It’s hard to imagine anything less likely to become a political weapon than PlayerUnknown's Battleground, the first-ever battle royale game commonly referred to as PUBG. The video game has been targeted by governments due its violence. (Pakistan once banned it as a health risk due to its addictive nature.) But these are issues with the game itself.
PUBG is best known in the United States as the game that pioneered the battle royale formula seemingly perfected by the endless dances and candy-colored aesthetic of Fortnite, although PUBG remains more popular in Asia. But in early September, PUBG found itself as the latest piece of pop culture and technology to come into 2020’s harried political crosshairs when it was banned in India. As international tensions rise, should gamers worry about a ban in the United States as well?
Ongoing tensions grew fraught in June at the Line of Actual Control, the demarcation between China and India in the Himalayas, when Chinese and Indian forces faced off in a deadly, gun-free skirmish. 20 Indian soldiers and 43 Chinese soldiers were killed in fistfights or with batons and knives.
India went on to ban 118 Chinese apps in early September, including PUBG Mobile due to the game’s investment partner Tencent. Considering that India is the game’s largest market, the PUBG Corporation is eager to shed any ties to China so it see the app restored in India.
Teens in rural India playing PUBG earlier this year. Pallava Bagla/Corbis News/Getty Images
Economic warfare is preferable to actual physical violence, but the timing of this conflict couldn’t be worse for transnational Chinese tech.
Varun Bapna, Vice President of the South Delhi-based computer hardware company Amkette, which makes bluetooth controllers that allow for console-style gaming on mobile, tells Inverse that this latest fight is “more of the same really."
"Tiktok and WeChat were already on the block," Bapna says. "PUBG is just another milestone down that path.”
Bans put "users and companies at the mercy of whims from governments."
It’s a sentiment that’s being felt around the world: Chinese tech is seen as indistinguishable from the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese state, which therefore makes it a potential threat to state security. Relations between the United States and China are extremely complex, at times resembling the Cold War between the U.S and the Soviet Union. That’s led some analysts to deem the fights over PUBG and TikTok a new form of “techno-nationalism.”
Andrés Arretia, the Director of Consumer Privacy Engineering at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, calls the battles “unfortunate.”
“It's driving the Internet to split up by countries and regions," he tells Inverse. "It reduces competition and innovation opportunities, it makes it easier for big companies to further encroach their power, and it puts users and companies at the mercy of whims from governments."
Arretia thinks that American gamers should pay attention to those whims.
“Although it's important to protect users' privacy and security, it's important not to mix politics and xenophobia with it," he says. "If governments are serious about protecting our privacy and security, they should pass strong policies that do so for everyone, and follow up with meaningful enforcement."
While it’s one thing to try and circumvent a specific product ban, like Apple’s banning of Fortnite, it’s another thing entirely to try and get around a government’s ban.
In India, Bapna says that while virtual private networks (VPNs) could offer a workaround, “the critical mass of players are unlikely to cough up the cash required for low latency / high performance VPNs." Most of them would rather play a different game than have to pay extra for a somewhat complex application that allows them to play the game.
"Since PUBG relies on friends like all battle royales, and for the community to be online, this likely means the death of PUBG for now,” he says. (The game still appears to be available on PC, however.)
Arrieta suggests that most important thing is "talking to your government representatives to make sure that the protections are clear and not politically or xenophobic driven." Because if unchecked, these kinds of xenophobic sentiments targeting Chinese tech companies could eventually lead to even more techno-nationalism in the global stage.
While China's ByteDance Ltd., which has majority ownership of TikTok, is looking to partner with Oracle Corp. to avoid the executive order from President Donald Trump that could ban the app in the United States, Tencent remains vulnerable. Could Tencent be next? It seems possible for the not-so-distant future.