Is PUBG giving you sleepless nights? Is your child lost in the world of this online game? Read on about the effects of PUBG addiction on young minds and what you can do to help your child.
By Aruna Raghuram
A youth brutally attacked and killed his father in Karnataka as he refused to give him money to recharge his mobile phone so that he could play PUBG.
A grade 12 student died in Madhya Pradesh after playing PUBG for six hours continuously. Doctors said the excitement must have caused an adrenaline rush, leading to a cardiac arrest.
An 18-year-old boy in Mumbai committed suicide by hanging himself when his parents refused to buy him a costly smartphone on which he wanted to play PUBG.
These are just some of the alarming incidents linked to the popular and addictive video game PUBG (Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds). Launched in 2017, the multi-player game can be played on various devices. The mobile version of PUBG is particularly popular in India and China.
PUBG involves players relying on luck and skill to fight for survival in a hostile environment. It is a ‘battle royale’ – a game where each player is connected to a large number of other players. In PUBG, 100 players parachute onto an island and then look for weapons to kill the other players without getting killed themselves. The last player, or the last team standing, wins the round.
PUBG is not considered by game designers to be overly violent. But as it is an FPS (first person shooter) game, it can get competitive in an unhealthy way. That is why it is considered more dangerous than Candy Crush, another highly addictive mobile game.
There are reportedly around 120 million PUBG users in India, mostly boys. Though there are no definitive statistics on the number of users who fall into the ‘addiction’ category, several cases of PUBG addiction have been reported to the SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) clinic of National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore. The SHUT clinic helps people battle technology related addictions.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) is considering a petition to ban PUBG, calling it harmful and addictive.
Meanwhile, there have been attempts to make PUBG safer. There is now parental control in place – a digital lock for users under 13 years of age. For a while, ‘health reminders’ imposing a 6-hour daily limit for players were introduced.
Simply put, addiction is repeated intake of a substance or involvement in an activity because of the pleasure/rewards it brings, despite knowing that it could cause significant harm. For long, addiction was largely associated with substance abuse – drugs or alcohol. But now behaviours (sex, gambling, and playing video games) are also being included in the definition.
In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) included ‘gaming disorder’ as a health condition in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). WHO mentioned three warning signs, while stressing that video gaming is “as addictive as cocaine and gambling”:
For a diagnosis of gaming disorder, the behaviour pattern must result in severe impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, for at least a year. Internet Gaming Disorder is most common in male adolescents between 12 and 20 years of age.
Watch out if your child:
The access, content, and design of the game all come together to make PUBG highly addictive. In fact, the factors described below may make PUBG more addictive than many other video games:
Easy access: PUBG is accessible on multiple devices (and is free of cost, initially). The cheap availability of internet and unrestricted usage of smartphones has made it accessible to almost anyone.
Says Bangalore-based game designer, Santosh Palaniswamy: “PUBG has the same mechanics as most video games – progression, rank, and shooting. The reason it has become so popular and addictive is that many games need high-end computers to play. For instance, Grand Theft Auto cannot be played on the mobile phone. PUBG is available on low-end mobiles as well. Candy Crush is also available on mobiles but does not appeal to teenage boys the way PUBG does, as it doesn’t have shooting.”
Large player pool: The game has millions of players across the globe. So, matchmaking (pitting players of similar levels) becomes so much easier. This makes it easy not just to join the game, but also binge-play.
Business model: Says R. Srinath (name changed to protect privacy), post-graduate student in game design: “Making a game interesting and absorbing is not the same as making it addictive. There are several business models in video games. PUBG falls in the category of ‘free to play’ video games, which are deliberately made more addictive than others as the revenue accrues from keeping the player hooked. This is not the case with ‘one-time purchase’ games.”
In the case of PUBG, the player starts with the illusion that he is not paying anything. He can buy loot-boxes/crates (surprise reward elements that may be common or rare, such as new clothes, weapons, and accessories) with in-game currency called battle points (BP). But if he falls short of BPs, and he has this urge to get something rare, he has to go on playing and use real money to buy more from the store. This makes the game akin to gambling, he explains.
Pace of progression: Third, the ‘level progression’ in a game determines the hold it has on a player. In PUBG, the pacing of progression is such that the player gets instant gratification and is motivated to explore and fight more. It is difficult to stop.
Learning curve: Fourth, the designers have found a learning curve that is balanced – not too simple, not too difficult. The game is complex enough to interest and engross the players, but not so difficult that it alienates potential players, says Srinath.
New features: Fifth, the game tries to avoid being repetitive – as this would make it boring. “In fact, I have not come across players who have stopped because they have got bored. Most have stopped because it is too time-consuming and they sense that they are getting addicted. New, attractive features are constantly added to PUBG to keep players interested and to keep it ahead of the competition – Fortnite is of a similar genre but nowhere as popular,” he says.
Simultaneous voice chat: You can talk to the other players (friends and peers) – this human connection makes its more addictive.
Playing video games in moderation has documented plus points – it develops problem-solving skills in children, increases concentration, improves eye-hand coordination, and promotes multi-tasking. But when it manifests as an addiction, the negative effects are described below:
Physical: Long hours hooked to gaming devices can cause obesity (outdoor play and sports become rare), and problems of posture, muscles, joints and nerves (like carpal tunnel syndrome). It weakens eyesight, and may cause headaches.
Sleep: Teens may lose sleep because of playing late into the night. Also, prolonged screen time disrupts sleep as the blue light from electronic gadgets shuts down production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
Behavioural: In 2017, the APA (American Psychological Association) Task Force on Violent Media concluded that violent video game exposure was linked to increased aggressive behaviours, thoughts, and emotions, as well as decreased empathy. However, it is not clear whether violent video game exposure was linked to criminality or delinquency.
Other behavioural effects are:
Academics: Children may miss school, fall back on homework, and be unable to concentrate in class because of fatigue and sleep deprivation. This is bound to disrupt their studies. In addition, they will lose interest in reading and other hobbies that have educational benefit.
According to a news report in March 2019, a young boy in Karnataka failed in his first year PUC exam after he wrote only about ‘how to play PUBG game’ in the economics exam answer-sheet!
Social: Children who spend a large part of their day in the virtual world miss out on meeting friends and playing with them. They tend to have more online friends than real ones whom they can connect with face to face. They also have very little time for parents, siblings, and grandparents. They miss out on these valuable connections.
Our son Rahul, 13, was introduced to the game PUBG a year ago by a school senior whom he saw playing the game on his phone. When Rahul asked for a smartphone, we gave in to his demand little knowing how this act would create a world of problems.
Initially, we were happy to see Rahul occupied. But soon, he seemed to forget the real world and retreated into a fantasy world of his own. He would forget to eat his lunch and do his homework. He would play for 8-9 hours a day and even then say he was not finished.
Things began to turn ugly quickly. When we took away his phone, he became extremely angry, shut himself in his room and refused to go to school unless he got his phone back. For the first time in his life, he shouted at his heartbroken mother.
His grades have dropped drastically and teachers have complained that he seems dull and lifeless in class. In July, he sneaked his phone into the school premises and was found playing the game during lunch time.
We have tried to get him out of the habit, or rather obsession, but nothing has worked. My wife Meera cries a lot and I don’t know whom to blame. We never thought our son would become a PUBG addict. I used to read about incidents in the media, but would never have imagined that it would happen to my own son. We are thinking of seeking counselling.
- Sushil Kumar, father of Rahul (all names changed to protect privacy)
Incidents of violence, self-harm, health issues, and accidents because of being absorbed in playing PUBG, are making parents anxious. How can parents deal with PUBG – that is not just engaging their children but keeping their teens hooked and disrupting young lives?
Banning the game may not work. Digitally savvy children know how to access even banned games. Blaming children and calling them ‘addicts’ is a no-no and will only alienate them. Taking away their devices will only cause tantrums and conflict. Here are some things parents could do:
Talk to your child: Educate your child about the pros and cons (if not played in moderation) of video gaming. Make him realise that gaming achievements are imaginary and not connected with real life success.
Bond with your child: Spend time with your child – talking and doing things. A good rapport creates trust which give a parent the ability to influence a child. Reflect on your communication and parenting styles. Perhaps, you may need to make some changes.
Track how long your child spends gaming: The result may come as a shock to not just you, but your child as well. A gamer tends to lose track of time while playing.
Fix a reasonable time for your child to play: Discuss as a family the duration that your child could play on weekdays and weekends. Ensure you include your child in this discussion and encourage him to voice his opinion. Be firm about these rules. Be sure to grant access only if homework is done and your child has spent some time in physical activity.
If your child exceeds the limit there should be pre-decided consequences, such as, withdrawal of privileges. This could include not being allowed to play the next day. A simple kitchen timer could be used to limit play. Or, you could invest in an app that turns off the computer after a certain amount of playing.
Apart from time, parents can curb gaming by allowing their child to play only on certain days (only weekends), and with certain friends.
Be selective: Keep a close eye on the kinds of online games your child is playing. Some are more violent and addictive than others. Help him choose games that are age-appropriate and are not too hard to stop or pause.
Remove devices from bedroom: Ensure the computer, laptop, gaming console, or mobile are used to play only where you can see it. This way you can monitor better, and your child will also know you are monitoring time spent on gaming.
Encourage other ‘replacement’ activities: Motivate your child to play outdoors with friends, cycle, swim, or take up a sport (a competitive outlet like gaming) that will be as absorbing and enjoyable as playing games. Inculcate a reading habit from an early age. Not only is reading an absorbing activity it is a certain route to improved learning. Or, you could enroll your child in a hobby class – art, music, or dance.
Invite his friends over: Since one of the dangers of video game addiction is social isolation, encourage him to spend face-to-face time with friends.
Seek the root cause: Children with negative self-esteem and depression are more vulnerable to addictive behaviours. Be clued in to your child’s life so that you know if he is going through any emotional and/or social difficulties.
Ban games altogether: This is necessary when getting him to play in moderation does not work.
Seek professional help: In extreme cases, consult a mental health professional such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist specialised in deaddiction and technology detox.
What can the gaming industry do?
Says Palaniswamy: “When we make games our main goal is to make it fun for the player. At times, the behaviour of players could be because of psychological disturbance. I did my thesis on the impact of violent games on adolescents and the conclusion was that incidents of violence cannot be blamed solely on the game or the gaming industry.”
Attempts are made by designers to differentiate between the virtual world and reality by using cartoonish characters. Moreover, he stresses, advice is given to players – messages are put in the game on loading: “There is a life outside this game as well. Why don’t you enjoy with your friends?” and “Don’t take this too seriously. It’s just a game.”
About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 13 September 2019.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. Presently, she is a consultant with ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhDon 13 September 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
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