Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

What makes online games like Blue Whale so addictive?

What makes some online games so addictive that players are willing to harm themselves, even attempt suicide?

The Aerosol Challenge, a 2014 game, involved teenagers spraying themselves with deodorant at a distance of just a few inches from their skin, to see who could endure the pain the longest. It left some children with horrific burns.

In the Pass-out Challenge, young adults would choke themselves to the point of passing out in an attempt to reach an euphoric high—recording it all to post on social media.

The Fire Challenge saw people spraying themselves with flammable liquid and then setting it aflame, all for an online laugh. Neknominate had them drinking increasingly potent combinations of alcohol—this too led to some deaths. The Blue Whale game, the latest, sets tasks over a 50-day period, the last of which is jumping off a high-rise.

During Roman times, gladiatorial shows were a show of strength and violence. The Middle Ages turned execution into spectacle. Now, it’s online games like Blue Whale, says Shubha Madhusudhan, clinical psychologist, Fortis Hospital, Bengaluru. “We have always had narcissistic personalities, sadists and psychopathic deviants in our society," she says. The internet has just made it easier for all of them to connect with the vulnerable.

But what makes online gaming so addictive?

A spiral of challenges and achievements

Most games are addictive because of the challenge involved, says Mehul Shah, a 24-year-old gamer who can understand the need to complete tasks, even in an extreme game like Blue Whale. “There’s constant competition, ranking boards, level up, which drive you to be the best amongst others. Once you’re in it, there’s no coming back and you strive hard to achieve the next level, the next goal."

As a student, four years ago, he would log on to Dota 2, a multiplayer game, for 10-12 hours a day; now that he has a job, he plays for 2-3 hours a day. “Some gamers get so involved that they can’t differentiate between a real and virtual challenge. Completing the next task, reaching the final, is the only thing that matters even if it’s an extreme one," says Shah.

The virtual game world is designed to suck you in, just like any other addiction, explains Sandeep Vohra, senior consultant psychiatrist, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi. The first few levels are invariably easier, so they give you a sense of achievement, but as you go higher, the levels become tougher, and you have to spend more time and energy in getting the same high. “This sense of achievement targets the brain’s reward system and compels the gamer to perform the act again and again so as to dip into that pleasure of achievement again," says Dr Vohra. There is an additional high: the feeling that you can solve something, even if it’s not a real-life issue, he adds.

Free of expectations

Then there’s the anonymity that the online world offers, freeing you from societal and real-life expectations and responsibility, says Deepti Kukreja, consultant psychiatrist, Nanavati Super Specialty Hospital, Mumbai. “There is no control, no authority, no one is watching over you, and you can explore things, be someone else. All this makes it very, very tempting to experiment, seek out an adventure, take a risk," she adds.

Some games and online challenges make you feel like a lord, agrees Himanshu Goyal, a Bengaluru-based entertainment marketing professional who has been a gamer since he was 9. The constant action makes you feel like you’re a hero, that you’re up to something amazing. “In real life, you might be a mediocre person with a 9-5 job, but in your virtual one, you become a game lord, a hero, people follow you, they look up to you, and that beats anything real life would offer," says Goyal. He actually believes that decades of gaming has improved his reflexes and ability to think spontaneously.

Too much gaming, however, can blur the boundaries between virtual and real, says Manjiri Deshpande, psychiatrist, The Pediatric Network, a Mumbai-based child health support company: “You might get so involved in a game that you forget that in online games, heroes die and reappear in the next level, but in real life, the real world, it’s not possible."

Games or experiments?

Challenges may be a big part of gaming online but Mumbai-based gaming professional Anuragh Saukat says self-mutilation has nothing to do with video games. “They’re more about social experiments built on the anonymity that the internet brings," says the 23-year-old, who has an online record of spending 805 continuous hours (gameplay time, without getting killed in the virtual game) playing his favourite game Destiny. “With legit online services like the PlayStation or Xbox Live, companies like Microsoft and Sony have game rules and play conditions to make sure that all players are accountable for their action in the game world. When I play Destiny, there is an interface, a set of UI/UX (user experience/user interface), codes and rules which make it a game world where I play with a virtual team. The Blue Whale is not a game, it’s a social experiment to exploit vulnerable people. "

The challenges of self-harm and self-mutilation games go beyond basic and normal human motivations, agrees John Suler, professor, Science and Technology Center, Rider University, US, and author of Psychology Of The Digital Age. “People who play these games are hurting themselves," he explains. This might be indicative, at a deeper level, of depression, feeling bad about oneself, or an underlying need to be punished. “For some of these people involved in dominance/submission games, it could be an acting out of sadomasochism needs," he says.

In the past, people would engage in self-harm alone, in secrecy. Now they can find like-minded people online. “They support each other in self-harm and share tips about how to do it," says Prof. Suler.

Those vulnerable to self-harm challenges online include teenagers and young adults who are going through biological and hormonal changes, says Sameer Malhotra, senior consultant psychiatrist and drug de-addiction specialist, Max Healthcare, Delhi. “Vulnerable people would have feelings of emptiness and loneliness, or an impulsive personality trait which is high on suggestibility, a low or fragile self-esteem, and a constant need for peer approval." Adults who have a substance abuse or self-harm history, can’t structure their time and live without prioritizing or without a goal in life, would be susceptible to the thrill that such challenges offer, adds Dr Malhotra.

How online psychopaths work

It’s exactly these vulnerable personalities that online psychopaths aim for with challenges like Blue Whale, says Dr Kukreja. Moderators offer a sympathetic ear, listen to your problems, then tempt you with a secret game, a community online where you can belong, with others like you, people who understand you. “Then comes a challenge: Can’t you do this for me? Are you not strong enough? Smart enough? It’s a challenge, a dare," says Dr Kukreja.

The moderator questions their competence, and connects the tasks to their self-esteem. The gamer wants to progress, become part of the elite group, take the ladder up, watch a horror movie, light up a deodorant, walk alone at night on a deserted street—and before he knows it, the task has become an extreme one. “And you do it, because completing each challenge builds your self-esteem and gives you a high," says Dr Kukreja, “while at every step, the sociopath, the one who controls, is taking pleasure in the submission and physical harm they cause."

Yulia Konstantinova, a 15-year old from Russia, posted this picture of a ‘Blue Whale’ on her Instagram account, shortly before jumping to her death from a 14-storey apartment block.
Yulia Konstantinova, a 15-year old from Russia, posted this picture of a ‘Blue Whale’ on her Instagram account, shortly before jumping to her death from a 14-storey apartment block.

Reality check

■ Look out for the hidden intentions of strangers you meet online

■ If you’re going through a lonely phase, don’t look to the internet for solace. Go to friends, family, counsellors

■ Be assertive, say no to challenges or dares. Don’t take impulsive decisions

■ Know the dangers of the internet. It’s a virtual world, don’t confuse it with reality.

Warning signs

As someone around you heading into the vortex of self-harm? Here are the signs to look out for.

■ Frequent outbursts of anger, fragile self-esteem, difficulty in controlling emotions

■ Getting irritated and moody when the game is taken away or stopped

■ Sudden changes in behaviour—becoming secretive, fluctuations in mood or difficulty in sleeping

■ Marks of self-harm on the body

■ Disinterest in daily life

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