Ye PUBG wala hai kya?” Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the mother of a Class 9 student who had come to attend a session with him about exam pressure in January last year. The question, to a mother who looked worried about her son’s obsession with online gaming, summed up the phenomenon.
With over 40 million monthly active users in the country, PUBG, or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, is more than just a gaming rage. It has shaped India’s gaming culture over the years, much like Tik Tok helped shape a generation of amateur content creators, making some of them household names and celebrities.
On Wednesday, when India banned an additional 118 apps with links to China, including PUBG, the move didn’t come as a surprise to many. After all, it all started when India banned Tik Tok and dozens of other Chinese apps in June this year, accusing them of threatening the country’s “national security.”
However, some users, especially those passionate about PUBG, were still clinging to the hope of India treating the makers of the game as Koreans, and perhaps not consider their Chinese connections as anything serious.
In Prayagraj (formerly known as Allahabad), Bhuvi, a teenager and an avid gamer on PUBG, tells me she is hoping that many gamers like her will switch to VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to keep it alive.
“The Korean owners will surely find a way for so many users in India, perhaps launch an Indian version of the app,” she says. For now, both solutions – using a
The banning of Tik Tok and PUBG among several other apps with millions of addicted users in India will surely have a societal impact. For instance, in September last year, a man in Karnataka’s Belgaum district, Raghuveer Kumbar, killed his father and cut his body into pieces for not being allowed to play PUBG.
Amid rising unemployment and the ongoing lockdowns, millions of Indians have been relying on mobile games and video apps for peace of mind. For teenagers, games such as PUBG are a cult.
And for their parents and other adults, video apps like Tik Tok and even PUBG have become a part of their lives.
The question is – can Ludo and the likes of Chingari fill the internet’s societal void created by the banned Chinese apps? Before we answer this question, let’s look at how we got here.
While the recent border clashes with China have triggered this “app warfare” against a hostile neighbour, the plot has been boiling for some time. Much before China started the latest border skirmishes with India, the country had unleashed its apps to entice millions of Indian internet users. Their playbook was simple – focus on a vernacular audience, bring virality and engagement on the platforms through games, and sometimes even soft porn.
Over the years, Chinese apps including Tik Tok, Kwai, LiveMe and BigoLive have been feeding into China’s big data arsenal, helping it gain more insight into millions of Indian users and train its AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms. By last year, there were at least 40 Chinese apps in the top 100 on the Google Playstore in India, more than double the number in 2018.
In this context it’s clear that these apps can be used as tools to capture data and use insights based on them to further China’s game plan of conquering the world. After all, as Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani said last year, “data is the new oil”. So it’s not surprising that the new wars are being fought over data and not oil in countries like Iraq.
So what lies ahead for PUBG users such as Bhuvi and millions of others? For now, they are all hoping that they find a way around the ban, or perhaps get the owners of PUBG and its creator Brendan Greene to serve them a version of the game they can play in India, just like before.
The writer is a journalist covering tech’s impact on society and the co-founder of FactorDaily