The idea of social distancing is driving people crazy around the world. From athletes and gym-freaks to workaholics – people were just not ready for it. Except gamers.
They are witnessing an unprecedented situation where they are confined to their rooms and no one – majorly parents – is asking them to get up and move around. It is a life they always wished for, including Vipan Raj Singh. Since he is on work-from-home, Mr. Singh cannot wait for the clock to announce 6:30 pm. The shift gets over and the 27-year-old resident of Srinagar gets started with a console in his hands.
“To the world, social distancing might be new,” says Singh, “but to me, that has been my whole life.” Putting an extra effort, he explains with a reference to Counter-Strike, a multiplayer shooter video game: “when we throw a grenade, it works on the spacing concept. If you understand that, you can save your life.”
Since India went under 21-day lockdown to fight spread of COVID-19, the online gaming host websites have seen a dramatic surge in the traffic. One of the leading portals, WinZO recorded 30 per cent surge in tier-1 traffic in the first week of the lockdown. Paytm First Games also recorded a two times increase in the number of users in India. However, this data is conclusive to Kashmir due to the on-going restrictions on high-speed mobile data internet connectivity.
Currently, there are more than 114 million online mobile gamers in India, as per Statista, an online statistics portal; the number is expected to shoot up to 174 million by 2024.
Mr. Singh started gaming when he was eight when his father, who was also a gamer, brought him an Atari VCS. But he “really got into gaming” and grew an “ever-lasting fondness for counter-strike” when he was in the eighth standard.
“When I asked him what does England look like, he replied, ‘The world looks like Kashmir.'”
In 2008 and 2010 lockdowns – during civilian uprisings – sneaking out in relaxation hours, he would attend LAN [Local Area Network] parties organised at a friend’s place. However, since he entered in a new phase of his life – a job in a media company in Bangalore – he was driven away from serious gaming.
Now, the pandemic has changed it all. With plenty of time by his side, he feels good to be back. He always believed that one isn’t sure if tomorrow will come; he [or she] should enjoy the today. “I took to gaming from that perspective,” he says, “and the pandemic has intensified it when we really don’t know if there is going to be a tomorrow.”
Moreover, to this lockdown with limited internet – there is a bright side. The old friends, with whom he had been disconnected for long, are back in life. One such friend is Tafheem Qadri.
When I called Mr. Qadri, his number was switched off. He texted me: “I’m in a game. [give me ] a couple of minutes.” When I later asked him on text if he is enjoying the lockdown as a gamer, he replied with a meme.
After twelve years of gaming, Mr. Qadri is “used to this life”, where he is confined to a room. He is sure that gamers are certainly putting up in the current lockdown better than others. “Social distancing and the you-cannot-go-out thing doesn’t affect me,” he says. “I know people are bored and frustrated because they don’t know what to do – but that’s what I do; I sit at one place and play.”
Around 2012, when the government started shutting down the internet frequently in Kashmir, and later amplified in 2016 – Mr. Qadri says a lot of his friends lost interest in gaming as it wasn’t feasible anymore. But now many retired gamers – who either joined jobs or got married – are returning. “Larger the community, more the fun.”
And there are more dimensions to it. In online gaming, where Mr. Qadri specifically prefers Europe servers, he gets to know a lot of players whose countries are worst hit by the coronavirus. In a pandemic, it makes him feel better. A couple of days ago, he was playing with a Kashmiri settled in the UK, where more than 38,000 people have been tested positive for the infection.
“When I asked him what does England look like, he replied, ‘The world looks like Kashmir,’” says Mr. Qadri.
Like many gamers, the parents of Mr. Qadri, he says, never approved of his gaming-lifestyle. But lately, they have “kind of validated” it. “There is hysteria among people who are bored to death,” he says, “at least I’m not stressed like them.”
For long, the gaming-community has been stereotyped as nerds and introverts. Mr. Singh also remembers people telling him for a long time to “turn off the desktop and get a life.”
Today, he can get back at them. But he says he won’t. He would rather ask them to come and play a game with him.
Yashraj Sharma is an Assistant Editor at The Kashmir Walla.