On 6th April 2023, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) came out with new online gaming rules to regulate online gaming space in India, which has long been struggling to navigate the policy uncertainty, demanding a clear stance from the government so that they can innovate and leverage the huge online gaming market of India. MeitY reiterated the importance of self-regulation by describing it as the soft touch regulation that will give way to innovation.
The internet and its affordability has changed the way we consume content and also the way we play games. Now, the games on mobile phones are not just snake games but games with more immersive and engaging experiences and gamechilling became a daily routine during the lockdown. India is a huge online gaming market, as PM Modi recognised the need for hackathons to tap the potential of Indian innovators. The gameconomy is estimated to reach $5 billion by 2025 from $1.5 billion.
Gaming Gone Wrong: From Fun to Addiction
Despite the massive opportunities for the online gaming industry, online games have long been criticised for their negative impact on society, especially children and other vulnerable sections. There are various concerns related to the same.
Many dangerous trends went viral through online gaming platforms like Blue Whale Game driving children towards self-harm to the extent of committing suicide and sharing their compromised photos. A 13-year-old boy from Madhya Pradesh committed suicide after losing Rs 40,000 in an online game. User harms, whether psychological, self-harm or financial harm, have been a nightmare for policymakers in the country.
Change in children’s behaviour was observed, as addiction to online games took a significant toll on their minds. The addictive nature of games forces children to hook to screens for hours. The very nature of online games is that they do not require you to collect a team and that it can be played from the comfort of home.
Digital natives are more tech-savvy than their parents, empowering them to bypass safety features and make in-app purchases themselves; for example, a 16-year-old boy spent Rs 36 lakhs of his mother on online games. Many individuals, young and old, have fallen prey to significant financial losses due to online gaming addiction.
Online gaming platforms are accessed mainly by the younger generation, as 60% of the user base of online gamers in India is under 25 years of age. According to KPMG’s Media and Entertainment report, the user base for gaming surpassed 365 million in March 2020. Hence, it becomes crucial to check the age appropriateness of the content that children are accessing. Many online gaming apps have faced criticism due to hosting age-inappropriate content, for example, violence, sexual/explicit content, smoking and drinking, without any measures to protect children from accessing these content.
Recently, during the IPL, many offshore gambling and betting ads were shown on these platforms and even in public spaces. They sometimes pose as sports websites, for instance, Fairplay News, Parimatch, 1xBet, Betway and Wolf 777. Despite government advisory to ban these surrogate advertisements, they continue to function normally. Online games based on chance for winning a prize is categorised as gambling and hence, many a times blurs the line between online games and gambling.
New Online Gaming Rules:
Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2023 introduced rules for online gaming platforms to regulate the space. This new set of rules is a breakthrough in the space and an effort to balance innovation and the protection of users. The new rules have defined ‘online games’ as a ‘game that is offered on the Internet and is accessible by a user through a computer resource or an intermediary’. It has also given online games the status of intermediaries in line with social media intermediaries, therefore, putting on some obligations on online gaming intermediaries.
Online games have been classified as permissible and non-permissible online games; for example, games involving wagering and user harm in their content and games that create any addictive consequences for children are outrightly prohibited and are not permitted. It seeks to ban any gambling in the online space in India.
Rules establish self-regulatory bodies (SROs) to verify online gaming intermediaries as permissible online games. However, it assures the body will represent various stakeholders and not be industry biased. People with knowledge in the field, like experts in mental health, industry representatives, individuals dealing with child rights and others. SROs are mandated to protect users from harm, including self-harm and psychological harm, particularly protecting children through parental controls and age-rating mechanisms.
Rules also mandate SROs to take measures to safeguard users from addiction, financial losses and fraud. Also, measures like repeated warning messages at a higher frequency when users have long gaming sessions with a feature to allow users to disengage themselves after a user-defined time and money limit is breached have also been included.
The new gaming rules of 2023 make it mandatory for gaming intermediaries to take steps to verify the user’s identity and get KYC done when users want to use the money for the first time. The rules mandate online gaming intermediaries make efforts not to host, publish or share online games that cause users harm. Rules in an attempt to hinder the growth of illegal gambling and betting sites and platforms prohibit intermediaries from hosting or displaying advertisements, surrogate advertisements and promotions of online games, which are not permitted.
User harm has been defined as any detrimental effect to a user or child, including self-harm or psychological harm. However, it does not address the various types of harms such as physical, mental or emotional and leaves it open-ended for interpretation.
Wranga: A Digital Safety Initiative
Wranga, a rating and review app, is a startup that is way ahead of the legislation in identifying inappropriate content and addictive nature of online games. It reviews and provides age ratings for online games, OTT platforms content and apps for children. A comprehensive review mechanism of content reviewing ensures that parents have the right to make informed choices for their children when deciding what their children should consume.
In this fast-paced digital world, it is very difficult to keep track of content being created; hence, online space is a constant source of concern for parents to protect their children from age-inappropriate content they might encounter in the digital world. Also, online gaming apps have no standard measure to differentiate between users- whether they are children and adults. Therefore, a risk-based approach is in the best interest of the child.
There has been a significant anomaly when we check the age rating provided by the IRAC(International Age Rating Coalition) in PlayStore and apps age rating for their apps; for instance, the age-rating provided by the PlayStore for Ludo King is 3 years and above whereas the age rating provided by its parent company is 13 years and above. Here, the role of platforms like Wranga becomes very crucial.
The Wranga review framework is quite extensive and aims to leave out no form of content that can impact the psychology of kids in a positive or negative manner.Wranga has reviewed almost 300 games over five categories and 51 subcategories until now, making it one of the most comprehensive frameworks for reviewing online gaming platforms or apps. Wranga categorises content based upon parameters of (negative or positive), safety, consumerism, violence, abusive language, sexual content, the risk to privacy, stereotypes/ sexism and prohibited content and hence, ensuring that parents recommend only age-sensitive content to their children.
The new gaming rules notified by the Ministry of Information and Technology have mapped out several parameters that should be looked at by different gaming companies and other stakeholders, in order to ensure safer online gaming experiences, especially for children. The various parameters that the rules lay out to look at are varied. For instance, under financial transaction safety, Wrang assesses is there any limit on how much a user spends on an online game? Are there measures to safeguard users against the risk of gaming addiction, financial loss and financial fraud, including repeated warning messages at higher frequency beyond a reasonable duration for a gaming session and provision to enable a user to exclude himself upon user-defined limits being reached for time or money spent and classifying online games through an age rating mechanism. The Wranga review framework as mentioned above already has comprehensive guidelines incorporated in terms of categories and subcategories. As far as a detailed analysis is concerned, review framework keenly scans through online games for any shortcomings on the similar lines. It follows the given parameters in order to gather information if the game contains or not the following features- parental control for financial transactions, secure payment method for in-game purchases, premium SMS access and tap and pay feature. One thing that the framework can imbibe on the recommendations of the new rules is KYC updation (mandated by the RBI guidelines), this will help to ensure that the source of the payment made online is verified and it will also help to recognise the exact age of the user. This will help to achieve two goals- reduce fraudulent online transactions and users only of a certain age will be able to make accounts on the gaming platforms.
Along with this, the framework also reviews the content based on the concerns of the online gaming world and highlighted by the new online gaming rules- prohibitive content that can be found while gaming. The various parameters relate to suicide, hardcore sex, paedophilia, rape threat/rape, excessive drinking, drugs and smoking including its glorification, if the content of the game promotes terrorism and/ or violence against the state, whether there’s anything that disrespects the nation or its symbols, or does it contain any content that is banned by the law/court. One thing that the review framework can improvise from what has been highlighted in the new online gaming rules is the concept of user-harm in a more streamlined manner.
There are several measures highlighted by the new online gaming rules released by the Ministry that already have a cusp in the extensive Wranga review framework and are used for reviewing online games. The concerns according to the rules to look out for are online game addiction, prevention against frauds encountered while playing online games, inclusion of age-appropriate content in the game. Along with harnessing the benefits of this already laid out framework, Wranga’s framework can imbibe some more features from the rules to make it more comprehensive and accurate. For example, the framework can include whether the game gives warning signals after a certain period of time to curb online gaming addiction; under financial safety, if the game involves any wagering or outcome or if there’s any limit on spending money.
Wranga: A friend and a Guide
Wranga is an app, guide, and friend for parents, policymakers, and now the SROs. The appointed SROs will have to ensure that measures to safeguard children, including measures for parental or access control and classifying online games through age-rating mechanisms, based on the nature and type of content have to be taken into account. The Wranga review framework already has these parameters on the basis of which trained reviewers review any and every content found online. Wranga can help SROs to ensure that they follow the measures mandated by rules, like ensuring that they do not harm children, are not addictive, and that the average time spent is low. Thus, Wranga can supplement the effort of SROs in analysing the apps and reviewing them independently in an unbiased manner.