interests.”
Where does India’s relationship with gaming stand?
Psychologists in New Delhi and Bengaluru say that gamers as young as 10 have been brought to them by their parents to help distance them from their gaming consoles or mobile phones. Sharma’s SHUT clinic says it has received more than 120 cases of game addiction since February 2018.
All play, no work
But addiction isn’t the only gaming problem that Indians face. A recent report compiled by U.S-based cloud services firm Limelight Networks reveals that 24.2% of Indian gamers have skipped work to play. This figure is higher than it is for French, German, Italian, Japanese, Singaporean, South Korean, British and American gamers. Some 52% of surveyed Indian gamers admitted to playing during work hours — again the highest figure globally. India also tops the list in another category — the percentage of gamers who would like to take up gaming as their profession. At 49.2%, India beats the U.S. and Japan. The primary reason for this is the increasing prize money that can be won from gaming tournaments.
Anecdotally at least, the new big draw for many gamers in India is Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), a mobile phone game in which up to 100 players arrive on an island and hunt for weapons to kill the others while avoiding getting killed themselves. The last player or team to survive wins, and is rewarded with a ‘chicken dinner’.
A video that went viral recently shows PUBG’s addictive pull: a groom is seen playing the game at his own wedding, undistracted by the bride sitting by his side or the gift-bearing guests. And the CRPF recently banned its soldiers from playing it.
“One of the reasons for PUBG’s popularity is that it is available as an android app and so is easily accessible unlike games that need PlayStations and computers,” says Dr. Sharma. “The appeal with games like PUBG and Fortnite also lies in the fact that they are team games where you communicate with the members and get a sense of recognition when you perform well. You can also livestream these games on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, so you can become a mini-celebrity of sorts with a following, for instance, which can then be encashed too.”
Paul Philip, a professional gamer, says there’s more to PUBG than just its accessibility. “There’s nothing like getting that title that says ‘Winner Winner Chicken Dinner’. The first time I saw that I screamed my head off. It may sound stupid to someone who’s not in the gaming world. But imagine battling a hundred people and coming on top. You can’t put a price on that. It’s a visceral feeling, an incomparable high.”
The truth is that PUBG is as reviled as it is loved. Reviled, mostly by parents. In April, a young boy in Hyderabad committed suicide when he was told off by his parents for playing the game instead of studying for an English test. This sparked a debate on whether PUBG should be banned in India. Many cities in Gujarat like Surat, Rajkot, Vadodara and Bhavnagar have already tried to ban the game in their administrative zones and have termed the game violent and terribly addictive. Countries like Nepal and Iraq have also recently banned the game for similar reasons.
The blame game
Indeed, there is enough evidence to suggest that our relationship with games and technology has turned a bit problematic, to say the least. But is a ban the solution? Is the game the reason for our addiction?
“I don’t think you can blame the game at all,” says Ayesha Kapur, a psychotherapist practising in Delhi. “I am a mental health professional but I’m also a professional golfer. One part of what I love about golf is the way in which it challenges you to develop your skill so that you play better and better. That is the case with any game, whether Candy Crush, PUBG or golf. I don’t think it is anything in PUBG, per se, therefore. This is the nature of sports or games.”
Kapur also plays PUBG and is a fan. “What I enjoy about the game is that unlike other games I know — Candy Crush for example — playing PUBG is not a solitary process. You’re playing with a team and there is actually a lot of communication happening. The outcome of the game depends on how well you co-ordinate with your team members. You’re not playing against the computer, you’re playing against actual people. For me, it is a fun thing that we friends do together.”
She acknowledges that any addiction is a problem that needs attention. “The fact is, not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic; likewise not everyone who plays PUBG becomes an addict,” she says. “There is an inherent vulnerability in some people who find that getting away into an alternative reality brings them entirely into the present where thoughts of the past and future are pretty much suspended, and you’re enjoying what you’re doing in the moment — this idea is terribly attractive.”
This is because like any addiction, gaming addiction too compensates for something else more difficult, Kapur explains. “When there are real-life factors that are painful to confront or address, it is easier to absorb yourself in something that keeps your mind away from that,” she said.
Child psychologist Nupur D. Paiva agrees. “The thing is gaming doesn’t disappoint — human beings do,” she says. “With a game, you can completely avoid human relationships. If there are disputes with other gamers or if you’re losing, you can replace your team or restart the game. We have always found that with young people, especially in the 14-16 age group, there are problems in relationships, often with their parents. The screen is generally introduced to them early in life, and it is unregulated by parents. Initially, the child spending time on the screen works for both parents and the children, which is why it becomes easy to just carry on with it. It is only when it reaches a point when the child does not want to go to school or play something else, stays up all night, does not study, etc., that parents begin to realise, okay, now this is a problem.”
Philip, who believes gaming is among the “greatest things in the world,” argues that it is all about finding the right balance because when you do, he says, gaming can actually prove beneficial. “Believe it or not, gaming has actually improved my social abilities. I play games that fall under the category called Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games. In these games, you meet people from all over the world and we’re all engaging in conversations without the pressure that comes in real life. It improves your social abilities, gives you a chance to be a version of yourself that you wish you were, and that in turn has an impact on your social life in reality as well. In a way, it is a good coping mechanism.”
Most games allow you to build a character from scratch, choose their sex, hair colour, dress and so on.
For instance, Philip’s go-to game persona is always a woman. “I like strong women and I like the idea of women being badass. Gaming has often been a huge platform for a male power showcase. I like to see a woman kicking some ass. It is also an escape from reality because, let’s be honest, reality sucks. If you get a moment where you can be somebody else, take it, but always come back. Because if you don’t, then that’s a problem.”
Kapur has an interesting take on gamers creating online avatars who are dramatically different from them — which she says highlights another positive outcome of gaming. “To a degree, one can say that it can even be a healthy thing. Because all of us, at a fantasy level, have ideas of who we want to be. And if you have an outlet that is letting you play out that fantasy, then why not. I’ve noticed that boys who generally play PUBG like their game avatars to be a woman and, generally, it is a woman in a red dress. Who knows, it may be the guy has a feminine side that he otherwise doesn't know how to access.”
Phrased another way then, the question also boils down to what is considered normal.
“Freud was famously asked this question about what is normal,” Paiva says. “His answer was to be able to love and work. If you just look at that very simple definition, it means you have a capacity for close relationships as well as the ability to be productive. In any addiction, both these things go for a toss. And this is not just with gaming. People’s work becoming an addiction is less frowned upon because working very hard is held up in our society as a good thing. But its effect on family life and one’s health will tell you that it is also being used to avoid something else.”
*Some names changed to protect identity
The writer is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru