Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on July 1 blocked the online game PUBG on grounds of complaints received by various segments of society citing it to be “addictive, wastage of time and poses a serious negative impact on the physical and psychological health of the Children” (sic). The authority cited the complaints behind the temporary ban, linking the game to a minor’s suicide, with a final decision to be made following a hearing scheduled for July 9, 2020, based on directions of Lahore High Court to decide on the matter.
However, there is no legal basis for a videogame to be censored, and the PTA has not cited any legal provision for going ahead with this “ban”.
While section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 gives PTA the authority to block “unlawful online content”, even an undesirable narrow interpretation of the section does not warrant blocking a video game for the reasons cited by the PTA.
The state must resist playing a paternalistic role when it comes to the choices of citizens, and direct complainants to regulate the consumption of content for their children including video games based on the age ratings on the content, which for PUBG is 18+ in most jurisdictions, and 16+ for some versions of it. This does not mean that the game is made inaccessible for all adults as well.
Do video games have an impact on mental health?
While many studies have been conducted on whether the content of video games have an impact on the people playing them, there’s still not enough evidence to prove that game violence or any other form of media causes consumers to be aggressive in real life.
Human behavior is a complex phenomenon and relating the cause of behavioral changes in youngsters to their media consumption can be extremely problematic, especially during such uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown has had an impact on everyone regardless of age, gender, and social status, hence banning a game that has been a source of entertainment for so many people is an unacceptable move on PTA’s part.
Banning online content — websites, streaming services, and online games — is never a viable solution to solve any problem. The Internet is a voluntary medium where users are highly unlikely to stumble upon objectionable material without any active search for it. Thus blocking the entire nation’s access to content that some may find problematic is unacceptable. Moreover many online games, streaming services, including YouTube and Netflix, and social media applications, such as TikTok and Facebook, all have a PG rating with parental controls for users to monitor and restrict usage independently without the government or local authority’s intervention.
Impact on users of PUBG ban
It is important to explore the impact of banning PUBG on the robust Pakistani gaming community.
- It will deprive thousands (maybe more) of people of the main source of entertainment during the global pandemic when social interactions are restricted to digital forums.
- Video game tournaments today have attracted the same kind of attention as football or cricket tournaments across the globe. In 2019, the PUBG international tournament attracted millions of online viewers, generating a quite hefty amount in revenues, while the winners received a cash prize of $2,000,000.
- Many across the globe, including India, are earning from the live online stream of PUBG’s gameplay. However, Pakistan-based players are unable to do so because of the lack of digital infrastructure, for instance, “Paytm,” Google pay and other modes of payment that can be done through SMS. YouTube streamers in India are making up to 20,000 Indian rupees daily by doing live streams, but Pakistan does not have that functionality on YouTube yet. Instead of opening these avenues for local talent, the PTA imposed ban is going to deprive them from practicing it further.
- A foreign mobile phone company was due to host a tournament in collaboration with Pakistani YouTuber Irfan Junejo this week. However, the ban has snatched this opportunity for international recognition in the gaming world. Additionally, many Pakistani players that are participating in other global PUBG tournaments, with prize pools worth millions of dollars, have seen a potential opportunity to play and win eradicated.
- Despite the restricted chance to monetize from the YouTube streaming of the game, the Pakistani PUBG community was holding small-scale local tournaments. One local player said many locally run Facebook PUBG pages host daily tournaments where they “book a room” online and play with members. Due to lack of government support and sponsorships, these events are self-sponsored by the passionate players.
- Earning money or conducting tournaments without sponsors is next to impossible, but the gameplays are streamed on Facebook for an audience to enjoy. Such pages may not have a sizable following yet, but they are trying to build that by engaging in small tournaments. Pakistan has a large pool of talented players and such tournaments can be helpful in establishing a local gaming industry, as well as a great source of e-commerce, just like in other countries, where popular gaming conventions are held regularly.
Long term impacts of such acts
If the banning regime continues, who knows what is next on PTA’s ban list? Such arbitrary practices discourage foreign companies from investing in Pakistan and also restrict the local industry from flourishing. The current PTI-led government, which has made promises of a Digital Pakistan, should take action to meet those promises instead of taking the industry backward through such steps. The potential of the e-sports industry must be realized, encouraged, and pursued.