PUBG Mobile ban, the rise of BGMI and the VPN debacle in India’s mobile gaming industry

In September 2020, 118 Chinese apps were banned by the Government of India, as a result of tensions between India and China at the Galwan Valley. One of these was PUBG Mobile, a battle royale game that had over 50 million downloads and 33 million active users in the country. Although banning the game was met with numerous objections by certain sections of society, the Indian government maintained its stance. The game was banned by the Indian government citing “it is engaged in activities which is prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order“.

Parents, especially, heaved a sigh of relief when the game was banned. Their concerns were not unfounded, however. In Madhya Pradesh’s city of Chhindwara, a 25-year-old man mistakenly drank acid instead of water, as he was too distracted in the middle of a heated PUBG match. Thankfully, he survived but had to deal with a multitude of stomach ulcers. In another case, two youths in Maharashtra’s Hingoli district were run down by a train as they were playing PUBG in the middle of the train tracks. So engrossing was the match that neither of them could hear the train heading towards them. Their bodies were found later on in the dying hours of the night by the locals.

Although major incidents such as these are few and far in between, they do reflect a growing concern amongst Indian parents that PUBG Mobile (and other addictive games of this nature) were detrimental to the physical and mental well-being of their children. This concern did not find too many detractors amongst the Indian media either.

Following the concerns of the Indian government, game developer Krafton decided to pitch a more localized version of PUBG Mobile to the country. The developers claimed that they would deal with all the concerns raised by the Government of India to make the game less violent and more friendly for children. They dropped the PUBG branding as well and in May 2021, named their Indian offering Battlegrounds Mobile India. This game included a few stylistic changes to the original game, with the developers also stating that they had taken the security issues of Indian players seriously for this rendition of the game. To an extent, this was true as players who were younger than 18 needed express consent and permission from their parents before accessing the game. 

In BGMI, specific aesthetic changes were made to make the game comply with the concerns raised by the Government of India. For example, to imitate the damaging effect after shooting a player, BGMI players can only change the effect shade to either green or yellow. There’s no red colour option to imitate the blood that is resultant of the damage. This was a route taken by the developers to work around the complaints of BGMI being a violent game. The word “kill” has also been removed, being replaced with “finish”, demonstrating another instance of working around claims of violence.

The PUBG branding itself was removed from the game so that Krafton, the game developers, could avoid another legal notice. Free Fire, another popular battle royale game, also has instances of players being able to use special powers in the middle of the game, thereby releasing itself from the roots of grounded reality, and using this example as a reason for the game not being “violent” or “overly realistic”.

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As game developers want to continue making money, they understand that changing their core gameplay elements will result in a serious backlash from players. Due to this, they continue to make stylistic and aesthetic changes where they deem fit, in a manner that will not affect the final product. Doing this would also help them curtail and subvert the chances of legal notices, without having to deal with the core issues that the notices are hinting at.

Recently, in the final week of August 2021, news reports regarding the banning of VPN services across the country started surfacing. An appeal by a Home Affairs Committee has judged the usage of VPNs as unsafe for the security of the country and urged the Government of India to ban the usage of VPNs.

VPN’s mask the IP address of the user, and create a private space within a public network. They also encrypt the data that is being transferred back and forth over mobile data or Wifi connections. VPNs also create proxy IP addresses, and this results in the IP address mirroring one from another part of the world, thereby allowing the user to remain undetected in front of prying eyes. VPNs are also used for gaming.

For example, even though PUBG Mobile is banned in India, a user can connect their device to a VPN app, create a proxy IP address, and then log into PUBG Mobile without being detected. Although this is a rather harmless way to use a VPN, it is still deemed illegal since PUBG Mobile is banned in the country.

The Parliamentary Committee believes that the usage of VPNs would need the Indian Government to use extensive methods for surveillance of what they could consider as credible threats. VPN apps that are being used by gamers in India tend to be fairly rudimentary in the way they operate. Nonetheless, the Indian government may believe the concern to be a legitimate one and therefore ban the usage of VPNs in the country as well.

Only time will tell what this could spell for gamers in India. On a positive note, it could lead to more indigenous games making their presence known. Healthy competition could be quite beneficial for the Indian gaming development scene. However, at this point, only time will tell what the decision of the Indian lawmakers will be.

Krafton has taken advantage of the concerns raised by the Indian government and has started the pre-registration for PUBG: New State. Since Tencent, the original developers of PUBG mobile, are no longer conducting business in the Indian market, Krafton has used this large gap for a gaming app and invested close to $70 million in the Indian gaming sector.

This will increase the amount of media attention that esports will get in India, especially when PUBG: New State is released. The new game will have more features for customisation, as well as other gameplay elements added to the basic PUBG Mobile and BGMI game modes.

With its release, Krafton is trying to change the branding of PUBG itself – bringing the popularity tag from other countries, while also being quite localised and compliant with the rules set by the Indian government. With the VPN ban a possibility, Krafton can attract hordes of PUBG Mobile players to PUBG: New State, as the latter will not need a VPN to function.

This may just be the start of a new sector in the Indian gaming industry. Eventually, the Indian government may have to find a way to monetise the popularity that these games are bringing with them.

Anirban Dutta Choudhury

Anirban Dutta Choudhury is a PhD scholar, researcher, and freelance writer. He loves keeping his tabs updated on technology, gaming, pop culture, literature, and philosophy. Oh, and he hopes to take his love for gaming narratives into the academic mainstream. Anirban has five years of experience in writing, whether it's for SEO-based content, blogs, or research papers. He whiles away his free time through reading fiction and philosophy, as an escape from the daily drudgery of reality.