In several cities in India, gamers have been arrested simply for playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (aka PUBG) on their phones.
An astonishing BuzzFeed News report published Monday night took a deep dive into the extreme popularity of Battlegrounds in India, as well as government efforts to contain it. At the center of the story are four boys who were arrested for playing the game in a public space after it was banned in the city of Ahmedabad.
Authorities cited the game as a powerful distraction from academics as a reason for the ban. Some even attributed a handful of deaths to the game. Additionally, some parents have accused the game of encouraging violent or aggressive tendencies in their children, per BuzzFeed’s report.
Battlegrounds was essentially the game that kickstarted the current battle royale craze in the games industry. Players are air-dropped onto an island with 99 others and tasked with scavenging for weapons and supplies in a quest to be the last one standing. While similar games like Fortnite and Apex Legends may have stolen some of its thunder, Battlegroundssoared to new heights with a mobile release last year.
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.
BuzzFeed’s reports that officers were on the lookout for young people in public places with their phones in landscape mode, considered a sure indication they might be playing the game. It was banned in the Indian state of Gujarat in early March, resulting in a separate arrest of 10 students that made international headlines.
While many of those arrested were let off with warnings or small fines, others spent nights in jail for the crime of playing a video game. Even if the punishments weren’t severe, the report pointed to the trauma of being arrested and the stigma surrounding it as lasting effects of the laws. The Gujarati cities of Ahmedabad and Rajkot eventually lifted the bans in April and May, respectively.
Still, BuzzFeed’s report paints a fascinating picture of a country where mobile gaming only became accessible to most of the population relatively recently, and a government struggling to deal with the changes that came with it.