On 3 December, Rajya Sabha Chairman and Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu called online games a “big menace” and directed the Minister for Electronics, Information and Technology to examine the possibility of regulating them. The remark followed a discussion in the House, on the addictiveness and the risk of financial losses associated with gaming platforms. As many as 21 Members of Parliament representing 14 states associated themselves with the issue – highlighting the universality of these concerns. Similarly, on 8 December, the issue of gaming addiction was brought up in the Lok Sabha during Question Hour. The debate is not confined to Parliament. Many states, including Telangana and Tamil Nadu have enacted prohibitory laws, citing addiction and financial losses as regulatory triggers.
We have also seen recent policy developments in this context. On 10 December, the Ministry of Education issued an advisory for parents and teachers, aimed at addressing the “downsides of online gaming”. It highlighted the risks of gaming addiction and prescribed a list of dos and don’ts for a safer experience. The advisory suggested that guardians should advise their wards to not communicate with strangers, avoid buying games from unknown websites and refrain from sharing personal information on the web. These may be useful tips to maintain good cyber hygiene but they lack nuance. Policymakers are right to be concerned about gaming addictions and the accompanying financial losses. However, an ad hoc strategy to tackle these at the central and state levels may prove ineffective.
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In India’s policy discourse, prolonged engagement with games is often equated with gaming addiction. For example, during the discussion on online gaming in the Rajya Sabha, BJP MP Sushil Kumar Modi cited an increase in the time spent weekly on gaming as evidence of an increase in gaming addiction. A shallow understanding of gaming disorder trivialises the gravity of the issue.
Gaming disorder is a clinically recognisable condition with defined characteristics and symptoms. These include a preoccupation with gaming, withdrawal symptoms, unsuccessful attempts at quitting, and the loss of an occupation or relationship because of gaming. Research also suggests that gaming addiction is closely related to other psychological conditions like anxiety and depression.
Gaming disorder is a mental health subject which needs to be addressed with sophistication and care. Prohibitive or restrictive approaches have failed to address the issue because such measures can be easily circumvented using technological tools like virtual private networks. Recently, South Korea announced that it will repeal its ‘shutdown law’ which restricted game time for children under 16. In this backdrop, policymakers may consider switching to a harm-reduction approach. It seeks to reduce health and social harms associated with addiction, without restricting access to the addictive substance. Measures like in-game warning messages, cautioning gamers about the ill effects of excessive gaming, can help achieve this objective. Rating games based on their habit-forming potentials, to allow consumers to make informed choices, can be another way to deter addictive behaviour. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence have already been deployed to address drug addiction and can be leveraged to detect problematic gaming patterns and identify at-risk demographics.
However, the most important step is to provide specialised help to those who display addictive tendencies. Countries like South Korea have included counselling and treatment as a part of their national policy to address gaming addiction. Clinical and rehabilitative elements are already a part of India’s drug de-addiction policy and policymakers may consider adopting a similar approach towards gaming addiction. Specialised clinics to tackle such issues are now being set up in India. The Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) Clinic at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru specialises in treating technology-based addictions. In September 2021, the Government of Kerala announced the setting up of ‘digital de-addiction centres’ to help addicted gamers. The central government too can consider standardising such policy measures and rope in gaming companies to help do so. It can mandate these firms to spend a certain part of their corporate social responsibility budgets to establish rehabilitation centres and helpline services.
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Online games, played for money, carry with them the burden of financial risks. These are particularly heightened in pay-to-play games like poker and rummy, and manifest in two forms. The first is the risk of losing player deposits or winnings, which emanates from the interaction between platforms and players. Pay-for-play games include a gaming wallet where players can deposit money to play games and receive their winnings. They can potentially lose these funds in case of financial mismanagement or if a gaming service shuts down.
The second risk involves gameplay and the possibility that a player may be cheated by other players. For example, in games like poker, two or more players may collude to increase the odds of one of them to win the plot. This is done through practices like whipsawing, where two players continue to raise the bets against each other till one of them exits the game. The use of bots to play on one’s behalf is another method, which increases a player’s odds of winning.
Governments respond to such risks by prohibiting online games. However, these risks can be mitigated through higher standards of business responsibility. For example, gaming services in the EU are mandated to ensure that money owed by them to consumers, including prize winnings, should be separately identifiable at any point in time. They are also mandated to demonstrate sufficient cash (or cash equivalents) to pay out the money platforms owe to consumers. Technological solutions can also help mitigate the risks of cheating. For example, to prevent collusion, gaming platforms check if two or more players playing on a table share the same GPS location or IP address.
Some of these measures are already implemented by industry. The charter of the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports mandates that users’ funds should be held separately from operational ones. However, these practices are not standardised across the online gaming ecosystem and policymakers should consider establishing common minimum conventions of business and operational conduct which industry can adhere to. Such norms should crystallise current industry practices while also prescribing higher benchmarks of conduct. For example, platforms may be mandated to appoint trust and safety officers who can help in the design and implementation of policies that safeguard user experience.
The issues of gaming disorders and financial risks can be addressed through evidence-based policies and targeted interventions. Policymakers should also try to leverage technological solutions to safeguard consumer interest. Governments alone cannot achieve this because they lack capacity — both in terms of technological expertise and infrastructure. In fact, the Information Technology Rules 2021, that legitimise a co-regulatory framework for social media and digital media intermediaries, demonstrate the need for regulatory innovation in a dynamic digital ecosystem. Thus, it is imperative that policymakers engage with the gaming industry for better policy design and enforcement. An ideal way to do that would be for the State to allow industry-led co-regulation, where it lays down standards in consultation with industry, and relies on self-regulatory organisations to enforce them.
The author works at Koan Advisory Group, a technology policy consulting firm. Views are personal.
This article is part of ThePrint-Koan Advisory series that analyses emerging policies, laws and regulations in India’s technology sector. Read all the articles here.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)