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Gaming addiction

Hunger games: Addiction to mobile games on the rise

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
Youth glued to their screens, playing mobile games, in New Delhi on May 4.

Youth glued to their screens, playing mobile games, in New Delhi on May 4.

A child  keenly playing the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ game on a mobile phone. It is estimated that in India, a million people are in the throes of the gaming addiction.

A child keenly playing the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ game on a mobile phone. It is estimated that in India, a million people are in the throes of the gaming addiction.

Gaming apps on mobile phones seem to be the latest craze in India, but on the flip side an increasing number of ‘addicts’, finding themselves saddled with debt and without money even to provide for their families, have attempted death by suicide.

I made a terrible mistake. I have lost all my money,” our gardener Mahesh said, his face a picture of dismay. Mahesh had been playing mobile games with money and had now built up an insurmountable debt.

It all began innocuously enough. When the pandemic started, people received thousands of text messages about games that promised a lot of money for the winners. “Receive Rs.2,000 Welcome Bonus, Play Ludo and Win Cash, register for free”, said one message. YouTube influencers promoted these messages and bragged about how much money they were making. They also shared tips and tricks to rack up a “guaranteed daily income” through games. People like Mahesh were easy prey to such tactics.

As layoffs surged and pay cuts became all too common, many people started at an uncertain future. With nothing to do, they began spending more time on their smartphones at home, and soon they were enticed to try out the gaming apps as an opportunity to make some money. Many people started downloading gaming apps, which promised money as a reward for every win.

“I thought I’ll play just a few games, try my luck, until the bonus lasts” said Mahesh. That is how it usually begins: people believe they are in control, that they will play for a while and get away unharmed. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Most apps require you to make an initial payment to receive the bonus, thereby linking your wallet to the app. Companies then use a variety of techniques—bombarding users with notifications of offers and discounts to entice them into pouring more money into the app. Alert users are quick to realise the traps in the system and get out before losing too much money. The unlucky ones lose more money than they started with. The most unfortunate among them lose their lives along with their money, as has become apparent from a slew of gaming debt-related suicides in the country.

The numbers in the gaming sector are astounding. According to a report published by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) and Ernst & Young (EY), revenue from transaction-based games in 2022 is estimated at Rs.8,500 crore. The largest such gaming company is speculatively valued at Rs.61,000 crore. To put that in context, this is bigger than the market cap of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), a publicly listed company that makes aeroplanes and helicopters. Further, input costs and expenses of gaming companies are low compared with those of traditional businesses, so the budget is primarily spent on advertising, which is what we are seeing so much of these days.

While these numbers are well known, one metric that is often ignored, is the increasing number of people with maladaptive behaviour associated with games. Our conservative estimates suggest that as many as 10 lakh people may present one or more signs of an addictive disorder, including depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts, from the use of such games. These estimates are bound to go up with the increase in the number of players.

For Mahesh, the initial despair has turned into anger. “These cheats took my money, the government should ban them,” he says. What these apps do in the background is unknown, and it is difficult to ascertain how fair they are. Businesses that involve client risk, be it health or financial, such as—pharmaceuticals, tobacco, or stock markets—are heavily regulated; at the moment, however, India does not have a regulatory body to monitor games involving financial risk.

Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala recently promulgated laws to ban such apps. However, the gaming industry swiftly challenged these laws and the courts ruled them unconstitutional. An important observation of the courts was that banning “online games of skill” goes against Article 19 of the Constitution. “Games of skill” are protected under the right to freedom of speech and expression. The heart of the matter, thus, lies in the interpretation and determination of “games of skill”.

Games such as chess are unarguably games of skill, as they do not contain mechanics of randomness. Players are rated based on the amount of skill they possess, and a higher-rated player, say a Grandmaster, will always defeat a novice in chess. ‘Snakes and Ladders’, on the other hand, is a game of chance; its primary mechanic—the roll of the dice—is random. Anyone can win the game, or rather all players have an equal chance of winning the game, which is why children love playing it. Games like ‘Ludo’ contain both elements of skill and chance; this is what makes each game instance new and exciting for players.

In ‘Ludo’, how much a piece moves depends on the dice (chance aspect), and which piece is moved depends on the player (the skill aspect). Therefore, it is difficult to determine if such a game is based on skill or chance, and it is this question that has come up in the courts.

In a petition filed by Keshav Muley against Cashgrail Pvt Ltd (the developers of Ludo Supreme App), the Bombay High Court has to determine if ‘Ludo’ is a game of skill or chance. If the court rules it to be a game of skill, then playing ‘Ludo’ with money will be legal; if not, playing it with money will be considered gambling and therefore illegal in most States in India.

Among researchers, there are diverse views on how to measure the component of skill in games. A common empirical test is to let a group of people play continuously with each other and after each game rate the players based on the outcome. If some people are consistently able to defeat the others, then there is an element of skill in the game that the consistent winners possess. In such a case, the mathematical likelihood of a lower-rated player defeating a higher-rated player determines the influence of other factors, one of which is randomness.

Through such tests, one can draw boundaries between the two types of games (skill or chance), but they are subjective at best. Test results provide a range of possibilities; distributions can vary based on the model and method used, and games can be classified as chance-based or skill-based on whichever threshold is chosen. Such technical conclusions are convenient, but they do not explain why players immerse themselves in games, lose their sense of reality, and desire to play them repeatedly.

Hundreds of years ago, the Buddha, in his extraordinary wisdom, listed a number of games that he would not play because he believed they caused ‘negligence’—dice games were among them. The insight here is profound; it succinctly captures the anxiety associated with games involving dice. The Buddha did not describe or analyse the games in and of themselves; rather, he looked at the effect they had on the players.

So, at a time when courts are negotiating tricky questions regarding games, it might be prudent to go beyond conventional categories of skill versus chance. A key question that must be addressed here is, “What motivates a person to try their luck at ‘Ludo’?”

“I won a few games and thought this would be an easy way to earn money,” says Mahesh. Games have an unusual way of affecting the imagination. A player enters a wagered game only when he thinks he has a good chance of winning the pool money. He imagines himself intelligent, capable of winning large rewards in return for the low efforts that are put in.

This is a skewed perception of the reality. In an unwagered ‘Ludo’ game, choosing a peg to move is the only effort required to win the game. However, in a wagered game, players not only work towards winning the game, they also work hard to earn the money that is being wagered. The experiential aspect of anticipation creates an illusion of a large reward, accounting only for the efforts to play the game while discounting the efforts put in to earn the money being wagered.

As Mahesh says, “I started losing money, but I thought I was strategising better.” It is not that ‘Ludo’ does not have a skill component; players think and make choices to win the game. However, these choices are based on luck. One cannot make good choices if the dice present an undesired number. A sense of autonomy is created when players are asked to make a move according to the rules of the game. They believe that they are ‘applying skill’ in the game and that their choices have consequences. But within the game, they fail to realise that their autonomy is controlled by the dice. If they perform badly, they blame themselves and their in-game choices, not the dice.

The more Mahesh played, the more money he lost. He says: “I had to borrow money to play. I thought I could win it back and felt the dice would favour me.”

Randomness has a mystical yet addictive effect on a player’s mind. Even after losing all his money, Mahesh thought he could win it back. At every new random instance, the player feels that luck will favour him, and this anticipation entices him to keep playing. Elements of randomness create players who are in a state of anticipation and, therefore, it is crucial to examine how randomness is generated in online games.

In online dice-based games like ‘Ludo’, dice rolls are designed to make players feel anticipation. While playing ‘Ludo’ offline, there is trust among the players that the dice is fair. Players of online ‘Ludo’ have no way of verifying if this is so or even if the other players are human. There are known instances where people play high-powered bots, thinking they are playing human players. Hence, whatever be the dominance of randomness in the game, players imagine that their efforts are what are affecting the game, and that they are in control. Inconsequential acts of choosing peg colour, or the drama of seeing dice being rolled in different ways, adds to this false sense of autonomy and creates an illusion of control.

“All my savings were gone—I completely lost track of how much money I put in,” says Mahesh. This is the aspect of abstraction, another experiential aspect that distorts player perception. Assume a player earns Rs.20,000 a month, of which he saves Rs.5,000 and wagers Rs.4,000. Mathematically, the wagered amount is 20 per cent of his income and 80 per cent of his savings. In an online game, this player’s bet is proportional and even seems appropriate compared to the wagers of other players.

While wagering and playing, players stop thinking about money as savings and forget the actual expenses at hand. They are unable to imagine the proportion of the wager with respect to their savings and income. The wagered amount appears on the screen as a figure. The impressions of these figures—which are often not displayed or labelled as ‘boot amount’—are deceptive: they hide the enormity of savings at stake. The abstraction of savings to virtual resources or game components allows the masking of losses and the effects of those losses.

Under the influence of hope and through the illusion of control, players like Mahesh are blind to the violence of loss.

First, a player is made to believe that his efforts can change the outcome of the game. This is a convincing and cruel illusion as choices are dependent on the dice.

Second, he feels that his efforts in the game are negligible compared with the rewards being flashed in large font sizes.

Lastly, he feels that the amount he wins is absolute and forgets proportions and the effects of those proportions.

These are just some of the aspects within which a wagered game with a component of chance operates. Therefore, determining whether a game is skill dominant or chance dominant should not be the only basis for regulating games involving money.

The experience created by real money mobile games, their behavioural effects and their socioeconomic impact should also be a significant part of the determination. Online gaming houses create experiences and games for specific behavioural effects in two major ways: through the design of the game and through their ecosystems.

At a systemic level, advertisements that lure people and convert them to players swarm the surroundings. Cashbacks and rewards are offered, celebrities endorse the apps, and unverifiable testimonies are used for promotion. And within the game questions such as “How is the dice roll programmed?” remain unanswered, nor are such questions raised in the courts.

A gaming house needs to be independently vetted for its fair systemic practices before it offers games to be played for money, and the same needs to be regularised and regulated under guidelines.

Mahesh’s tragic loss is prototypical: it now haunts the streets we dwell. Games where money is involved have firmly embedded themselves into the everyday realities of our society. Perhaps this reflects a deeper shift in imagination: a society that no longer believes that working hard or cultivating skills can lead to a better life; instead, it seeks deliverance in randomness.

One needs to look beyond the legal and regulatory questions that games pose. Games are a social phenomenon and demand social responses if we hope to address the moral questions they present. These questions require newer frameworks for evaluation, frameworks that go beyond the technicalities of law and legislature and examine instead the personal and social effects that gaming causes.

Girish Dalvi (girish.dalvi@iitb.ac.in) is a faculty of design and Malay Dhamelia (malay.dhamelia@iitb.ac.in) is a doctoral scholar at the IDC School of Design, IIT Bombay. They study the components of games and the effects they have on people.

Luring users

Behavioural change

Measuring skill in games

The importance of randomness

Social impact