There have been a few films based around the concept of challenge games such as The Game (1997) and Nerve (2016). As good as it is as a fictional plot line, what is a challenge based game like in real life?
Blue Whale is an app through which the ‘moderator’ sends challenges to be completed every day for 50 days. The tasks get gradually more violent until the ultimate challenge is to take your own life. This ‘game’ has been linked to the suicides of over 200 young people in Russia, and there have been fears of the “whale” migrating around the world.
The internet group behind Blue Whale reach out to young people and an app is then downloaded to their phone. This app is able to access all information on the phone; something which is then used as a threat should the challenges not be completed. Over 50 days the participants are given challenges that they must complete as they move through the stages of the ‘game’; photographic evidence must be sent to the anonymous administrator as proof of ‘success’.
What is the appeal of signing up to play challenges received online? How does it become so dangerous so quickly?
I did some research and found an app called Double Dog; a truth-or-dare-esque challenge game with the potential to earn lots of money. To get a better understanding of the desire to play (and out of curiosity and inexplicable excitement) I downloaded Double Dog (at a cost of R79.99) and started to play.
I wasn’t registered to play with real money, just ‘bones’ – the in-game currency. I got sent dares from people I don’t know with a potential payout; if I do the dare, I get the bones, if I ‘double dare’ and the other player does it, I pay them twice the amount, if they chicken out they pay me three times the amount.
You don’t see what the dare is when it gets sent to you, just the payout, e.g. “You have a new dare! 40 bones”, and can decide whether to accept it. Once you have accepted the dare, you have to send photographic/video proof of you doing it so that the sender can confirm you did it properly. This is where I started to see the problems.
Naïvely, I accepted my first dare with the chance of getting 40 bones. The dare was, “Show me a video that reveals a little too much”. I didn’t do it. The next dare I got was, “Wall twerk while sexily sipping a beverage through a straw”. I didn’t do that one either.
Some were innocent, which I did do – interestingly, once I’d started, I couldn’t really stop. I sent a video of my “best sock puppet performance”, my “best Ariana Grande impression”, a video of all my tattoos… Once I’d sent a video to this anonymous person, I quickly realised just how easily things can get dangerous.
Why I was immediately so hooked, I have no idea. I wasn’t playing for money, so it wasn’t financial; actually, there was no reward except useless in-game currency. The app suddenly felt sinister, and I deleted it.
I spoke to a clinical psychologist, who remains anonymous, and she gave me a very good analogy as to why youths get sucked in to things, and was her way of explaining how she thinks things like this can go too far. The teenage brain, she says, is almost fully developed, except for the frontal lobe. Because of this, there is no solid ‘off button’. The analogy she gave me was that the teenage brain is like a really fast sports car, but the brakes don’t work so well. She said that this, paired with vulnerability and manipulation can be very dangerous. This danger is not limited solely to things such as Blue Whale, but is a part of social media as a whole, said the psychologist.
I spoke to a friend to see what she thought of the idea of earning money for doing challenges, and to see if she was aware of Blue Whale.
Me: If I told you that there was an app that you can earn ten dollars a dare (or more), do you think you would sign up?
Nikki: I would download it, but I wouldn’t necessarily do anything. I’d probably just think “if something super easy came along, maybe I can do this”, then I might. I’d probably just download it and see what it was about, but I might accept really easy dares.
Me: Have you heard of the app ‘Blue Whale’?
Nikki: I have not.
Me: Blue Whale is a series of challenges over 50 days, the last one being to kill yourself. It’s allegedly killed over 200 young people in Russia.
Nikki: [silence] That’s really hectic. Gosh, that’s hectic. [silence]. No. No. I wouldn’t download an app. Definitely not. [silence]. Change my answer to the other question. I wouldn’t download any app. Not even for ten pounds, dollars, whatever. No. Not doing it.
When asking other people about Blue Whale, only one person out of the seventeen that I asked knew about the game before I told them. This is pretty tragic, considering the severity of the situation. When I told people what Blue Whale is, people used words such as “disgusting”, “terrifying”, “shocking” and “evil”.
Blue Whale is getting surprisingly little airtime in the media; with the prevalence of social media in the lives of young people, something like this should be given far more attention, and awareness about it should be raised.
If you are needing support, please reach out to someone; there are loads of charities out there that provide anonymous, instant support to anybody suffering. Do not suffer in silence; it is okay to not be okay.