There are rumors – there are always rumors – about an online game that convinces teenagers to commit suicide. It’s called Blue Whale, and it’s responsible for hundreds of deaths worldwide.
Let’s be clear: there is nothing fundamentally wrong with video games, or any other sort of games. There is a case for immersive violent games desensitizing a person to violence, but there’s little difference between that and exposing children to violent news stories (or, in many parts of the world and some households, the violence they see daily.) Let’s be clear about one other thing: this is NOT a standard game. When most people hear the word “game” they think of something they can load onto a phone, computer or tablet and play. Blue Whale (and Wake Me at 4:20, and the other names it exists under) is, to those games, what “tag” is to Monopoly. No amount of scrutiny of an app list will detect Blue Whale, because it’s all played by people interacting with each other over existing, commonly-shared sites.
The functionality of Blue Whale works like this: teens receive instructions in the form of challenges, one per day for fifty days. The first days begin with simple challenges: balance a coin on your nose, tell a person that their ears are large… and they get progressively more difficult. Waking up early is a component of many of the challenges, and in the later challenges they include staying up all night. The challenges introduce minor violence and self-injury, stepping up the degree of it through the days and introducing threats if the kids balk about participating, and then on day fifty the “player” is told to kill themselves.
The game exists. After initially being popular in Russia, it’s moved to India and the Middle East, where it’s been convincing kids – including the son of an Egyptian Parliament member – to kill themselves.
The reason the game is popular is the reason it’s being covered in a Debunking column. It uses basic psychological tricks and manipulation to produce its effects. Teens and children are driven by many of the same motivations that push adults. There’s the temptation of special knowledge; the desire for a challenge, the thrill of attention when a challenge is completed, the desire to be part of a group. Most of the mechanics associated with Blue Whale are reflected in the use of false memes to influence opinion and behavior.
Blue Whale has also grown. It’s spawned a Whatsapp game, Momo, in which kids are encouraged not to harm themselves, but to harm others; they are given an incentive to do so through threats from the game’s “controller”. This much newer game was brought to the forefront of the news when a 12 year old Argentinian girl was recently convinced to kill herself by an 18 year old Momo player.
The death toll from the games is highly suspect; as with anything else. Unless a teen specifically indicates that the reason for their suicide is the game, it’s impossible to directly relate the two. But there have been a few highly publicized cases, including where two half-sisters committed suicide together by leaping from a building. What many have done is extrapolate from suicides who have been participating in the game to suicides caused by Blue Whale. This is a reasonable extrapolation, if not a technically provable one, and when it is used there have been hundreds of deaths linked to Blue Whale and its related games. The difference between the standards of “proven deaths” and “reasonable deaths”, though, have fostered reasonable suspicions about the accuracy of the Blue Whale death count.
The key to recognizing the games – or any clones which might arise – is simple, and the best defense against it is also simple: commands being given by strangers over the phone, even in the form of “challenges”, should be ignored. If people work under that simple precept, they are going to be immune from the effects of any of these games. That has to be something taught to pre-teens, because the simple assumption of “we’re Americans, we’re too well educated to fall for things like that” is not adequate. If anything, the recent reactions to media division and the presence of enough material for me to do a weekly debunking column ought to put the lie to that notion.