‘I Forget About the World:’ Afghan Youth Find Escape in a Video Game


KABUL, Afghanistan — 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.

ImageSafiullah Sharifi playing PUBG.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

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.

Sometimes, players pay a local vendor to download the game, a workaround to avoid taxing limited and sometimes expensive data plans for phones. That costs as little as 60 cents.

Abdul Habib, 27, runs a video gaming den in West Kabul that features mostly soccer games. It’s a closet-size room on the lower floor of a shopping center, with TVs, couches and Playstations.

There are other gaming dens in the shopping center, separated by doorways and different owners, but connected by neon lights and a dimly lit atrium where youths scurry back and forth looking for couch space and controllers. A snack stand sells sausage sandwiches.

“If you can’t fight in the real war, you can do it virtually,” Mr. Habib said of violent video games, including PUBG.

Mr. Habib has rented his den for four years; usually about 100 people a day come through. The mix of children, teenagers, parents and assorted adults pay around 65 cents to play for an hour. But his business was hit hard in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic when he — and dozens of other Kabul gaming dens — shut down for two months. That’s when the fixation on PUBG took off.

Now its popularity is cutting into Mr. Habib’s business and that of others in the industry.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Abdullah Popalzai, 20, has his own game center across the street from Mr. Sharifi’s house. It’s a little shop, with garage-roller doors, a generator, four TVs, four Playstations and an aging foosball table.

“I used to earn 800 afs a day,” Mr. Popalzai said. That is about $10. “Now I barely have enough to get bread and food for the family.”

Mohammad Ali sees PUBG as an escape. Leaning outside Mr. Habib’s den, Mr. Ali, 23, pointed to the headphones around his neck, bought specifically to play PUBG so he can disappear in the game with his friends.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“I get so busy with the game I forget about the world,” he said. “It distracts me from the city, the attacks, the robberies, the thieves and the crime.”

The website PlayerCounter puts PUBG’s total at around 400 million players worldwide since its release in 2017, on phones, computers and video game consoles. But aside from anecdotal evidence, it’s hard to say how many Afghans play. The game’s developer did not respond to an inquiry regarding the number of players in the country.

Anticipating a possible ban of the game by the Afghan government, a major cellphone provider tried to figure out how much its network would be affected.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The company, said one official, restricted access to the game just after midnight one day, and subsequently lost 50 percent of its network’s data traffic. The official reckoned that more than 100,000 people were playing the game across the country at the time.

PUBG is not the first form of entertainment to draw ire from the Afghan government. In 2008 several Turkish soap operas were taken off air because they did not align with “Afghan religion and culture.”

Wedged between the once oppressive Taliban regime of the 1990s and the growth of the internet and social media in the 21st century, Afghanistan’s government has long walked a thin line — trying to balance its religiously conservative population with democratic freedoms.

For Mohammad Akbar Sultanzada, the chairman of the Afghan Parliament’s Transportation and Telecommunications Commission, the problem with PUBG is not just its violence. He said it has also invaded the country’s already strained, frequently threatened and understaffed classrooms. PUBG was banned in Iraq last year for similar reasons.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“It can be really negative for children’s mental health,” said Freshta Karim, the director of Charmaghz, a Kabul nonprofit, and a local education activist. “I feel like it encourages and normalizes violence and makes them a part of it.”

Outside influences, including in education, are often disparaged among Afghans but high levels of illiteracy have left the population vulnerable to just that. In the 1980s, the United States distributed millions of textbooks to Afghan children that promoted violence through text and images that featured talks of jihad and weapons of war as ways to help learn the alphabet and basic math.

But PUBG is not handed out in classrooms; it’s played under desks and in courtyards and when some children skip school, on street corners. If the game is banned, many people say, they will just turn to virtual private networks and keep playing.

“If they don’t want people to be violent,” said Mr. Habib, the owner of the video gaming den, “they should stop the war on the battlefield.”

Najim Rahim contributed reporting.