The Game of Death: ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ in India

Pradeep Nair

Mobile or computer games are often contextualized with teenhood. Teens across the globe engage themselves playfully with the strategies and planning of playing complex games on mobile phones and iPads. They spontaneously utilize acts of fun to experiment in the virtual world they inhibit. When this engagement had a conflict with the established socializing norms, parents become alert and begins to regulate the gaming activities of their children. Although, playing games is universal and every culture has had devices for monitoring its social relevance. In her seminal work – ‘The Lore and Language of School Children’, Iona Archibald Opie discussed the culture of childhood through games and plays. Major theorists like Piaget, Erikson and Vygotsky all agreed that children play to learn. They play through different social and cultural situations. They play for immediate gratification and fulfil their social and cultural needs through virtual and fantasy games. Games give children an opportunity to live within self-imposed rules. Fantasy virtual games are a manifestation of symbolic representation – a child represents objects and ideas through play situation.  Vygotsky argued that games are very special social and cultural contexts which are mainly responsible for bringing behavioural changes in children.
The increasing pervasiveness of digital technology and its role in the lives of young children have led public debates across the globe on the ways teenhood is being transformed by technology, and how technology especially digital games are affecting the teen’s cognitive, emotional and social development.  A number of studies conducted both in developed and developing countries say that young brains take lot of time to adjust as compared to adults to the effects of rapid technological and cultural change. They need firsthand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives. Presently teen-agers spend much of their leisure time on screen-based activities in comparison to the time they spend with real people in their lives – parents, siblings, friends, relatives etc. So what these young people watch on screen (television and mobile) and what they do on computers, iPads, consoles affects their social and cultural development (Palmer 2006: 227).

The focus on affects of digital technology has more concern with young children because they are seen as innocent and vulnerable in the early stages of development. Healy (1998), claims that early years are a ‘busy time for the brain’ and exposure to digital technologies before the age of seven have a lot of impact on the social, psychological, cultural and linguistic development of a child. Due to the pressure of liberal economy, the government of both developing and developed countries has made technology central to its aims of training children for the knowledge economy (Selwyn 2003). It is necessary to consider that the virtual, second-hand, screen based experience provided by digital communication technologies have an impact on the social and intellectual development of a child.

A study conducted by Kaiser Foundation in 2010 in United States reveals that children between the ages of eight and eighteen spend an average of 7 hours 38 minutes a day with digital media out of which they spend 1.5 hours playing computer games. Another study conducted in India by non-government organizations Pratham and Azim Premji Foundation found that poor literacy and low educational levels remain barriers to the growth for digital computer games in India in comparison to west although if introduced in educational system cautiously these games can make a profound impact on the learning needs of children from rural and underserved communities. While deploying computer games in urban slums and rural areas of India, these organizations experienced that games have the abilities to promote learning benefits. Digital games have immersive properties, such that the player experiences herself as being ‘inside’ the game. They recreate virtual environments with rich backgrounds where players participate actively. These computer games continually challenge players to new skills and reward the acquisition of these skills, especially when they spend hours playing the games.

Hence, games and challenges played via social media is not a new phenomenon. Multiple studies have been carried out by the designers and producers of digital games to locate what it is which engages the player to a digital game, what are the activities which engross the player. A study by Henrik Schoenau-Fog exposits that, “engagement can be explained as a process whereby players engage in a pursuit of objectives (intrinsic or extrinsic) and consequently perform a range of activities (interfacing, socializing, solving, sensing, experiencing the story and characters, exploring, experimenting, creating and destroying) in order to accomplish objectives (by achievement, progression and completion) and feel affect (positive, negative and absorption)” (Fog 2011). The above mentioned activities and outcomes engage the player at individual level. The connection and interaction of the individual with the society has become more direct in the vast and terrible world (Baratta 1999: 31-44). The world which we engage with or engages with us “touches us more than it did yesterday, whether the subject matter is economics, politics, war and peace, the environment, ethics or religion.” We have hordes of digital games which hover around these issues and the player is expected to ‘make’ decisions and experiment.

The present challenge in the form of suicidal games like Blue Whale and Chinese Embroidery are developed not only by keeping the profit motto of market economy but also the emotional unrest prevailing among young people both in East and West. The political economy of these games is to create such generation which may be suitable for the emerging and evolving liberal economies and markets. That is why these games easily exist on surface despite having stringent regulatory mechanisms.  In the suicidal game ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ the designer of the game give intense tasks to complete in 50 days that leads to self harms and culminates in suicide by jumping off a building. Teens challenge each other to play via social media and the players are assigned game administrators who elicit their personal information that may later be used against them. Players are required to upload photos of their completed tasks, and if they refuse, game administrators may threaten to harm family members or come and do the task for them. This is how they emotionally blackmail the players. This Russian originated game has reportedly been responsible for 130 suicide deaths in last six months in Russia alone. Recently four suicide cases were reported from India, two from Kerala, one from Mumbai and one from New Delhi. Similar cases were also reported from the US and UK. Schools and police officials in Europe and America have begun issuing advisories to parents urging them to be vigilant and to keep an eye out on what their children are sharing on their social media accounts.

The Indian government while taking a serious note of the deadly game recently directed the internet majors – Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Microsoft and Yahoo to immediately remove any kind of links to these games or to any other game of this type. But besides issuing warning to social networking sites and stringing the regulations, it is a high time for the Indian parents to understand that it is the nature of modern communication technology that gives fair chance to children to socialize and grow up in an environment without parental supervision. So, if they really want to understand their importance in the life of their children, they have to know how their children are coping with the increasing pressure of education, career, peer performance and making decision in their everyday life. The positive parental interventions in facilitating healthy games is the only way to help the children to associate themselves with the socialization process both at the family and outside world thus making them aware of gender roles, values and understanding of social institutions. Here, the game designers have to be sensitized and encouraged to develop virtual games while keeping the disposition of the child in a game, the role of play partners and the contextual nature of the game, which stimulates the various developmental domains of the child. It is the duty of the ‘State’ and ‘Family’ as political and social institutions to provide children and teen-agers an interactive and participative gaming environment where they can work together and learn new innovative ideas with a feeling of relevance and ownership of learning.

Azim Premji Foundation. 2004. “Impact of Computer Aided Learning on Learning Achievements: A Study in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh,” retrieved from http://www.azimpremjifoundation.org/pdf/ImpactofTICALonLearningReport.pdf
Baratta, G. 1999. “The individual and the world: From Marx to Gramsci to Said,” Socialism and Democracy, 13 (1): 31-44. DOI:10.1080/08854309908428230
Fog, H.S. 2011. “The player engagement process – an exploration of continuation desire in digital games,” Proceedings of DiGRA 2011 conference.
Healy, J. 1998. Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kaiser Family Foundation. 2010. “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” report retrieved from http://kff.org/otvent/generation-m2-media-in-the-lives-of/her/e
Palmer, S. 2006. Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging our Children and What We Can Do About It, Orion: London. 
Selwyn, N. 2003. “Doing IT for the kids’: re-examining children, computers and the ‘information society’,” Media, Culture and Society, 25: 351-378. DOI: 10.1177/0163443703025003004.
Vygotsky, L.S. 2004. “Imagination and Creativity in Childhood,” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 42 (1): 7-97.

Dr. Pradeep Nair, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.

Sep 07, 2017

Dr Pradeep Nair [email protected]

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