The internet boom in India led to an exponential growth of online shopping which has been followed by a boom in the online gaming industry. In 2022 alone, there were 93 crore total internet users in India out of which 48 crore were online gaming users. Online games can be casual games, E sports or real money games. Understandably, a lot of money and economic heft has been acquired by the online gaming industry with online gaming, seeing more than 30 per cent growth annually. Online real money-based gaming contests see participation of lakhs of people at one time which necessitates proper state regulation of online gaming in India by state and central governments, as per respective jurisdiction.
The fact that online gaming has captured the attention of close to 50 crore Indians, most of them young adults in age group 18-25, warrants a deeper understanding of online games, especially a certain class of online games, called online ‘real money games’. Online poker, online rummy, online casino games and Fantasy cricket are some of the prominent online real money games in India. There are over 10 crore registered real money based online game users in India, as per a Deloitte & Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports 2022 report.
Indoor games such as chess or cards and outdoor sports, such as cricket or football are an important form of mental and physical exercise that have many positive attributes such as building physical strength, building, mental skills, building, teamwork, teamwork, inducing discipline and removing stress. The ‘online’ versions, however, especially online rummy, online poker, fantasy online cricket games that require a user to pay before playing cannot be said to instil the same positive qualities as above mentioned sports and games. In online real money, games, wager or monetary stakes are placed on events that are uncertain. It means placing a bet on a future event in hope of winning money. Oxford dictionary describes wager as an arrangement to raise money on the result of a particular event. It is synonymous with betting. Such wagers or bets are placed in rummy, poker and fantasy games.
Earliest, judgments in this regard are the two Chamarbaugwala judgments of 1957, where Supreme Court had held gambling is not protected under article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution or the right to freedom of trade and commerce. Another relevant judgment in this regard is M.J. Sivani & Ors. Vs. State of Karnataka (1995) where Supreme Court ruled that a game of mixed chance and skill is gaming, in the context of video games. In Satyanarayana judgment, Supreme Court has said that rummy is a game of skill. Regarding online poker, Hon’ble High Court of Gujarat has said it is a game of chance and akin to gambling whereas West Bengal has called it a game of skill. Recently, High Court of Rajasthan in Ravindra Singh Chaudhary vs. Union of India case (2019) held that fantasy sport is legal and a ‘game of skill’, not ‘betting’. If conflicting judgments on online poker are considered, it gives ground to the argument that online rummy or poker en masse cannot be called simply games of skill as playing patterns differ as per gaming platform, players and the big data that is deployed behind the scenes to make a game more and more engaging, even addictive to an extent.
In this context, honest opinion of anyone who has ever played ‘real money games’ like Rummy indoors or Fantasy cricket online must also be considered and a wider survey involving youth players of such games be conducted. This is because it already involves crores of real youths engaged in gaming and reports of monetary loss/addiction/even suicide reported in print and online media time to time cannot be brushed aside or turned a blind eye to. An interview with players of online real money predictive games revealed how the players themselves term these games as predominantly based on chance or luck. At the same time, during the interview, they admitted skill is involved as well. Classifying cash-based games where wager is involved purely a game of skill may be too early too soon. Thus, rummy, for instance, cannot purely be called a game of skill if it cannot be called a pure game of chance as well. Like most things in human life, it falls in a grey area.
As a society as well as at the level of state, we must think about what course we take in the future, say post 2050. Should such gaming become mainstream even if it is legally allowed by the state? Gaming is a big enabler in promoting positive attributes in the sportsman or gamer involved, whether played offline or online. Fantasy games like fantasy cricket or online real money games like online rummy and online poker do not diffuse stress, which is one of the attributes of a sport or a game. There are statistics that show that they induce more stress and addiction in the players to win the wagered money back. As a society, should we not find better avenues of engaging the creativity and skill of young adults of the country or even better avenues to satisfy the entertainment and enjoyment needs of the young adult population should be pondered over.
Encourage games that actually involve skill such as EA sports, FIFA, GTA etc.
Betting and gambling are subject under state governments and states should decide whether to allow and to what extent online real money games.
Online real game industry should be brought in tax net. In this context, the 28 per cent GST on this sector is a welcome move to check spread of ‘gamification of gambling’.
The Public Gambling Act 1867 is very old and must be amended by Parliament in light of emergence of the huge online real money-based gaming industry post Covid.
Court judgments on online real money games as being ‘games of skill’ must be revisited. As common sense and interview with users/players demonstrate that these are predominantly based on predictions and wager is involved on each ball, toss, player etc in fantasy cricket for instance.
As far as regulatory aspect is concerned, MeITY’s directive of April 2023 that emphasises self-regulation of the online gaming industry must be made more strict as this model of regulating online games is not sufficient alone.
The writer is an assistant professor at Swami Atmanand Government Model College Bilaspur and M.Phil from JNU.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.