The 50 tasks of fatality: Is Blue Whale Challenge really killing youngsters in India?
Serious risk or urban legend? How real and potent is the threat posed by the Blue Whale online game, and should parents be worried? HT finds out.
The office of West Bengal police in West Midnapore was in a tizzy. A man from Garbeta had claimed that his teenaged son was playing the dreaded Blue Whale challenge game and had cut himself to make the impression of a whale on his arm.”The media had also gathered at his house, sensing a story,” said a senior police official in West Midnapore. “But during interrogation, the boy confessed that he was not playing the game. He had read of the steps that were believed to be a part of the game. A friend sent him a photo of the impression of the whale that players supposedly have to make on their body on Facebook and he cut himself to do it.”
The Blue Whale challenge – a suicide game where the player is given various tasks by an administrator over a 50-day period, ranging from isolation to self-harm and ultimately suicide – is not really new. Believed to have originated in Russia, the game has allegedly claimed over a 100 lives in Russia and Europe. The alleged creator of the game, Philipp Budeikin is in prison in Russia. Ilya Sidorov, believed to be an administrator of the game, has also reportedly been arrested in Moscow. The game, initially believed to have been available on the social networking site VKontakte, is said to have got its name from the popular belief that blue whales sometimes beach themselves to die.
India woke up to the Blue Whale alarm, after a boy in Mumbai’s Andheri area committed suicide last month. Newspaper reports quoted friends as saying that he was playing the suicide game. Though the police have as yet found nothing to link his death to the game, the words “Blue Whale challenge” made an entry in popular discourse – triggering both curiosity and panic. Reports of other Blue-Whale related incidents followed– from Solapur, Dehradun, Indore, Kerala, West Bengal, Delhi, Jaipur and Punjab. The police found nothing to confirm the allegations, and in many cases, the Blue Whale bogey raised by friends or school authorities of the victim, was vehemently denied by families. As in Indore, where school authorities had said a class 7 student of their school had admitted to playing the game, after they prevented him from committing suicide. Speaking to HT a few days after the incident, the boy’s mother said that while her son did try to kill himself, he had not been playing the game. “There was some misunderstanding at the school. My son is an avid gamer, but he didn’t play Blue Whale. The teachers simply asked him ‘Do you play games’ and he said yes. They specifically meant the Blue Whale game, but my son didn’t understand that.”
The game had become something of a stigma, with the result that families of alleged victims were eager to distance themselves from the game, further pushing the challenge and the cases connected with it, into the realm of the grey. Much of what is known about the game is from heresy.
“It is understandable. If a family admits that their child has been playing the game it will make them headline news,” explains Rajiv Makhni, HT columnist, managing editor (technology), NDTV and anchor of Gadget Guru Cell Guru and Newsnet 3. “As for the police, if they agree that the victim was playing the game, they will be under pressure to find the administrator of the game and put him in prison. Which is very difficult to do since the administrator is hidden behind layers of anonymity and operates in the realm of the dark web.”
In The Dark
Explaining how the game works, Makhni says, “The police is in most cases checking the mobile phone or computer of the victim to find some evidence. But it is not an app or a link that one downloads and plays. The game is mainly played on social media apps, online gaming groups, message boards and online community messaging areas. There are code words that one uses to reach out to the administrators of the game – like F57 or F58 – and these codes keep changing. Once contact has been made, the player and administrator move to a private chatroom. Even the tasks keep changing. So something like getting up at 4:20 am or self-injury, which people are writing about as signs that the kids are playing the game, might not be a part of it anymore, making it difficult to track.”
Interestingly, it is not just in India that cops have been unable to link the suicides with the game. According to an article available on the website of the online fact-checking group Snopes, while there have been allegations of Blue Whale-related deaths in Russia and Europe, investigations found no definite links.
In India, as the police struggled to find concrete evidence to link the deaths with the game, fear gave way to doubt, and stories challenging the Blue Whale theory also started appearing in the news and social media. “There have been instances of teenagers having been bullied into committing suicide. But the idea of a cult-like Blue Whale challenge is a complete fabrication for which no evidence exists,” says Pranesh Prakash, policy director at Centre for Internet and Society, who has also taken to his Twitter handle to express his views. “It seems to be an urban legend. By focussing too much on the game, we are ignoring the real dangers, such as mental health issues in children.”
In Kerala, where two mothers whose sons killed themselves recently, claimed that their children were playing Blue Whale, Kerala police official Manoj Abraham said, “There can be two kinds of depression – sudden or long term. A person with depression often behaves in the same way that the alleged players of the game do – there is a tendency of self-harm, roaming around at night etc. When parents heard of the game, they could associate their sons’ behaviour with it and said they were playing Blue Whale. But we haven’t found any links to the game yet.”
That there is interest in the game can’t be ruled out. A simple search on Facebook throws up links with the hashtag “iamwhale”. Some claim to be playing the game, while others express interest in it. Some users have status messages stating at what level of the game there are in. One of those who claims to have played the game is Navneet Singh (name changed on request), a first year college student in Chandigarh, who says he started playing the Blue Whale challenge game for the thrill of it. “I was curious. Of course I knew that the last step is killing yourself. But I never intended to play till the end. I just wanted to see what exactly happens in the game,” says Singh, who pulled out after playing till the eighth level. His eighth task, says Singh, was to put the line “#iamwhale” as his status on social media. “After I did that people started advising me to stop playing. My parents also got to know. I had to stop,” says Singh. His Facebook wall still has the status and a long thread of comments from friends asking him to stop playing the game. Makhni shares how in a live show with students of prestigious institutes, at least 95 per cent said they were curious to try the game. “A few admitted to having played it for a few levels,” he says.
Supreme Court advocate and cyber law expert Pawan Duggal agrees that the dangers from the game are real. “If we are waiting for some mammoth figure like lakhs of children being affected, then that has not happened yet. But children are playing this game,” he says. “In the last one month I have had six parents from the Delhi-NCR region coming to me for advice because their children were playing the game. The kids, all teenagers, were at various levels of the game – some were in the thirties, some in forties (Level 50, in which the player has to kill himself, is the last level of the game). Some bore marks of self-injury.”
Delhi-based psychological counselor Geetanjali Kumar also says that she has had alarmed parents coming to her. “Parents are reading about the game. So whenever, there is a deviation in the child’s behaviour, they fear he is playing the Blue Whale game. They are trying to monitor the child’s activities more and making the children defensive,” she says. Kumar gives the example of one child who had been brought to her with marks of self-inflicted injury. “During counseling he did finally admit that he was into gaming, and that he had contemplated suicide, but he did not mention the Blue Whale game. Self injury can also be a symptom of depression.”
But to say that children are playing the game is not to say that depression is not a major cause of suicide. In fact, experts point out that while curiosity and thrill can be a reason for youngsters to try the game, those who are already depressed are most vulnerable to it. “In the nuclear family set up today, most working parents have little time for the children. When the latter join the game, the first few steps are easy. And when you complete them, you get a high. In some cases I have found that by playing the game and thinking of killing himself, the child wanted to punish the parents. Or it can be an attempt to seek attention,” says Duggal. In the meantime, says Makhni, the administrators have manoeuvred information out of the child which makes it easy for them to track him if he wants to pull out after a few stages. “Then the threats and psychological manipulations starts and for someone who is depressed it might seem easier to just kill himself than go through this.”
Chandigarh student Navneet Singh says that the tasks that were given to him were easy. “I had to draw a whale on a piece of paper, get up at 4.20 am. The administrator sent me some music which I was told to listen to when I woke up, but it wasn’t disturbing or anything. It was soft, happy music, though I don’t know what language it was in,” he says. From his own experience, Singh says he cant figure out how the game can manipulate someone to the extent that one is ready to hurt himself and ultimately commit suicide. “I have read that players are asked to cut themselves to make the image of a whale on their body. I guess it comes later,” he says.
Mumbai-based advocate and cyber law expert Prashant Mali says what we need is digital literacy among parents, a mobile and social media code in homes which takes care of addiction to gadgets. “We need counsellors in schools and for parents to observe their kids for suicidal tendencies or game addictions.” Duggal advises parents to spend quality non-gadget time with their children. Schools need to be aware of the dangers.
Kumar also advises parents to work on building a positive open communication channel with the kids, so that when they express worry, children don’t interpret it as distrust. “Also one needs to find a balance between logic and love,” she says, warning parents against giving in to emotional blackmail by children such as running away from home or self injury to have their demands met. Children too need to be counselled to be able to handle their emotions better, she says.
Ban The Game?
The government too has a role to play, says Duggal. “The parents who came to him were all reluctant to seek the help of the legal system, because they had no belief in it,” he says. “We have no legal framework in our country to tackle this kind of situation. Blue Whale is not the only suicide game out there. It might be the most thrilling, but there are other sites which tell you how to commit suicide. The IT Act 2000 is silent on regulations regarding these games. We need to amend the law to come up with regulations against such games. It also has to frame rules and regulations on the role of intermediary service providers such as Google and Facebook,” he says.
Reacting to the mounting paranoia against the Blue Whale game, the government last week directed these service providers to remove all links to the game. But Delhi High Court lawyer Gurmeet Singh, who has filed a petition in court on the issue, points out that the links are still there. “If you search in Google in less than 0.736 seconds you will get more than 63 links related to the Blue Whale game. There are pages on FB related to this, giving information about the game. And you will find that more than 400-500 people would have ‘liked’ those pages. From the profiles most of these look like Indian kids,” he says.
There have been calls to ban the game altogether, and some states have already done so. But experts say that those who talk of banning the game are not clear on how it works. While links on the game can be removed from social media sites, it will continue to exist in the underground web.
Already, fake games have come up, structured on the Blue Whale model. Chandigarh student Singh says he was provided a “hacked version of the game” by a friend. “I have heard that it is a Russian game, but I didn’t register on any social networking site. My friend just asked for my mobile and uploaded the game on it directly.” But experts say that Singh might have played a fake version, if it was indeed uploaded on his phone, for that’s not how the challenge operates.
Mali says he found which asks you for all positive things to be done. There are also fake curators, or those who were not part of the original group. “All you have to do is know the rules. And then you can communicate to others. So really there is nothing like a fake curator anymore,” says Makhni. This increases the reach of the game.
Then there are cases, like the one in Bengal, where one is playing out the game, without actually being a part of it. “The case in Garbeta is not the only one of its kind. Last week, we had a case in Kharagpore where three girls were encouraging each other to make the impression of the whale on their arms as a mark of friendship and loyalty to each other. Apart from awareness-building exercises against the game, we have now announced that if we come across any such fake cases, we will take action against the kids,” says the West Bengal police official.
Perhaps the only solution, as Makhni points out, is peer-counseling. “In a group of seven youngsters if five say it’s cool let’s do it, all seven will. But if they say it’s a stupid game, it will also act as a deterrent for their friends.”