Home » Navigating the dark side of online gaming: Addiction, extortion and adverse mental health impact

Navigating the dark side of online gaming: Addiction, extortion and adverse mental health impact

A shocking incident recently made headlines across news outlets: A 24-year-old youth from Uttar Pradesh borrowed money from his family to play online games. Running into serious debts, he killed his mother and dumped her body in a nearby river, hoping to repay his loans from her life insurance policy. Around the same time in February, a 20-year-old Hyderabad-based engineering student ended his life after he borrowed, and lost, a significant amount of money to online gaming.

Any game — whether it involves gambling or not — which is played online, via a phone, laptop or any other device, is considered an internet game. (Representative Image)

In a more recent incident, covered by this paper, a minor from Bengaluru was subjected to extortion as a result of his gaming addiction. Two of the victim’s classmates, aided by four adults, extorted 31 lakh and gold jewellery from the victim over several months. They threatened to inform the boy’s parents of his addiction if he failed to pay up.

With the exponential growth of the Indian gaming industry, experts warn that India may see a rapid rise in addiction and its devastating consequences. From FY20 to FY23, the online gaming segment experienced a compound annual growth rate of 28 per cent, culminating in a market size of 16,428 crore in 2023, which is set to reach 33,243 crore by 2028, according to a recent report titled, “New Frontiers – Navigating the evolving landscape for online gaming in India’ released by Ernst and Young.

But what games constitute Internet gaming? Any game — whether it involves gambling or not — which is played online, via a phone, laptop or any other device, is considered an internet game. This includes games played solo or multi-player games. It includes games that involve money transactions and those that don’t. For instance, games that are free to play, games featured on paid platforms, games where you win an animated trophy, games where you win virtual money (to use in the game), or cryptocurrency (like bitcoins), which you can use to pay real-world bills.

In 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised “gaming disorder”, and included it in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases.

Manoj Kumar Sharma, clinical psychologist and head of Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT), which is part of the National Institute for Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bengaluru, says that online gaming addiction is clinically referred to as the internet gaming disorder (IGD).

In the SHUT clinic, Sharma uses 5C’s to assist him in making a diagnosis: craving i.e. a continuous desire for gaming; the loss of control over one’s time; coping or whether gaming serves as an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with stressors; compulsion or habitual gaming; and consequences i.e loss of relationships, declining academics, and poor personal hygiene due to excessive gaming.

A psychologist studying internet addiction and its various forms since 2007, Sharma’s research proves that certain age groups are more prone to addiction: Teenagers and those in their early 20s are most at risk of gaming addiction. Certain personality types, such as those that score high on neuroticism and anxiety, showed a higher predisposition to addiction.

Sharma highlights some clear signs of gaming addiction: an increase in angry outbursts or impulsive behaviour; disturbance in appetite; decline in academics; and loss of interest in activities that one previously enjoyed. However, he warns against self-diagnosis as these symptoms could also be due to a variety of mental health issues.

Sharma explains that this addiction is usually a symptom of a deeper issue. “Most patients use gaming as a form of escape i.e an attempt to beat loneliness, fight depression, or distract themselves from existing conflicts at home, school or the workplace.” The primary issue needs to be identified and treated as part of de-addiction and to prevent a relapse, he added.

How online gaming tricks your brain into a “dopamine high”

The psychological principle on which these addictive games function is the “dopamine high”. Games come with a sense of excitement and a promise of rewards (whether monetary or for accessing the next level of the game). When your efforts are rewarded then dopamine — a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of pleasure — is released. A gamer gets addicted to this release, the feeling of euphoria, and craves it. This in turn leads to gaming addiction.

Over time, this dopamine high impairs prefrontal cortex functioning i.e. the part of the brain that controls impulsiveness, and aggression. This dysfunction clouds decision-making and heightens aggressive behaviour.

There are different treatment modalities to treat gaming addiction such as behavioural modification which includes but is not limited to monitoring and restricting time spent online and cognitive behavioural therapy which addresses the underlying issues that led to the addiction. It also involves learning new skills and coping mechanisms such as mindfulness, and relaxation exercises.

Monitoring Internet usage may seem like an obvious first step, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. A mother of two teenagers (who prefers to stay anonymous) says, “During the pandemic, the kids’ school shifted online. Their homework now took the form of Google Sheets.” She adds that the school continues to rely heavily on the online space increasing the kids’ screen time significantly. Despite approaching the school authorities, there has been no change. “There was resistance from the staff as the teachers found it convenient to assess homework online. But these small conveniences come at a high cost to our kids,” she says.

Legal provisions to limit access to online gaming

Are there any laws governing gaming? Advocate Alok Prasanna Kumar, co-founder of Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, says, “There are no central-level legislations dedicated to online gaming. The Constitution grants exclusive powers to the State to frame laws related to betting, and gambling.”

Kumar brought up the Public Gambling Act (PGA) of 1867, a colonial-era law, which controls the functioning of gaming and gambling houses. However, as he points out, one aspect of the PGA plays a role even today: The PGA’s fundamental distinction between games of skill and games of chance. The former requires brain power, mental acuity or specialised mental or physical skill. These games include chess, rummy, poker or even cricket and wrestling. The latter, however, are based fully or largely on luck such as a game of dice, wheel of fortune, or roulette. “Games of skill have legal sanction in India, while games of chance are considered to be acts of gambling, and are largely prohibited or controlled,” Kumar said.

This distinction — which was not designed to lend itself to the current online scenario — was incorporated in some state-level legislations. It has led to much debate in the Internet age, said Kumar. For instance, the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Online Gambling and Regulation of Online Games Act, 2022, applied to many games of skill. However, the State alleged that these games are no longer games of skill when played online. The reasoning was that on the Internet, you may be playing against a pre-programmed bot or the algorithm itself may be known to the developer. Therefore, a player can’t rely upon skill; there is a distinct element of randomness, reducing it to a game of chance. Since these online games were now classified as a game of chance, the State exercised its authority and banned them.

The ban was challenged by gaming companies, at the Madras high court, and struck down. “The State failed to substantiate its claims and prove that online rummy and poker are games of chance (and not skill),” Kumar said.

Kumar believes that the false binary in the online context— between games of skill and chance — is where the problem lies. “Perhaps approaching the issue through the lens of addiction may be a more appropriate route,” he said. Kumar also believes that there’s a greater chance of regulating gaming if seen as an addictive substance, with repercussions for society (such as an increased crime rate).

Yet another method that may regulate gaming, lies in taxation. Starting in July 2023, 28 per cent GST on the face value of online gaming was put into force. Kumar views this as a positive move, saying, “This not only provides the State revenues through taxation but allows the State to keep a check on gambling activities to prevent them from getting out of control.”