Inside the Blue Whale

Inside the Blue Whale
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The suicide game as a legend of the digital age

FOR SOME WEEKS now, we have been assailed with news of an internet game called the Blue Whale, and how it is spreading among young adults and teens. In this game, so the narrative goes, every player is asked to perform a number of tasks across 50 days, most of which involve taking risks or harming oneself, leading eventually to the final task — suicide.

So far, a number of suicide cases from across India have been attributed to the game. We have had media reports, police versions and ministers —all of them talking about the game. We have had parents asking for a ban. In Mumbai, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis told the state Assembly that a probe will be conducted to locate the ‘master controllers’ of the game and the location of its servers. But what exactly do you ban? What server do you go looking for? The game, contrary to what many believe, is not available to be downloaded as a file. It is apparently invite-only and exists on social media.

In all probability, the game is a hoax, an urban legend of this digital age. The stories of its emergence in Russia and its spread to other nations have all been based on hearsay and rumour. Here in India, the urban literate classes readily swallow stories about the game. There is probably a reason for this. Most parents today grew up in pre-internet times, and news of such a game confirms all the dark suspicions they have had about technology. Coupled with the fact that when a suicide happens, nobody is willing to accept the mental distress that led to it, but are always looking for an external factor—in this case, the Blue Whale game—to blame.

When parents find their children developing strange behavioural traits like turning sullen or moody, it may not be because they are secretly playing an internet death game. But because , well, they are teenagers. Some aspects of the game apparently involve listening to music and contemplating death—something many teenagers do anyway. One of the suicides linked to the Blue Whale involved a 14-year-old boy in Mumbai, whose phone apparently had a photo with the caption, ‘Soon the only thing you would be left with will be a picture of me’ . If you go through any teen’s phone, you will find several such seemingly existential captions. In another case, involving a 16-year-old in Kerala, the victim’s mother apparently told a local channel that he had begun to travel alone, and that he would be up all night.

In one viral video, an aunt in Delhi finds her seven-year-old niece asking for the spelling of ‘blue whale’ so that she can search for it, claiming someone from her school van asked her to. It is possible that someone did ask her, either in jest or in all-seriousness, although the so-called ‘curators’ of the game are supposed to exist only online. But it is more likely that stories on the game in the media is the source of information for children. There have also been reports about the rapid rise of Google searches on the game in India. But this could be happening not because the game is getting popular, but because panicky mothers and fathers are looking it up.

The problem of connecting suicides to games is lack of proof. Someone contemplating suicide will search for like-minded people, and social media happens to be the most convenient place to do so.

We might fear what children are upto online. But they can be a lot smarter than we credit them for. In one hilarious exchange involving a Blue Whale ‘curator’ and a teen Russian user, available on Facebook and reported in Bloomberg, the curator asks the girl to ‘cut out a whale’ . The girl draws a cat instead. The Russian words for ‘cat’ and ‘whale’— kot and kit , respectively—are similar. When the enraged administrator threatened to send people to harm her, she responded, ‘Let me come down to meet them—the elevator isn’t running and they may not have the energy to kill me once they get to the 8th floor.’ Nobody, of course, showed up.