Ever since the chilling murders of healthcare worker Naheed Mubarak and her three children at their home near Lahore in Pakistan’s Punjab province earlier this year, their neighbours have been ill at ease in their own homes, reeling from the shock and the fear from what could be an insidious threat lurking in their midst.
On Jan. 19, 18-year-old Zain Ali – Mubarak’s son – opened fire on his own mother and siblings after a frustrating bout with a video game, according to police. “Repeated defeats in the game increased my stress, and I fired shots thinking that everyone will come back to life like in the game,” Ali, now in police custody, allegedly confessed.
The shockwaves have reached the home of Mubarak’s friend Asiya Bibi, who saw Ali as not very different from her own children. “Zain would never go out. He would always just stay in his room, and he didn’t have any friends. Aside from these things, though, I never really saw anything wrong with him. He was a well-behaved child. He never fought with anyone. I still can’t believe it,” Bibi told VICE World News.
Now, the mere mention of the game Ali had been playing – Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds or PUBG – stirs a combination of dread and grief in the pit of Bibi’s stomach. For her, the hugely popular multiplayer game has become synonymous to death.
“Ever since [the murders] happened, a lot of kids have started playing this game to see what's inside it. My own child, who didn't play it before, has started playing it now,” said Bibi. “All of the mothers in my neighbourhood are frightened of it. We wake up in the middle of the night and see our kids playing it like robots, and we are scared of our own children.”
With parents blaming Mubarak’s and her children’s murders and a series of other killings and suicides on PUBG, Pakistan has been caught in a renewed chicken-and-egg debate about whether the game causes violent behavior. Law enforcement agencies have been pushing for a blanket ban on the game, saying it incites young people to violence and criminal behaviour.
However, players who have built careers on PUBG dispute the assumption that the game is to blame for the murders, and mental health professionals have pointed out that criminal behaviour is driven by far more complex factors than playing a video game.
“I have been gaming for about 15 years, and that is not to say that gaming can’t be an addictive hobby or that it can’t lead to frustration,” Esports commentator and gamer Onaiza Naeem, who goes by the game tag AyanoHisako, told VICE World News. “But it has never escalated into anting to hurt somebody else or myself.”
PUBG is a player-versus-shooter game that consists of a battle royale death match where a hundred players fight to stay alive. It is considered one of the world’s top four most-played video games, along with Fortnite, Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto.
PUBG is popular across social brackets, but its low-memory, low-bandwidth requirement have made it accessible among low-income players, dramatically broadening its appeal. The original version of the South Korean game has so far sold over 75 million copies worldwide. The game’s phone version, PUBG Mobile, has garnered 1 billion downloads, and raked in around $7.6 billion in gross revenue from mobile devices in 2021.
Shortly after Zain Ali’s arrest on Jan 28, a high-ranking police officer wrote the provincial government a letter linking the killings to PUBG. He also cited an April 2020 case of multiple homicide in Lahore in which a PUBG player known to use meth killed his siblings, friend and sister-in-law after they sold his game console.
“It is evident that obsessive indulgence of youth in online violent games like PUBG and Fortnite is introducing into the young minds of players a sense of comfort with violence leading to criminal tendencies. Therefore, such violent games, especially PUBG, need to be banned by Pakistan’s Telecommunication Authority,” the letter read. It went on to urge for an immediate ban.
But mental health experts have cautioned against such a simplistic view, warning that a ban may end up being a band-aid solution to underlying mental health problems.
“There is a high correlation between mental health issues and video games, but it is because young people who are already at risk and are already vulnerable are using video games as an avenue to let out stress or to deal with their underlying issues,” Karachi-based psychologist Rabeea Saleem told VICE World News. “All over the world, video games have been linked to mental health issues in children and aggression, but I would say correlation does not imply causation.”
A 2020 report published in the Royal Society Open Science journal that examined 28 studies from 2008 onwards showed that playing video games did not cause aggression or violent behaviour. According to Saleem, video games may even serve as healthy coping strategies for young people struggling with aggression and anxiety.
But why would Zain Ali shoot and kill his own family after being engrossed in PUBG? Islamabad-based psychologist Muhammad Ali Khan says could have had underlying mental health conditions. “Although it is not possible to ascertain what the perpetrator was thinking unless a one-on-one assessment is performed, a number of psychiatric diagnoses come to mind, including a psychotic break, problems with anger management, depression, bipolar disorder as well as impulse control disorder,” Khan told VICE World News.
Amid the hysteria surrounding PUBG, professional players are calling for calm. If the science doesn’t link the crimes to the game, why ban it? Especially since their livelihoods are on the line.
“The game is beneficial because it has helped us make careers for ourselves, and if we can make a living out of it, then others can do it too,” PUBG YouTuber Sajid Rehman, known as Zalmi Gaming, told VICE World News. The game has significantly changed the Peshawar resident’s fortunes ever since he first started playing it for fun. “I am now financially independent. I have become so financially stable that I am now in a position to pay salaries to people who work for me,” said Rehman.
Banning the game would be detrimental to the growing number of professional gamers, he added. “It will be a disaster for our community. We worked so hard to make a life for ourselves with this game. It will completely erase all our hard work.”
Even the federal government has been warming up to the country’s budding esports industry, including PUBG’s potential to provide employment to the country’s youth. This month, the government announced the first national pro-level PUBG tournament for professional players.
Although there are yet no clear-cut answers to the crimes and tragedies that people have associated with PUBG and other video games, mental health experts say broader attention should be paid to the mental wellbeing of gamers and other young people, instead of a ban that guarantees no solution to the mental health issues that may drive criminal behaviour.
“If you stop them from playing altogether, then that can adversely affect them, and they may still find ways to keep playing,” said Saleem. “Parents, teachers and psychologists need to work together to figure out what is causing them to turn towards excessive gaming so that they can come up with better solutions.”
But Bibi and the others most impacted by the murders want a simpler, more immediate relief from the terror and anxiety that, to them, are inextricably tied to the game.
“She was like my sister. I find it difficult to live without her,” said Bibi, mourning her friend Mubarak. “We need to raise our voices against this game so that this doesn't happen to anyone ever again.”
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