Over the past two days, social media platforms and TV news shows in Egypt have been dominated by discussions about the suicide of 18-year-old teenager Khaled El-Fakharany – the son of former Egyptian MP Hamdy El-Fakharany – who was found hanging in his home in Gharbeya governorate on 2 April.
El-Fakharany's death has been linked to a deadly internet game called 'The Blue Whale,' also known as 'A Silent House', 'A Sea of Whales,' and 'Wake me up at 4:20am.'
The game was created in Russia in 2013 by Philipp Budeikin, who was arrested and sentenced in August 2017 to three years in prison for inciting children to commit suicide. Budeikin told the police last year that he thought of his victims as "biological waste" and that they were "happy to die" and he was "cleansing society."
“[The game] was the primary reason behind my brother’s suicide," Khaled's sister Abeer El-Fakharany, a news anchor on Egyptian TV, said on Facebook.
This week's incident is the second reported death in Egypt to be tied to the 'Blue Whale' challenge. In January, a 32-year-old mentally ill man reportedly killed his father to fulfill one of the Blue Whale tasks.
"After my brother’s death, people everywhere started to talk about an internet game called The Blue Whale, which targets vulnerable teenagers and is played over 50 levels, demanding that the victim take his own life on the final level," El-Fakharany said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.
To play the game, a user must sign up on an internet platform and contact an assigned administrator, who gives the player one task to complete every day for 50 days, ending with the administrator telling the player to kill themselves on the final level.
The title of the game is believed to be a reference to a type of blue whale that appears to commit suicide by purposely beaching itself on a shore.
The game starts with the player being assigned simple tasks such as waking up at a certain time and watching horror movies. However, the tasks gradually become more severe to challenge the player's capabilities.
“After searching through my brother’s stuff following the incident, I found some incomprehensible writings, a blue whale sign, as well as very strange songs and statements about death written down as if they were memorised," El-Fakharany said.
“I would have posted some of this stuff on the internet, but I am not sure if this would have a negative impact on those who see it,” she said.
The game imposes control on the player by demanding they write strange words and versus, then by instructing them to cut themselves, and finally by telling them to commit suicide.
“At first I couldn’t believe that such a game exists, but after some research, I found the game available on the internet. My brother was a very devout and religiously dedicated guy, I am really in shock,” El-Fakharany said.
“From what I have found, the victims of this game have all been bright and good kids. Be aware and carefully monitor your kids’ phones,” she said, while calling on the media to cover the story in a professional manner to avoid pushing others to playing the deadly game.
The bizarre game first gained attention after Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta linked 130 suicides by teenagers to the game between November 2015 and April 2016 in Russia alone. However, there has been no official confirmation linking the suicides to the game.
There have also been reports of suicides and suicide internet groups around the world linked to the game.
Psychiatrist Gamal Fayrouz from the Egyptian Medical Academy told Ahram Online that he believes that the game's victims are mostly teenagers who display unusual patterns of behaviour, emotion and thought.
"Those who go for the game are abnormal teens who suffer from psychological or social problems. They are introverts with low self-esteem who seek validation from the outside world," he said.
Fayrouz also said that these teens are at a vulnerable age and are therefore more susceptible to acting based on emotions, enthusiasm and risk-taking attitudes rather than on reasonable thought.
Players build their self-worth through the praise they receive from the game's administrators after they successfully complete each task, which makes them more willing to complete the challenge, Fayrouz explains.
"The target audience of the game's creators is those of a particular psychological state that can be easily manipulated. A user with a normal pattern of behaviour would most probably not enjoy the game and quit," he says.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded some 4,300 cases of suicide (4.5 people per 100,000) in Egypt in 2015, making it one of the lowest suicide rates worldwide. The global suicide rate is 16 people per 100,000, according to WHO.
Internet experts say that The Blue Whale game is difficult to combat since it has no mobile phone application or dedicated website, but is rather played through online platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.
Participants in the game are reportedly required to provide personal information to the administrator before they can start playing. This information can be used to threaten or blackmail the player if they quit before completing the game.
Some social networking websites have implemented measures to offer help to users who search for keywords or hashtags connected to the game.
If one searches for 'Blue Whale Challenge' on Facebook, a prompt appears saying "Can we help? If you or someone you know is going through a difficult time, we'd like to help."
The prompt offers the user two options; "get support for yourself" and "get support for a friend."
Instagram shows a similar warning if users search for the game, saying "Posts with words or tags you're searching for often encourage behaviour that can cause harm and even lead to death. If you're going through something difficult, we'd like to help."
The prompt gives users the option to "contact a helpline" or "get tips and support."
There have been reports of suicides linked to the game in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India and Tunisia, where it was recently banned by a court order.