Next Story

Is PUBG the sole trigger behind string of violent incidents & suicides?

Following a quadruple murder last month, the widely popular multiplayer game is back in hot water.

By M Shahzad |
facebook whatsup linkded
PUBLISHED February 27, 2022

At the start of June 2020, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority banned PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or PUBG as it is more widely known, citing several complaints about it being ‘addictive’, a waste of time and its potential negative impact on the physical and psychological health of children. While the ban lasted just a month, a year and a half since then, the widely popular and increasingly controversial multiplayer shooter video game is in hot water again.

Like the previous episode, which was triggered by a string of violent incidents, renewed calls for banning the video game were sparked after a quadruple famicide case in Kahna, Lahore in January. Following a statement from the alleged teenage killer, police were quick to conclusively link the crime to PUBG. But although an older generation especially has been quick to pounce on this revelation, is a mere video game really only to blame for cases of murder and suicide? Or is this instead simply another moral panic in the making?

What makes the issue especially tricky is that no one seems to pursuing cases of 17-year-old Ali Zain, the lone survivor and alleged suspect of the Kahna murders.

Case file re-examined

Following his arrest, when police officials produced him before a Lahore court, Zain was sent on 14-day judicial remand. Interestingly, no one was present to plead innocence on his behalf before the court.

Police have accused Zain of murdering his 45-year-old mother Naheed Mubarak, a lady health worker by profession, his 21-year-old brother Taimoor Sultan and 15-year-old sister Mahnoor, and an eight-year-old girl Jannat who Naheed had adopted. According to the police, Zain confessed he had killed the four of them after being frustrated by repeated failure to complete missions in PUBG.

A neighbour of the family spotted the bodies of the four deceased in their bedroom when he went upstairs to switch on an electric water pump. Zain, believed the lone survivor of the incident, was found sleeping unusually in a room on the ground floor his mother would use for maternity labour purposes. Routinely, Zain would sleep in the bedroom adjacent to where the victims were recovered.

Reportedly, Zain’s father had divorced his mother in 2004 and had been living with his second wife since then. He would rarely show up to see Zain and his siblings, who were raised solely by Naheed. The family’s maternal relatives lived in a village near Jaranwala in Faisalabad, their neighbours told The Express Tribune. 

Even so, the deceased Naheed owned multiple houses built up over a canal of land that she had rented out to different families. Asiya Bibi, a friend and tenant of Naheed for over a decade, said that she had built up all of the property through her own hard work. The estimated worth of the property is believed to be in millions. 

As the police launched its investigations, they took three persons into custody – Ali Zain, his father and his maternal uncle. Police justified Zain’s custody by terming it ‘protective’ as whoever killed his family may have harmed him too. His maternal uncle and father were included in investigations to dig out if they may have a hand in the killings due to family, property or some other dispute.

The police also made a large number of neighbours and tenants part of the investigations, geo-fenced the area and analysed call data records (CDRs) of both the suspects and the victims along with CCTV footage grabbed from the vicinity of the scene of the crime. Investigators also collected forensic as well as circumstantial evidences from the scene with the help of the Crime Scene Unit and Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA) experts.

The anatomy of a murder

When police could not find anything substantial to proceed further and link the suspects in custody to the crime scene, they were released.  When questioned by police initially, Ali Zain claimed he survived because he was carrying out certain instructions of his mother – he was told to go downstairs and start their family car to warm up the engine because his mother had to leave urgently for work. After some time, he said he decided to wait for his mother in the maternity labour room and involuntarily dozed off.

According to police officials, Zain was released to attend his family’s funeral prayers with the instructions to return back to them. But Zain neither turned up before police nor returned to his own house. Instead, he went into hiding at his maternal aunt’s place outside Lahore.

Seeking anonymity, a police official who explained the grounds for implicating lone survivor Zain in the quadruple murder said that police had found a laptop in working condition found in a room of the house. “The body of Taimoor, the elder son, was found touching the opened door of the room where Naheed was found murder with her two daughters. Police from the crime scene implied that Taimoor must be busy at work on laptop when he heard the gunshot. When he reached the door, the assailant shot him dead at the doorstep,” the official shared. It later transpired that Zain had been using that laptop to play PUBG.

How did police conclude Ali Zain is not the victim but the perpetrator? Lahore SSP Investigations Imran Kishwar said that it was a daunting task for the police to reach the perpetrator of this gruesome blind murder. Delineating the process of investigations, Kishwar said that police used the initial evidences to build a ‘crime theory’ and would try to search for evidences that could support it. “If the evidences were contradictory that theory was repudiated and replaced with another theory,” he said.

Naheed had left behind a hefty volume of property, which police initially thought was the motive. “A divorced woman living with her children is removed out of the way so the property can be captured. There have been instances when the whole family was murdered so that no one remained behind to claim the property and pursue the case,” he said. As such, police initially bought Zain’s version that he miraculously survived for not being present at the crime scene.

Based on it police launched the investigations and the suspects were taken into custody – from close relatives to acquaintances, tenants etc. However, the investigations were being led again and again to a murder commited from inside the house. Kishwar said that “the blood trail/blood strain pattern analysis” pointed at a perpetrator from inside. To quash this evidence, investigators searched for ways an outsider could enter and leave unnoticed. But this process failed.

Meanwhile, Zain’s own initial statement was discovered to be contradictory. “He told police that he went downstairs because his mother had asked him to turn on the car. However, when checked, we found that the cover over the car had dust and it had not been used for many days,” Kishwar said. He added that during the course of investigations, police found that Naheed had been keeping a handgun at her house because of a burglary offense a few years back. However, police could not recover it from the house.

It transpired later that was the weapon used to murder her. Zain pointed to its recovery. Kishwar said that police had sent the weapon for a gun-residue test and a test to match the empty cartridges from the crime scene and the slugs recovered from the bodies of the deceased. This report is still awaited.

Kishwar also asserted that Zain knew how to use the gun. They had checked it during the investigations. A panel of senior police officers, different teams including one led by SP CIA not only interviewed but cross-checked the verification/soundness of evidences/grounds to implicate Zain in the quadruple famicide case.

Following this process, Kishwar said the suspect confessed that he had shot dead his family members after repeated failures while playing PUBG. The teenage assailant, as reported earlier, claimed that he had begun to believe his family would ‘respawn’ back to life like players’ avatars in the multiplayer videogame.

How PUBG was implicated

Speaking to The Express Tribune, Punjab Police spokesperson Usama Mehmood said that the evidence in the Kahna case suggested that the suspect Zain had been addicted to PUBG and had begun to live in complete isolation in his room. “He was introduced to the game during his stay at a hostel by his peers. It captured his mind so completely that he started living an imaginary ‘dual life’,” he claimed. “Under influence of the game, on January 19, he shot dead his mother, two sisters and elder brother.”

A few days after the arrest of Zain, Punjab Police once again wrote a letter to the government urging a ban on the game. "The quadruple murder of a family cannot be conveniently adjudged as a plain-text crime. This violent crime is linked with isolationist tendencies associated with the addiction of multiplayer online game named PUBG," AIG Operations Punjab Police wrote to the additional chief secretary home. "Failure in PUBG duels online prompted a teenager to perpetrate the appalling four murders in the area of Kahna in Lahore. Preying upon his own mother and siblings," the AIG further asserted.

The AIG also quoted a few other instances that had been reported in the past in the latter. "It is evident that obsessive indulgence of youth in online violent games like PUBG and Fortnite is introducing into young minds of the players a sense of comfort with violence leading to criminal tendencies," he continued in the letter. "Therefore, such violent games, especially PUBG, need to be banned by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. Failure or delay in imposing ban on PUBG may aggravate violence and crime in society. Aforementioned in view, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority may be requested to impose complete ban on violent games like PUBG, etc", he concluded.

A history of violence

The AIG letter also quoted an incident of multiple murders reported in April 2020 in Nawan Kot. The suspect in that case, Rana Bilal, was infatuated with playing PUBG and shot dead his brother, sister, sister-in-law and a friend following a dispute over the game. In his confessional statement, Bilal said he became angry with his family after they had sold his video game console. CCTV footage of him also showed him wearing the costume and copying the shooting style of his favourite PUBG character.

Bilal, however, was also addicted to crystal meth or ice. He was divorced and on bitter terms with the rest of his family to begin with, further investigation revealed. Reports showed he too lived in isolation and had almost no friends.

The months following the Nawan Kot case also witnessed multiple cases of suicide by teenagers in Lahore that were linked to PUBG. At least three teenage boys claimed their life in two weeks of June 2020 only. This was at the height of the first wave of coronavirus and during the imposition of the first lockdown in Lahore.

Still, police authorities linked these deaths to PUBG and wrote to the government to ban the game.  In last week of June 2020, Lahore Police wrote a letter to the higher authorities. While writing to CCPO Lahore on June 26, 2020, Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) Operations Lahore Ashfaq Ahmad Khan said that it was sad that the excessive use of some online games promoted a trend of suicide in youth. The addiction of popular game, PUBG, is proving to be more disastrous than the Ice drug, he claimed. Once engaged, youngsters are forced to play on and act as the game pushes them. They would keep on playing to achieve the target.

Hardly a few days had passed after Khan wrote to his boss that another suicide case took place on July 1, 2020. The victim this time was an eighteen year old boy Shaharyar from Hanjarwal. Police asserted that they had found a mobile with PUBG in it lying nearby body and he had made a call to his PUBG friend before shooting himself dead. Police also had found a suicide note lying nearby. Police also quoted his elder brother confirming the victim’s PUBG addiction.

As the case was reported, then IG Punjab Shoaib Dastagir announced he would write another letter to the interior ministry, based on the letter Senior Superintendent of Police (Administration) Lahore Liaqat Ali Malik wrote to the IGP a few days before. Liaqat had pointed out that a youth, Mohammad Zakarya, son of Khawaja Sohail, a resident of Henjerwal, had committed suicide by hanging himself on June 23 after he missed the ‘mission’ assigned to him while playing PUBG. A mobile phone was found on a bed near the body with the game running.

The boy had appeared in matriculation examinations and used to play the game for many hours a day. His father also confirmed his obsession with the online game.

The official wrote that the PUBG was an online multiplayer battle royale game that had gained immense popularity among the youth. “The game has influenced the youth and changes in behaviour have been observed after ‘failing the mission’.”

The letter read that excessive violence could trigger aggressive thoughts, causing violent behavior; addiction to complete the mission caused pain, agony and anxiety, resulting in depression and stress; the players spent more time in playing the PUBG, which meant they ended up becoming less socially active and sitting in front of the screen for too long caused disruption in sleep pattern, resulting in deterioration of physical and mental health.

Across the border

According to media reports, homicide and self-harm tendencies have been linked with PUBG addiction from other parts of the world as well. In December 2021, a teenage boy not only kidnapped his cousin before murdering him but also escorted his family and relatives for four days for his search in Rajasthan, India. He had re-created a crime scene influenced by PUBG game addiction, authorities had claimed

A month earlier, in Madhya Pardesha, India, a minor boy murdered a Grade 10 student over a dispute of 50 rupees in connection with PUBG while in August, a teenager from Mumbai ran away from home after spending Rs1 million on PUBG from his mother’s account.

In April 2021, a 13-year-old was murdered over a PUBG related dispute, while in August 2020, three PUBG players beat a man to death in IIOJK after the latter had asked them to stop making noise. In September 2019, a 21-year-old in Karnataka beheaded his own father after the latter stopped him from playing PUBG while in July that year, a 15-year-old boy stabbed his 19-year-old elder brother with scissors to death for scolding him over playing PUBG excessively.

More to it than meets the eye

PUBG is notoriously popular amongst youth in  South Asia. The reason for its popularity is that this game doesn’t require a large memory space on the phone or high internet bandwidth, bringing it within the reach of youngsters in low-income countries. This is in contrast to multiplayer shooting games such as Call of Duty which are mostly played on expensive Playstation and Xbox consoles.

There are millions of PUBG players worldwide and the instances of suicides and murders linked with PUBG Mobile are an exception. While a relationship exists between aggression levels and playing violent video games, it is not quite straightforward. Correlation doesn't imply that a cause and effect relationship exists. It is most probable that individuals prone to violence or exhibiting internalizing features like social withdrawal or being sad and irritable might be resorting to play video games as means to escape their reality or to channelize their hostile tendencies. A number of studies have labeled PUBG as an addiction that young men and women might be using to cope with depression and anxiety.

Dr Uroosa Talib, Consultant Psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at Karwan-e-Hayat Psychiatric Care and Rehabilitation Centre states that media violence is only one of the many factors that contribute to societal violence and is certainly not the most important one. Media violence researchers have repeatedly noted this. If violent video games cause increases in aggression, violent crime rates in the US would be increasing instead of decreasing.

Dr Kiran Bashir Ahmad, Head of Department at the Institute of Professional Psychology, Bahria University Karachi Campus and Clinical Psychologist states that the anatomy of violent video games on the whole needs to be taken into account while linking it with the mindset of the gamer who got addicted to the game. Parenting styles are another important variable. In a household where a teenager is growing up, conflicts and issues with authority are bound to come up sooner or later. Add to this, lesser avenues for the sublimation of aggressive impulses, poor coping strategies, little or no hobbies, and routine exposure to video gaming and you have a recipe for disaster in the making. While psychological research shows a strong link of violent video games with aggressive and impulsive outbursts, these are heightened further in the case of teenagers spending uncontrolled and prolonged timings in the gaming arena. Any violent video game played continually during a period where the teenager or even adult in question is already psychologically vulnerable due to a stressful environment is extremely likely to have adverse consequences. Most research on the topic in Pakistan also seems to suggest that more than one hour per day of continuous gaming is detrimental to mental health.

Professor Dr Farah Malik of Department of Applied Psychology at Punjab University Lahore said that the problems of violence and self-harm had multiple underlying causes. She said that the triggering causes might be different from the ones that manifest on the surface. “You cannot simply point the finger towards PUBG because a teenager murdered his whole family after being stopped from playing the game.”

“One must look at the overall extremist tendencies and frustration prevalent in those behind such actions. Such incidents need to be looked from a wider lens and holistically,” she added.

A psychologist from Noor University Lahore Dr Ali Imran says that it is true that the teenagers were fascinated by heroism and content games like PUBG offered and such games could trigger their emotions in manner that was ‘upside down’. “But those teenagers whose senses were blurred to the level that they failed to look into the consequences of the steps they took after being triggered by these games had bipolar tendencies dominant in them.”

Such teenagers were hardly 1 out of 10000, Imran said. He said that each crime had a motive. Pointing out the motive on the surface is an easy way and digging down into it is a tedious job and is the work of researchers. Explaining it further, he said that there were various sorts of addictions, chemical and non-chemical. Online games are an example of non-chemical addiction. If an addiction is interrupted, it leads to frustration, he added.

Another psychologist Dr Naumana Ijaz said that 20 years ago, after a long debate in which thousands of articles were produced on request of psychologists, a bill had been tabled before legislatures in United States. The legislators agreed in the bill that any such online content that contained pornography and aggression, the children’s exposure to it must be restricted under parental control.

She also said that if the evidences were being received in Pakistan indicating the online game promoting aggressive or any other harming behaviours, the government should bring the matter before the parliament.

Even so, Federal Investigation Agency Additional Director Shahid Hassan, who has served in the cyber crime cell, said that the harm of spending longer time on screen by children were countless from impact on their overall health, growth, vitality and mental soundness. He also quoted various discussions he had with nutritionists and experts while interacting as anti-cyber crime cell officer at different forums. He quoted other dangers of unchecked prolonged presence of children involved in online violent games like PUBG varied from blackmailing, child pornography, harassment and fraud among others. He said that over the years these complaints are increasing continuously. At the moment, their magnitude has that the department had started feeling a huge gap between their capacity to deal with these.

Video games: an easy scapegoat

Video games have been an easy target for critics elsewhere too. For instance, after the 2019 mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio where a death total was 29, the House Minority Leader Kevin MacCarthy suggested that the massacre had been fueled by video games. According to him, video games ‘dehumanized individuals’ and thus were responsible for nurturing violence.

Similar sentiments were thereon echoed by other leaders following the shooting too. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick McCarthy also made a statement to press alleging, “We’ve seen from studies, shown before, what it does to individuals…you can see the actions within video games.”

Lawmakers in the US have cited video games as a source of violence in the past as well. For instance, in 1999 after the Columbine shooting, Jeff Sessions, who was the time a Republican Senator, also blamed video games for the incidents. After the Parkland attack in 2018, President Donald Trump also blamed video games for causing the country’s deadliest violence.

However, according to in-depth analysis of data, video games have not been shown to increase violence individuals. A study cited by The Guardian, which reanalysed data gathered from more than 21,000 young people around the world states that video games do not lead to violence or aggression.

The same article also cites another report published by the Royal Society Open Science journal found that only a miniscule correlation between gaming and aggression could be found and it was below the threshold of what qualified as a ‘small effect.’