Afghan Youth Find Escape in a Video Game

An anonymous reader shares a report: Rifle fire, hurried footsteps and distant explosions. The rat-a-tat of a firefight. Cars mangled from grenades. The young man was transfixed. It could have been any day in Kabul, where targeted assassinations, terrorist attacks and wanton violence have become routine, and the city often feels as if it is under siege. But for Safiullah Sharifi, his behind firmly planted on a dusty stoop in the Qala-e Fatullah neighborhood, the death and destruction unfurled on his phone, held landscape-style in his hands. “On Friday I play from early morning to around 4 p.m.,” said Mr. Sharifi, 20, with a sly grin, as if he knew he was detailing the outline of an addiction to a passer-by. His left hand is tattooed with a skull in a jester’s hat, a grim image offset by his lanky and not-quite-old-enough demeanor. “Almost every night, it’s 8 p.m. to 3 a.m.”

The game is called PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds, but to its millions of players worldwide, no matter the language, it’s referred to as PUBG (pronounced pub-gee). It’s violent. And it’s becoming widely played across Afghanistan, almost as an escape from reality as the 19-year-old war grinds on. In the game, the player drops onto a large piece of terrain, finds weapons and equipment and kills everyone, all of whom are other people playing the game against each other. Victory translates to being the last person or team standing. Which makes its growing popularity in Afghanistan peculiar since that can eerily almost describe the state of the war — despite ongoing peace negotiations in Qatar.

Even as ending that war seems ever more elusive, Afghan lawmakers are trying to ban PUBG, arguing that it promotes violence and distracts the young from their schoolwork. But Mr. Sharifi laughed at the mention of the proposed ban, knowing he could circumvent it easily with software on his phone. He said he uses the game to communicate with friends and sometimes talks to girls who also play it. That is a remarkable feat on its own since only in the last several years have Afghanistan’s cell networks become capable of delivering the kind of data needed to play a game like PUBG, let alone communicate with people concurrently. Gaming centers became popular in Kabul in the years after the 2001 United States invasion, which reversed the Taliban’s ban on entertainment including video games and music. But PUBG and other mobile games are usurping these staples because they are downloadable on a smartphone, and free, in a country where 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.