A version of this article appeared on Motherboard Italy.
On May 14, 2017 an episode of the satirical Italian TV program Le Iene (or "Reservoir Dogs" in English) aired a report dedicated to the 'Blue Whale game' (or 'challenge'), a type of online game that came to life in different forums and groups on VKontakte, the most popular social network in Russia. In the game, players shared photos and videos of acts of self-harm that gradually became more serious.
According to a report conducted by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, there should be a link between the Blue Whale game and numerous cases of teenage suicide in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan between November 2015 and April 2016: The victims had been members of VK groups dedicated to the game. However, in at least one of the cases cited—the suicide of a nineteen year-old Kazakh, Marat Aitkazin—the nature of the connection to the game can't be confirmed. In fact, after taking a closer look at the Blue Whale phenomenon, it seems less like the shocking story Novaya Gazeta initially reported, and more like a perfect storm of internet creepypasta, media hysteria, and the very real and serious issue teenage suicide.
The story rapidly exploded in the media and arrived in Europe with rather alarmist tones, to the extent that it drove a comedy television show like Le Iene to discuss it. What remains to be seen is the line that separates mass hysteria from the genuine, actual danger of the phenomenon.
The first possible instance of the Blue Whale game occurred in 2015, when a 17-year-old Russian girl named Rina Palenkova shared a selfie on VKontakte right before throwing herself in front of a train. Like the Marat Aitkazin case, nothing in the Palenkova one is certain: It happened before people started hearing about the game and before its rules started showing up online, but the girl's selfie became a sort of meme in forums dedicated to depression and suicide.
It wasn't until 2016, with the publication of the Novaya Gazeta report—which asserted that the game was responsible for another 130 cases of suicide among Russian adolescents—that Blue Whale started making news in Russia.
Of all the cases, the one that perhaps resonated the most was that of Yulia Konstantinova, age 15, and Veronika Volkova, age 16, both of whom—at the end of last February—jumped from a 14-story building in Ust-Ilimsk, a small town in the Irkutsk region of Eastern Siberia. A few days before, Konstantinova had posted the image of a blue whale on Instagram, while Volkova had shared depressive messages. According to the Siberian Times, the two boys who filmed the suicide were arrested at the scene of the incident on charges of incitement to suicide.
In November 2016, one of the presumed founders of the game, a 21-year-old psychology student named Philipp Budeikin, was arrested on charges of instigation to suicide. In an interview, Budeikin refuted the numbers reported in the Novaya Gazeta survey—and confessed to having personally induced 17 of those people to suicide.
"There are people and then there [are] scum, in other words, people who bring absolutely no value to society and who only do harm. I have cleansed society of these people," Budeikin said. "It began in 2013. I created F57—" one of the groups on VK in which the game came to life "—In order to see what would happen. I filled it with shocking content and it started to attract people. It was banned in 2014. For a while, I would laugh along as I watched while everyone tried to understand what 'F57' meant. It's simple: F is for Philipp, my name, and 57 were the last digits of my telephone number at the time. I thought of this idea over the course of five years. You might say that I had prepared it. I thought the entire project up, the different levels and the different steps. It was necessary to separate the normal people from the scum."
In addition to Novaya Gazeta, other Russian newspapers have addressed the subject. The newspaper Meduza, in particular, criticized the article in Novaya Gazeta, arguing that the correlation between the game and the suicides is difficult to prove and that it would be more correct to argue that depressed teenagers with suicidal tendencies simply end up visiting the same online groups.
Still, given the considerable attention from the Russian press, the story was picked up by various international newspapers shortly thereafter, starting with the English edition of The Sun. It then spread throughout the entire world, where, because of its emotional nature, the story was widely covered in the media.
Around this time, the complete rules of the game appeared on Reddit for the first time ever. Apparently, in order to start playing, one needed only to express online their desire to take part in the game using the hashtag #f57—the name of Budeikin's original VK group where the game had first been conceived, dedicated to self-harm and to inciting suicide—and wait to be contacted by "a master."
After that, a person playing would have to undergo 50 days of "missions" to be considered accomplished enough to take on their final mission: killing him- or herself by throwing themselves off the highest building in their own city. According to various international newspapers that recently covered the story and the Reddit thread discussing the game, the tasks range from watching horror films, listening to disturbing noises, committing acts of self-harm such as carving a whale into one's own skin, killing animals, and waking up at 4:20 AM (the game's secondary name is "Wake Me Up At 4:20"), in a sort of all-consuming brainwashing process.
Each of the 50 tasks must be documented with a photo or video and sent to the administrator with whom the player is in contact, who would emotionally blackmail the player by threatening to harm the people they hold most dear. According to other theories circulated on the internet, the game might also involve the use of a specific app that "hacks" the victim's telephone, but this hypothesis already seems to have been discredited.
As reported by the Italian website The Submarine, which does an extensive reconstruction of the events of Russian and foreign news reports on the matter, the Blue Whale spread widely throughout the west as of February 2017, and was cited in several cases of suicide in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and (according to Le Iene) Italy as well.
The story from Le Iene is predicated on the case of a 15-year-old boy who jumped off the roof of a 26-story building in his home city of Livorno last March. It wasn't until a reporter from Le Iene spoke to one of the boy's classmates, whose statement indicated that the boy's death was linked to the game, that it became clear he was the first alleged Italian victim of the Blue Whale.
Outside of Russia, the principal outlets for the game seem to be Instagram and Tumblr, where the hashtag #f57 has started to appear. Countermeasures have already been taken on both social networks to diffuse the game and the corresponding hashtag: for example, if you type #f57 into Instagram, you'll get a notification offering help.
Between February and April 2017, the hacker collective Anonymous also decided to take action against the administrators of this game. They launched a movement called '#OpBlueWhale,' which explicitly encourages young people to avoid getting involved with the game on number of occasions.
But this isn't actually the first time a game was created—or at least disseminated online—that was based on psychological manipulation and has led to serious consequences amongst young people. The game "Fire Fairy," for example, which also seems to have had origins in Russia, drove a five-year-old girl to leave the gas running at night, under the promise that she would become a "pixie" the following morning.
Several years ago, the "choking game" also made the news. The premise was that a person would suffocate, or be voluntarily suffocated by someone else, in order to deprive their brain of oxygen and consequently produce a "high" without using drugs or alcohol. Because of this, it was also called "the good boys' game." The choking game was treated in the media as the "latest online trend" among young people, whereas in reality they were dealing with something much older: as VICE reported at the time, the first death statements for this type of "accidental" asphyxiation actually date back to the 1930s.
The Slender Man—a fictitious character created in 2009 during an online competition in a forum on the humor website Something Awful, one that rapidly became a mysterious internet legend—was cited as a motive in a case of attempted homicide in 2014 in Wisconsin, when two 12-year-olds lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times in order to "impress the Slender Man."
It's worth noting that in all of the cases outside Russia, no occurrence of the game has been definitively demonstrated. The real correlation between teenage suicides and the game seems limited to a number of cases.
In general, it's difficult to identify if information we receive about this is truly linked to the game, its imitations, or simply other pro-suicide groups, as there's a slew of these on the dark web.
Dr. Shannon Barnett, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Motherboard in an email that while this game exemplifies the risk of someone taking advantage of youth who are emotionally distressed, there is no one reason for adolescents to feel so bad that they have suicidal thoughts and/or thoughts of harming themselves.
"The majority of teenagers with these thoughts have untreated mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety disorders," Barnett said. She added that while it might be helpful for teens to seek help and validation from other teens online, the danger is that the peers on these websites do not have the skill set to help other teenagers. "Adolescents with thoughts of suicide or who engage in self-injury need to be encouraged to seek treatment from a mental health provider," she said.
As The Submarine continues to highlight, and as we've previously written on Motherboard, there's still corners of the deep web where suicide is discussed openly. Most of the time, they represent an unusual but effective service—a sort of outlet where people can seek help or vent. If one thing is certain, it's that the debate on such a delicate topic shouldn't be subject to reckless media hysteria, as is currently the case with Blue Whale.
Editor's Note: If you or someone around you is exhibiting suicidal tendencies or self-harm please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
Emma Griffith contributed reporting.