It was 10 p.m. on a sweltering March evening, and Siraj Ansari was perched on a makeshift stool outside Mayur Cafe, a small tea shop in Ahmedabad, a city in the western state of Gujarat in India. Ansari and three of his friends sat glued to their mobile screens along with half a dozen other neighborhood boys, cheap headphones plugged tightly into their ears, and oblivious to the world around them.
They didn’t hear the patrol van pulling up, didn’t hear the slam of car doors, didn’t hear the footsteps clicking toward them, didn’t hear and the boys around them scrambling off into the darkness. When Ansari looked up, a plainclothes police officer glowered at him, and motioned to him to stand up with his baton. Ansari unplugged his headphones slowly and rose, tapping his friends on the shoulders.
You were playing PUBG, the cop said. We saw you. We’ve been watching you.
PUBG, short for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, is a hugely popular, online multiplayer shooting game that’s been topping the charts in countries around the world, including India — but in the second week of March, authorities in multiple Gujarati cities, including Ahmedabad, had banned it, saying it was too addictive and violent. Ansari had heard about the ban in the news, but hadn’t taken it seriously. After all, it’s just a video game, he had thought. What could possibly happen?
Within minutes, the cops had snatched the four boys’ phones, bundled the boys into the van, and sped off to a police station just minutes away, while the boys sat in terrified silence in the back.
Gaming has only become part of India’s still-young digital culture in the last few years as millions of residents who just got their first smartphones suddenly found themselves swept up in phenomena like Candy Crush Saga and Pokémon Go. But nothing — nothing — has come close to becoming as viral as PUBG.
Within months of its launch, PUBG became the top-grossing app on Android in the country and vaulted overnight into the public consciousness. Its popularity has been unprecedented. There was a PUBG-themed wedding photoshoot; a teen racked up a $700 bill for in-app purchases on his dad’s credit card (that’s enough to pay several months of rent in a large Indian city). Even Bollywood jumped in, getting a popular actor to promote a military-themed movie by playing PUBG live in front of signage with the film’s release date.
But the backlash followed just as swiftly. In January, an activist based in Hyderabad demanded a national ban of the game, saying it promoted violence and cruelty. In February, an 11-year-old boy from Mumbai and his mother filed a court petition to get PUBG banned in schools because, she claimed, it promoted “violence, aggression, cyber bullying” and was addicting. And in March, India’s National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights sought a report from the country’s Information and Technology Ministry asking what action it was taking against the game.
No state went as far, however, as the western state of Gujarat. On March 6, police in the Gujarati city of Rajkot banned the game within its city limits.
“From the various sources, it comes to our knowledge that after playing games like [PUBG,] violent traits are shown to be increased in youth and children,” Rajkot Police Commissioner Manoj Agarwal wrote in an official notification. “Due to these games, the education of children and youth are being affected and it affects the behaviour, manners, speech and development of the youth and children.”
Anyone caught playing the game would be jailed and fined under Indian criminal laws, he added, urging people to call the nearest police station if they saw anyone playing it. Agarwal did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment.
Playing a video game seemed like dubious grounds for arrest to PUBG fans and free internet advocates, but less than a week later, other parts of Gujarat, including Ahmedabad, the state’s largest city, and Vadodara, the third-largest city, had banned the game, citing similar reasons.
The national hysteria around PUBG is unfurling at a moment when Indians are struggling with fallout from rapid technological progress: the deadly spread of rumors on WhatsApp, rampant harassment on social media, and dangerous misinformation campaigns. People now demand that tech companies grapple with their effects on users — and yet the particular panic around PUBG and the resulting arrests in Gujarat reflect lawmakers’ blunt response when forces they see as destabilizing sweep in. Video game bans are not unfamiliar; but arresting young men for playing them, to safeguard “the education of children and youth,” is a severe and questionable method of protecting the interests of young adults.
Souvik Mukherjee, a professor at Kolkata’s Presidency University who has a PhD in computer games as storytelling media, said digital gaming used to be restricted to a young, urban population in India, “but now, with the huge surge towards mobile gaming, those boundaries have been crossed.” As gaming “is a growing phenomenon and is beginning to have a serious cultural impact” in India, it should be studied more closely “so that such uninformed reactions to games are no longer an issue,” he said.
Siraj Ansari and his friends — who asked not to be identified for this story — started playing PUBG in mid-2018, shortly after it was released on smartphones. None of them had played video games before, but were hooked to PUBG’s simplicity, its frenetic pace, and the thrill of playing online in real time with hundreds of people across the country. “Sometimes, we simply hang out in the game and use the voice chat feature to talk to people all over India about their lives, politics, the news,” said Ansari.
The premise of PUBG is straightforward: You parachute onto an island along with 99 other online players with no possessions except the clothes your character is wearing. Once you land, you need to scavenge for weapons and other collectibles, and kill everybody else on the island until you’re the last person standing, Hunger Games–style. You can play solo or team up with your mates, and you can talk directly with your teammates or anybody else on the island in real time simply by firing up your microphone. It’s a battle royale style of gaming that has swept the globe for the last two years. According to mobile market research firm Sensor Tower, PUBG Mobile has made $439 million so far. Bluehole, PUBG’s South Korean developer, first released the game on PCs and Microsoft’s Xbox One console in 2017. But it was only in 2018 when Chinese internet giant Tencent published the game as a free-to-play title on smartphones that PUBG exploded in India.
Juhapura, where Ansari and his friends were arrested from, is a poor Muslim neighborhood located four miles outside downtown Ahmedabad. At night, Juhapura comes alive. Hundreds of people throng its markets post dinnertime, buying meat and vegetables and sipping sweet, milky chai from tiny glass cups served by sweaty stall owners in skullcaps. And ever since PUBG swept the country, the ghetto’s youngsters have taken to huddling outside these shops, shooting the breeze, and shooting down players from across the country by forming tight little teams in-game.
When the cop approached him and his friends, they were puzzled, Ansari said. “We didn’t know what was wrong.” They had heard about the PUBG ban in the news — just a day before, police in the city of Rajkot, around 200 miles away, had arrested 10 people for playing it — but hadn’t taken it seriously. “We thought it was one of those freak stories that doesn’t really happen to normal people,” said Ansari.
Video games have always been controversial. Some, such as Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat, have provoked outrage and been banned in multiple countries around the world. But arresting local youth for playing a video game crosses a new line in India.
Ansari had never been inside a police station in his life. Now, shortly after midnight, he was sitting across the desk from two plainclothes police officers who threatened to throw him and three friends pacing nervously behind him in jail. Of the six people Ahmedabad police eventually arrested for playing PUBG, four were Muslims from Juhapura.
For hours, the young men groveled. They’d be better, they said, they’d never do it again. But the cops said they had been keeping an eye on the boys for days and had evidence against them on video. They refused to budge.
The PUBG Corporation, a South Asian subsidiary of PUBG developer Bluehole, declined to comment. Publisher Tencent did not respond to multiple inquiries from BuzzFeed News.
A.K. Singh, Ahmedabad’s police commissioner who signed off on the notification to ban the game in the city, told BuzzFeed News that he took the step because playing the game was reportedly “leading to behavioral change and addiction among the city’s youngsters” as complaints poured in from parents that their kids were becoming more aggressive and isolated. Singh said that the city police had also received multiple representations from concerned parents that the game was too addictive. “We endorse our decision [to ban the game],” he said.
“I’m really not sure what behavioral changes the police are talking about,” said one of the three people who were arrested with Ansari from Juhapura. “We play it purely for entertainment. It’s a stress-buster. Sure, it’s true that a lot of school and college kids play it more than it is healthy for them. But surely the police have bigger fish to fry than arresting them?”
Two hours after groveling with the cops, the boys were finally allowed to make a single phone call. Too scared to call their families, they called Younouzbhai Jambhuwalla, the owner of Mayur Cafe, a short, portly man in his late fifties, whom they knew well. Jambhuwalla had seen the two cops in plainclothes taking the boys away, and he’d already been making calls of his own.
After midnight, he called Kaushar Ali, a tall, stocky man in his early forties who has lived in Juhapura for more than two decades. Ali’s part social worker — pushing authorities for better civic facilities — and part political activist — pushing the ghetto’s Muslim minority to get a foothold in the city’s majoritarian politics. Ali’s connections could help the boys stay out of jail for playing a video game, Jambhuwalla hoped.
India, the world’s most populous democracy, has struggled with aspects of technology flooding across its borders. As mobile devices quickly become ubiquitous, parents and educators are raising concerns about online addiction and the game’s risk of spurring violent behavior and distracting young people from their studies. One minister in Goa said PUBG had become a “demon in every house” and demanded that it be restricted. Doctors at a leading digital addiction clinic in Bangalore said they were seeing several people addicted to PUBG each week. Even Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, seemed clued in. When a concerned mother told him about her son’s mobile gaming addiction at a public meeting in February, Modi immediately replied, “Is that the PUBG one?”
Government responses to perceived online threats have been strong across India at times. There have been more than 300 reported internet shutdowns in the country in the last six years, often in the wake of violent events.
But in particular, Gujarat — a conservative state known for being the home state of Modi, India’s controversial Hindu nationalist prime minister — has been vigilant about curbing the onslaught of not just technology, but all manner of behaviors that officials find offensive (like smearing cake on your friends’ faces at a birthday celebration). It was one of the first in India to block mobile internet in 2014 during a law and order situation, according to the nonprofit Software Freedom and Law Center. Bollywood movies based on a 2002 massacre of Muslims in the state were banned in Gujarat too. And days after India temporarily banned TikTok in April (saying that it exposed minors to pornography), the police commissioner of Rajkot, who arrested 10 people for playing PUBG, requested that Google and Apple remove PUBG from their app stores, saying it was harmful to children (they didn’t).
“I think these bans in Gujarat in particular aren’t really about one particular game or an app,” Ali told BuzzFeed News, sipping a steaming cup of tea at a restaurant late one night in April, not far from where the cops had arrested the four boys. He spoke slowly, drawing out his words. “It’s a way for the state to remind people of its authority every once in a while. It’s a way to show you that if they want to put you in jail for playing a video game, well, they can.”
There are reasons flexing these muscles is easier for authorities in Gujarat, according to Nirjhari Sinha, a human rights activist and the founder of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, a volunteer-led civil rights organization based in the state. After the 2002 Gujarat riots — in which right-wing Hindu nationalists slaughtered hundreds of Muslim men, women, and children in the city over three chilly February days — state authorities have invoked Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, a Colonial-era law that prohibits four or more people from assembling in a public place together to prevent riots, nearly constantly. It was one of the sections under which several youngsters playing PUBG were charged. “By invoking this section, it’s easy for authorities to pick you up under any flimsy pretext,” Sinha told BuzzFeed News. “You can’t gather in groups, and you can’t protest or hold demonstrations.”
By the middle of March, Gujarat state police had arrested 21 people, most of them college students, for playing PUBG in public. In Ahmedabad and Rajkot, cops in plainclothes patrolled outside college campuses, trendy cafés, and youth hostels, all places where the likelihood of finding young people playing video games on their phones was the highest.
Their strategy was simple, said two police officers involved in the arrests in Ahmedabad who asked not to be named: They swooped down on all groups of boys they saw with their heads buried in smartphones held in landscape mode. More often than not, they struck gold. Some of them were let off with stern warnings. Others had charges slapped against them, were convicted in court, and fined. A 19-year-old college student from Rajkot spent a night in jail before being bailed out the next day.
Singh, the police commissioner, compared the severity of the PUBG arrests to a traffic offense, but to those arrested, the consequences are personal. “I feel tainted by this incident,” one of the boys who was arrested told BuzzFeed News. “My parents were mad I got into trouble with the police when they found out. They’re okay now, but sometimes, my relatives and cousins will still tease me about it and I don’t like that.”
A 20-year-old man who was convicted by the court for playing the game and was eventually let off with a paltry 100 rupees (less than $2) fine, told BuzzFeed News that he was concerned that this conviction was going to remain on his record forever. “I’m about to apply for a passport for the first time in my life,” he said. “What if they deny me one because of this run-in with the cops?”
When BuzzFeed News attempted to contact a 21-year-old in Rajkot about his arrest, his older brother boomed, “Never call my brother again! We’re extremely stigmatized by this incident. Don’t make it worse. Don’t rub salt into our wounds.”
Soon, the debate about PUBG blew up on air on Gujarat’s FM radio stations.
At the Ahmedabad station of Radio Mirchi, India’s largest FM network, Dhvanit Thaker watched the station’s WhatsApp tip line light up with texts and voice messages from listeners. The day Rajkot police arrested 10 people for playing PUBG, the calls started pouring in. Thaker, who is publicly opposed to the ban, listened patiently as upset parents poured their hearts out about their children’s PUBG addiction.
One mother said her 16-year-old son had become aggressive after playing the game for more than 10 hours each day. “Whenever his little sister asks him for something, he hits her,” she wailed. “He never used to do that earlier. I feel helpless.” Another one applauded the ban. “At least now I have something to tell my son to dissuade him from playing,” she said.
Calls from people who played PUBG also poured in: Some were angry at what they saw as a violation of their personal freedom, others boasted that playing PUBG had improved their reflexes and their ability to multitask. “I didn’t tell people on air to not play the game,” he said. “I merely warned them about the impact that it can have on the mind. I’m not into preaching. I’m a friend.”
After receiving an email from an upset mother who wanted help for her 20-year-old son who had become addicted to playing PUBG and smoking cigarettes at the same time, Dhvanit got a psychiatrist on air, who said that although the ban itself was a gimmick, it was high time that India had a debate about the dangers that video games posed.
Meanwhile, reports were flooding in from around the country: In the Indian state of Karnataka, a teenager failed a test after filling his answer sheet with a walk-through of how to play PUBG instead of answering economics questions, saying he was too addicted to the game to prepare for it. In Telangana, a 16-year-old boy reportedly killed himself after his mother scolded him for playing PUBG too much. And in Maharashtra, two men who were hooked on PUBG and were playing it near railway tracks were run over by a train.
“Whenever a game reaches the kind of mass popularity that PUBG has, you’re bound to find extreme cases,” said Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst at Niko Partners, a market research firm that focuses on the Asian gaming industry. “In countries like India that don’t have a tradition of video games, there’s certain a concern from the older generation and anyone who doesn’t really understand gaming about what it’s doing to young people.” Emerging markets like India need to understand issues around gaming and technology addiction thoroughly before resorting to knee-jerk bans, Ahmad said. “That’s not really a solution.”
On March 15, the Ahmedabad City Police released a statement saying that the authorities would work with experts “to provide psychological help and counselling services to rehabilitate victims and wean them away to healthier recreational pursuits.”
Singh told BuzzFeed News that the department already has a couple of counselors on board as part of a victim support system. Concerned parents can approach the police and be connected with these counselors. “We would like to be a catalyst that rakes up societal concerns,” said Singh. “We believe that by banning the game, we did that, and we intend to have more affirmative action in the future.”
Kaushar Ali and Younouz Jambhuwalla were able to convince the cops to not press charges against Ansari and his three friends after two hours of cajoling. Instead, the group was let go with a stern warning. As they were leaving, one of the cops who had caught them tapped Ansari on the arm. “Look,” he said. “I get that you like the game. Even I play it, but privately. So play in your house. Don’t play it in public.”
Not long after their arrests, the bans on PUBG were lifted in Ahmedabad. By way of justification, authorities said they were calling off the ban since exams in state schools were over and children no longer needed to focus on their studies. In Rajkot and Vadodara, as well as other parts of Gujarat, the ban was called off due to “demand from youth and representations.” Still, it left behind some traces of pain.
Ansari said that he and his friends still play the game, but they’ve cut back on it. “Each time I play the game, I keep thinking about what happened to me,” he said, but there’s anger in his voice. “You know, if the government really wants to stop people from playing this game, why don’t they ban its servers from the country? Why don’t they make it just stop working here? Don’t harass common people like us.”
And yet, some advocates still challenged what they saw as arbitrary restrictions on people’s liberties in court. On April 8, the Internet Freedom Foundation, a New Delhi–based organization, filed a public interest litigation against the PUBG ban in Gujarat. “For a young student who is worried about his family’s reaction and future career prospects, being arrested by the police can be a deeply traumatic experience. To us, the PUBG ban is fuelled by moral panic, and the harms from video games require scientific studies and non-legal methods of engagement,” wrote IFF on its website. The judges threw out the case in about 10 minutes, essentially saying there was no constitutional right to play video games.
IFF Director Apar Gupta told BuzzFeed News that the rate at which new technology is reaching India’s more than a billion people is putting pressure on the country’s constitutional understanding of citizens’ fundamental rights when it comes to the internet. “We need well-articulated regulatory processes,” he said. “We don’t have the breadth of laws required to understand the internet in 2019, and we don’t have an enforcement framework. So bans are a natural course of action for the government.”
“India is dishing out ham-handed solutions without having a clear direction about what its online space should look like,” he said.
Singh, the police commissioner, has a different take. “Everything has two sides,” he said. “If you’re a concerned parent who is seeing your child’s life getting destroyed because they are addicted to this game, you have a different point of view. If you haven’t experienced that, you care more about freedom of speech and freedom of choice. I think it’s important to take a holistic view on this.”
It’s 2 in the morning and the four boys say they need to head home. Even at this hour, the cramped lanes of Juhapura still bustle with activity. Ansari walks for a few yards, reaches a fork in the road, and then turns around. “You know what, go ahead and use my name in your story,” he says. “I’m looking to immigrate to Oman as soon as I can. I’m sick of the government telling me what to do.” ●