You might think India is living it up in the digital age, and then comes news of a ban on and the consequent arrests of people playing ‘PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds’, an online video game. The game, widely known as PUBG, is a first-person shooter game that begins with 100 players being airdropped into a large play area at the same time. The aim? Use your wits, strategy and resources to be the last man standing. The game became a global phenomenon with over 40 crore players registered worldwide after its mobile version was launched in March 2018. To keep up with the growing craze, championships and leagues were started worldwide. The state of Gujarat, it seems, took a different route. In January this year, upon the recommendation by the Gujarat State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Gujarat’s Primary Education Department issued a notification that ordered primary schools to ban PUBG till April 30, arguing that it affects studies. On March 14, the Ahmedabad Police Commissioner followed suit, ‘banning’ the game in the district, calling it a public safety concern. A notification issued by the Commissioner’s office read, “It has come to our notice that PUBG game is leading to a violent attitude among youth. The game is also having an impact on studies as well as behaviour, conduct and language of children and youth. Keeping in mind public safety security and to maintain law and order, I hereby impose a ban on playing PUBG game.”

Police departments in other districts of Gujarat issued similar notifications over the last week. On March 15, the Rajkot Police arrested ten youths, including college students, for ‘violating the ban’ and playing the game. They were booked under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) and Section 135 of the Gujarat Police Act (related to prohibition of certain acts for prevention of disorder). The Ahmedabad and Himmatnagar Police departments arrested eight more players in the next three days. So far, a total of 21 people have been arrested in the state for playing PUBG. All those arrested were immediately given bail, but the arrests started a debate nationwide about the legality and purpose of arresting someone for merely playing a video game, and that too a game that has been played worldwide without controversy. It is also worth noting that the first arrests in Gujarat were made in the same week as PUBG’s first national championship was organised in Hyderabad. The event, where hundreds of teams from across India participated, was supported by the Telangana government, with the winners taking home Rs 30 lakh.

‘No link between video games and violence’
While video games are often targeted, no clinical study has ever been able to substantiate the claim that they lead to violent tendencies in youngsters. Most recently, in February, a study by Oxford University’s Internet Institute found no link between so-called violent video games and real-life aggression in teenagers. “The idea that violent video games drive real-world aggression is a popular one, but it hasn’t tested very well over time. Despite interest in the topic by parents and policy-makers, the research has not demonstrated that there is cause for concern,” the study’s lead researcher, Professor Andrew Przybylski, told the media last month.

Arrests not legally sound, police have misused law: Legal experts
Karnika Seth, Delhi-based lawyer and cyber law expert, says, “There is no logical basis, such as any medical or psychological study that finds that playing PubG can lead to violent behaviour in youth, for the Gujarat Police’s action. Section 188 of the IPC cannot be used in this manner to arrest people. This is a clear invasion of one’s right to freedom of speech and expression and right to privacy. No fundamental right of citizens can be restricted or taken away based on arbitrariness or whims and fancies of any public servant or government institution.”
Mohit Suri, Supreme Court lawyer, adds, “If there is no physical violence, everything is just online, you can’t apply the IPC. The action should have been taken under the IT Act instead of arbitrarily arresting people. That is definitely an overreach of the law.”

Ban itself is unconstitutional: lawyers
“You can’t ban a game arbitrarily by issuing an order one day. If you claim that the game promotes violence, you need to present evidence for it, such as studies that say that the game makes players prone to violent tendencies. Or you have to show data that proves a correlation. Even after all that, there is proper procedure to ban or criminalise the game,” elaborates Mohit Suri, Supreme Court lawyer.
Geeta Luthra, senior advocate, says, “The authorities in India are often very creative when it comes to using laws and statutes in accordance with their beliefs. Quite often, they fail to draw a line between what is illegal and what simply displeases someone in a position of power. I feel the same has happened here. The ban has been enforced to please and placate people in power, who might believe this game is harmful.”

The game is far from violent and is only being targeted because of its popularity: PUBG players
“Any first-person shooter game can be called violent without looking at its context. I don’t think PUBG is violent or that it promotes violence. In fact, it is a good way for friends to socialise as it allows us to play together without even being in the same city. This game is being targeted because it is so popular”-Visharad Bhatia, 21, engineering student from Noida

“First of all, the game isn’t violent at all. When you shoot an opponent, they vanish into a puff of green smoke. There are games with so much more violence.
Secondly, how can you arrest people for playing the game when it is so easily available? If the state wants to ban the game, they should block it. Not that I support that either, but if you can’t be bothered to even block the content that you deem harmful, how are youngsters supposed to self-regulate?”-Tushar Mathur, 25, lawyer
from Delhi who is also an avid PUBG player

“It is quite odd that on one hand, you have one state hosting a national championship where officials come and award the winners, and on the other hand, another state is banning the game and arresting the players”-Kaushal Kumar, 20, part of the Delhi-based team God’s Reign which was the first runner-up at the PUBG Mobile India Series 2019

PUBG makers surprised at ban, say game is ‘meant merely for entertainment’

“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.”-Tencent, PUBG Mobile’s developers, in a statement

If a ban has no legal basis, how can the police, who are supposed to be the upholders of the law, be allowed to ‘enforce’ it? This is a classic case of making criminals out of ordinary citizens because someone with authority is displeased about something. Legality aside, study after study has not been able to establish any connection between video games and real-life violent behaviour. It would be better if the authorities focussed their attention on preventing crime in real life, instead of on gamers who are minding their own business.