In November 2019, 14-year-old Riley Howard, a high school student from Connecticut, US< was honoured for saving the life of a fellow teenager. While playing an online multiplayer game on his computer, Riley sensed that a fellow 13-year old gamer was feeling a little off and drew him out. As it turned out, the teen was depressed and wanted to end his life. Riley talked to the teen for hours and convinced him to call the suicide hotline, thereby, saving his online friend’s life.

In November 2020, exactly one year on, Tamil Nadu banned all forms of online gaming involving money, citing protection of youth as the main reason. It is ironic how a platform that was used by a teenager to prevent another from committing suicide was banned for promoting it.

In an unsurprising move, just eight months later, the Madras High Court struck down the amendment that banned such games, calling the ban capricious, irrational, excessive and disproportionate. The court noted that the ban was based on “anecdotal reference to some suicides and the subjective perception of the evil of addiction” and lacked scientific rigour.

The court also noted that the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act, 2021 could be seen as a product of a sense of morality, instead of empirical evidence, and an attempt to “play to the galleries in election season”. Such strong language from the court is in line with the forward-looking approach of the country in recent years to foster innovation.

Recently, six years of Digital India was celebrated and speaking on the occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the next decade would be India’s “techade”. He emphasised his belief in youth innovation and called on home-grown start-ups to make India self-reliant and a hub of innovation. Blanket bans like the one that was struck down are diametrically opposed to the Prime Minister’s vision.

Not only does the ban put the home-grown gaming and gamifiction start-ups and their investors at a disadvantage, it can discourage young innovators from investing time and effort in an enterprise that may be lost to a blanket ban.

A welcome sign

The High Court’s judgment is a welcome sign that we are ready to embrace change and a scientific temper in order to put the country on top of the list of global innovators.

Online gaming has emerged as a sunrise sector in India, growing faster than any other segment in the media and entertainment industry since 2019. The pandemic has meant lockdown restrictions everywhere, which has resulted in isolation and lack of social activity for billions. People have turned to online games as the preferred source of entertainment, with some gaming companies experiencing 100-200 per cent increase in their users.

There are currently more than 500 million online gamers in India and the number is expected to grow to 657 million by 2025. Considering only 780.27 million people have access to broadband, it is hard to dispute the popularity of gaming in the country. The industry is expected to nearly double its market size from $1.8 billion currently, to $3.9 billion by 2025.

This not only means huge contribution to India’s economy, but also two lakh new jobs, new training programmes and a workforce which is ready for the future of work and future of jobs.

Apart from the increasing smartphone penetration and affordable data, what has drawn increasing number of people to online gaming is the competitiveness, excitement and recognition it offers, normally associated with physical sports. As people adjust to the new normal, new ways of engagement and entertainment have made their way into the mainstream. People are moving away from traditional entertainment in theatres with OTT and gaming becoming the preferred choices.

Digital has transformed the way we consume information as classrooms were moved online and entertainment became mobile. Eighty-five per cent of gamers in India prefer to use their mobile devices for gaming. In fact, in the first three quarters of 2020, India accounted for 17 per cent of the global mobile game downloads.

The tremendous reach and popularity of online gaming also makes it the most likely industry to innovate in the learning and education sector.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has indicated that 50 per cent of the workforce will need skilling, reskilling or upskilling to prepare them for the jobs of the future. The future is here and we are 290 million people working in industry and service sectors.

No traditional form of learning or education can help in skilling 50 per cent of that number to ready them for the future of work and jobs, especially in a post-Covid world.

Gaming revolution

A progressive policy framework is needed to ensure compliance from and, at the same time, growth of the gaming and gamification industry which alone will be worth over $12 billion by the end of the year.

Although it is early days, gaming revolution could be next big thing in the country’s progress towards the $5 trillion economy goal, after the IT revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Game-based learning and gamification of learning and skilling are required to achieve this ambitious target. With games that teach and skill, we can reach even the remotest areas and provide access to information and training to those who need it most. Game-based learning is not just fun and more engaging it also proven to be more effective at retention and recall, while gamification incentivises better performance.

To make India self-reliant and realise the Digital India dream, there’s need for early and widespread adoption of emerging technologies in addition to skilled manpower across sectors. The gaming start-ups of today can be educators and enablers of tomorrow.

The writer is Distinguished Public Policy Professional, and former Member MAG-UN IGF