For a long time conversations about addiction have revolved around smoking and drinking and various other kinds of drugs. However, with the advent of digitalized India, cheap data plans that allow deeper penetration of the Internet beyond metropolitan cities, and a plethora of online gaming apps that are increasingly using real money, an undeniable Hydra of modern society has become online gaming addiction. Take the example of the 38-year-old man who was running a mobile shop in Korkadu village near Puducherry who set himself on fire a couple of days ago after he lost more than 30 lakh rupees in an online rummy game. A WhatsApp voice note he sent to his wife just minutes before taking the extreme step has since gone viral, prompting a widespread demand for a ban on online games.
In the audio recording, Vijaykumar said, “I haven’t slept properly in the past few days. I have lost around 30 lakh rupees in the online game. I played day and night. I got addicted to it, it was like drugs. I wasn’t able to come out of it. Even now, I feel like I want to play that game again. I am not able to concentrate on work, I am not able to spend time with you or the kids. Go back to your hometown, take care of the kids. If you can do one thing to help me, please circulate this audio on all social media platforms and try to ban this online game because like me several others have been trapped in these games.”
The lockdown period had suddenly left a huge chunk of the working class idle, as it had Vijaykumar. He had started playing the game to kill time but eventually got addicted to it after initially winning around a thousand rupees. Enchanted by the lucrative idea of making quick money, he started to invest more money and ultimately lost it all. To recover the loss, he had borrowed more money, and, in the end, he wrecked all the savings he had made over the years.
Vijaykumar’s wife Madhumitha told reporters that she was not aware that her husband was addicted to the online game. “Even a few hours before taking the extreme step, he had called his friends and asked for a lakh rupees, thinking he could invest that in the game and recover the lost amount. He had told me that he has lost some amount in the online game but only after listening to the audio, I came to know he has lost more than 30 lakh rupees. In the beginning, he told me he is playing for entertainment since there is no business due to Covid-19 and this will help him with small expenses. I believed him, but now I have lost him. With folded hands I plead everyone not to fall into this trap and lose your life,” she said to The Indian Express.
With the death of Vijaykumar, the demand to ban online gaming has strengthened. Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy on Wednesday told reporters that he had written a letter to the Information and Broadcasting Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to ban online rummy and other gambling platforms. He said the government will soon look into getting these apps banned which asked users for real money. DMK MP Dr. Senthilkumar, too, wrote a letter to the Information and Broadcasting Minister claiming many youths are losing money and risking their savings and life by playing these games. “Online game addiction has a severe impact on the physical and psychological health of people, it has significant health implications on those playing online games. Online games lead to a reduction in motivation, emotional suppression, stress injuries, poor mental health, relationship issues, social disconnection, and other health risks. Mainly due to the current lockdown period people have become addicted to online (rummy) games, gambling online, resulting in many losing their hard-earned money and dealing with financial and mental health,” read his letter.
Speaking to Indianexpress.com, Dr. C.Pannerselvam, a psychiatrist at Sneha Mindcare Centre in Tirunelveli, said online games are a bane to society and a complete ban is necessary. “There is no second thought that these games should be banned. Real money games are addictive in nature. It is just plain gambling, there is no skill involved as is being portrayed. People try these for fun and get hooked. It is similar to alcohol or drug addiction. We are fighting for a blanket ban on alcohol and this is no exception,” the psychiatrist said. According to Dr. Pannerselvam, being confined to the house during lockdown has intensified the issue of addiction to online games, particularly among people between the ages of 25 and 45. “They are saying they are unable to come out of this online gaming. They are having trouble with their family, they are not able to concentrate on their work or studies,” he explained. .“I tell my patients to stay away from the internet or use it only when they are surrounded by family members. Loneliness will instigate the hunger to play these games more. Family members also should deal with them patiently and make them understand how it affects their health. There should be more awareness, the government should take initiative.”
Internet-based games have gained huge popularity in India over the years. Real money games such as Rummy, Poker, Quizzing, and Fantasy Prediction have all been gaining millions of users every day. Advertisement and endorsement of online gaming by renowned sports personalities and film stars along with famous youtube personalities are massively influencing the youths.
Based on user behavior, advertisements for online games keep popping up on the timeline of a user’s social media accounts which make them click the website. We were able to confirm that even on unrelated sites, intrusive pop-ups advertisements appeared on the screen, and redirected to the home page of the rummy/poker app with the assurance of earning lacs of money in just a matter of minutes.
A month ago, a 12-year-old boy from Melakidaram town near Madurai allegedly spent 90,000 rupees using his mother’s debit card to pay for online game portals. According to media reports, the boy had deleted the transaction messages from his mother’s phone and the parents came to know only later after they checked their bank statements.
However, this boom in online gaming based on the chance factors wouldn’t have boomed without Youtube and popular streamers and content creators. There are many such channels on YouTube which teach beginners how to play these games. The content creators make the users believe that they can earn a significant amount of money by playing these games. On a couple of occasions, the channel creators even play the game on their follower’s accounts to make their strategies seem credible. The followers will be asked to add the money to their online gaming account and send their username and password to the creator. The creator will then play the game for them and if he wins, he will take a certain amount as a share. Several fraudulent gaming websites have also emerged during the lockdown period, which promises people big returns for small investments. The advertisements of these gaming websites are made available in all regional languages to target different sectors of the country.
On the condition of anonymity, a techie from Chennai who has played these games and lost more than ten lakh rupees explained the modus operandi of these games.
“These websites which initially look like legit watch or dress shopping websites takes the user to a prediction game page after the registration. The user needs to predict the color and the number to win more money. The user has to enter the mobile number and debit card details to add the money to the wallet in order to play the game. Most importantly, these websites won’t be appearing on Google search. If one has to play these games, they need to download the app using the specific URL. These games are promoted on various social media channels like YouTube and Facebook,” he explained.
He said that users are then added to a WhatsApp or Telegram group where they will be encouraged to add additional members (their friends or colleagues), on the pretext of a referral bonus. But if they fail to add new members, they are removed from the group. The whole operation is based on a pyramid scheme structure.
“I came to know about this through my neighbor who had been playing this game alongside his friends. Every day he would invest 100 rupees and gain 200 or 300, this made me install this game. From investing 500 a day, I started to invest 50,000 to 1 lakh in search of more money. It became an instant addiction. The predictions which the teacher provides started to go wrong and I started to lose money. There will be close to 1,000 members in one Telegram group since all of them started to lose money they started questioning the teacher and other admins,” he said.
“After a few days, the application became inaccessible, those who invested their money were unable to withdraw it, the teacher and a couple of other admins of the group said there is some technical issue and it will be resolved. People believed them. But after some days, the group became inactive. Later when I did little research, I found out that their names, profile pictures, everything was fake. There is no proof for us to raise a complaint about these games since we don’t have anything like receipts for these, it won’t appear on our bank statements. I have uninstalled all these online games, I am now cautioning my friends and colleagues not to fall into this trap and lose their hard-earned money,” he said to The Indian Express.
With new cases of fraud being reported and lump sum amount of money being lost via these gaming apps, the need of the hour is stricter regulation policies by the government about which apps are legal in the country and which are not. Another important thing that needs to be highlighted is that the government makes it a strict rule that anyone promoting these apps or making videos on them are subject to penalty and strict action by the authorities. The popularity of these apps needs to be cut down, along with that public interest messages need to be broadcast to make people aware of the trap of enchantment these apps offer and how they can spell doom ultimately.