[The Viewpoint] Banning Online Gaming: The Solution or The Problem?

"State governments should implement specialized laws to control online games rather than resort to blanket bans." - The Online Rummy Federation
Rimali Batra
Rimali Batra

The Tamil Nadu Cabinet has recently approved an ordinance to ban online gaming with stakes in the state. The directive from Governor Banwarilal Purohit was clear; a reason for the rising cases of suicide was the proliferation of real money online games. The Tamil Nadu Government banned online gaming, due to the accounts of people dying by suicide. According to reports, some of these people incurred heavy losses while playing online, and this triggered self-harm and suicidal behavior. In November 2020 the Tamil Nadu government banned every type of online game that involved real money. However, a year down the line, the Madras High Court set aside the ordinance, saying it was one-sided and regressive. This article seeks to analyze the proposed link between banning online gaming and the increased rate of suicides, in Tamil Nadu.

Skill v/s Chance

The conundrum that created a stalemate in the process is whether online rummy is a game of skill or chance. If we delve into the details, the Constitution will help us understand and settle the game of skill vs. game of chance debate. In two important related petitions filed in the Supreme Court, i.e., State of Bombay v RMD Chamarbaugwala and RMD Chamarbaugwala v Union of India, a five-judge bench of the Hon'ble Supreme Court held that contests involving significant skills were not gambling. Adhering to the verdicts, the game of rummy requires many skills to win. It evaluates a player’s emotional maturity, mathematical skills, memory, logical reasoning, and analytical skills. It was positioned as a game of skill by the Madras High Court as it struck down the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, which banned online games, including online rummy and online poker. Currently, the apex court is hearing whether the decision to strike down the ban is legal.

The bone of contention: Are online games that are based on skills and providing employment and a legal way of earning money the real reason for the dire situation in Tamil Nadu? Or is it just a quick fix to a quagmire that has deep-rooted relevance? Is it a Pandora's Box waiting to be opened?

Regulation v/s Riddance: Sunrise sector under the scanner

In India, the internet gaming business was included in the sunrise sector category owing to its tremendous progression during the pandemic. During the series of lockdowns, individuals of all ages turned to online gaming to satisfy their demand for participatory pleasure and satisfaction.

₹13,600 crore in 2021 and is expected to bring in ₹29,000 crore by 2024-25. The number of active gamers is expected to rise from 433 million in 2018 to 657 million in 2025, a 50% increase. India's online gaming industry is growing at a rate of 30% per year, making it one of the fastest-growing media and entertainment business subsets. To put the facts in order, the culprit in the crosshairs of the Tamil Nadu government – online rummy – has a bright future as an industry. The sector's selective scrutiny may impact all legal gaming websites in India that have created jobs and generated revenue by operating within legal bounds.

The Online Rummy Federation (TORF) has said that state governments should implement specialized laws to control online games rather than resort to blanket bans, since such actions would simply fuel illicit gaming operations. Many online rummy companies run legitimate businesses, pay taxes, provide employment, and, at their core, are tech-based innovations. By banning such games, the government will lose out on a legal and safe entertainment avenue for the masses, in addition to missing out on the potential revenue that could have been generated with a progressive regulatory framework for online gaming.

Magnifying the Mirage

Has any sunrise sector in India been wrongly accused of culpability? Let’s push the conjectures and consolidate the truth. A prominent Indian psychiatrist has argued that online gaming does not cause suicidal thoughts or actions. According to the study, there is a difference between coincidence and causality. It found insufficient evidence to draw any conclusions on whether or not suicide rates have increased due to internet gaming.

The biggest and most cogent report comes from the Rotary Rainbow Project, a humanitarian effort to help suicide victims in Tamil Nadu. The organization has spotted several instances of misreporting as far as the cause of suicides is concerned, resulting in inaccurate assertions that online games are often the culprit.

Two suicide cases in Tamil Nadu, where a painting contractor and a constable met their tragic end, were linked to online gaming addiction. The grieving families, who the Rotary Rainbow Project counselled, clarified that the debt trap was the real reason for both suicides.

Another study conducted in Tamil Nadu by Sradha, an organization that counsels people with suicidal tendencies, cited other factors – drug abuse, alcoholism, marriage-related issues, failure in love, bankruptcy or debts, unemployment, failure in examinations, career problems, and poverty in the state – behind the number of suicides in the state.

Pointing the needle of culpability towards online gaming for suicides in a state that has consistently shown high figures is likely to be a just a temporary fix. The casket of a sunrise sector that could shine bright in the future with appropriate regulation is under harsh scrutiny, while other chief reasons probably still remain unaddressed.

Rimali Batra is an Associate Partner at DSK Legal.

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