ACAB thinks about Videogame activism in Hong Kong.
“Siulaba” is a zine series that documents Hong Kong’s 2019 protest movement through the collation of protest songs, slogans, and protest-related video games. The latest issue features a list of games that influenced the movement such as Riot: Civil Unrest, and games that had been developed because of the movement, such as Heung Sing Online. These games have everything to do with the idea or the concept of a science fiction. I’m interested in examining how the virtual world of video game merges with reality, not in a SF film nor a novel, but in real life.
Let’s rewind a little bit.
The pandemic began in the end of 2019 and for me it was just like a science fiction. I am sure many remember the social media posts about how Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness had predicted the coronavirus pandemic with uncanny precision. Also in 2019, the Anti-Extradition Bill Protest broke out in Hong Kong. It was the longest pro-democracy protest movement that took place in the city. It lasted more than 12 months until the implementation of the National Security Law in July 2020, but some would say that the movement or at least the spirit of the movement is still ongoing.
I remember how Hongkongers used technology extensively in the beginning of the movement and it really felt like a science fiction film coming to life, even though I know there were previous examples of such during Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Turkey’s Gezi Park Protest. For me, what was more intriguing was the relationship between video games and the protests in Hong Kong. I was fascinated by the transposition of protests from the streets to the virtual world of video games. I start to document the number of video games that emerged because of the movement. This got me thinking about the use of game strategies in street protests, as well as the use of gamespeak as a coded language in everyday life.
It’s sort of like a feedback loop in which protests and video games feed into each other. They interact, influence, mutually shape each other, and thus blurring the line between the real and the virtual — on one hand, street protests borrowed strategies and gamespeak from video games, and on the other hand videogames emerged from new protest strategies. Some might even consider these games as rehearsals.
Here are some examples of the video games discussed in the zine.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
The most straightforward strategy was to stage virtual demonstrations in existing games such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In March 2020, the Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong posted an image from a scene in the game on Twitter. Behind this protester, there are two paintings of the iconic slogans of the movement written in Chinese. There are also paintings of hand gestures that represent another slogan ‘Five demands, not one less (fewer)’. On the grass, there are three banners with different slogans, images of the protests, and key dates of the movement. In early April 2020, the game was removed from China’s grey market e-commerce platforms such as Tao Bao. Nintendo has also told players to stop adding political content, and those who breached the guideline would be banned.
Liberate Hong Kong
In terms of newly developed games, there were around ten video games released during the movement in 2019. Liberate Hong Kong is a VR video game put together in less than a week. The developers decided to create the game after the local professional gamer Blitzchung was punished by Blizzard for mentioning a protest slogan during an interview. He was subsequently banned from the Grandmaster competition and his prize money was forfeited. The developer of the VR game also wanted to emphasise that Liberate Hong Kong is not a game. They do not want anyone to feel that they have achieved something actual in the virtual world. Instead, they wanted the players to return to streets after playing the game. They also mentioned that the game doesn’t have a clear objective, meaning that the gamers’ actions can only be reactive, and this is mainly because attacking the police in a video game is against Steam’s policy (Steam is a one of the largest digital game distributors in the world). But somehow the lack of objectives in the game reflects the helpless sentiment of many frontliners in a leaderless movement —the endless dodging of tear gas and fleeing from law enforcements without knowing where to go or when it is the right time to quit.
Name of the Will
Name of the Will is still in development and it will be released in 2022. This is a story-driven side-scroller video game. The plot is set in 2029. The player wakes up one day in a smiley mask in an unknown city that resembles Hong Kong. Everyone in the city wears the same outfit, lives the same repetitive routine, and is happy. The player also has to cope with the authorities and suspicious neighbours, and solve puzzles to collect intelligence. In one of the scenes, you can see some mini-stonehenges. These are actually road blocks built by the protesters in the streets. These structures were nominated for the 2021 Beazley Designs of the Year awards hosted by the Design Museum in London.
Name of the Will poses questions that are pertinent to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters who are now under the shadow of the National Security Law. Should they leave or stay? Should they still voice out their views and for how long? How long can they persevere? These are some of the questions people are asking each other in Hong Kong nowadays. Nearly 90,000 local residents had moved to the UK and other countries, and the number keeps rising.
The next game is a battle royale game. While protests influenced the development of video games, there are also examples of how protesters borrowed tactics from video games. One of the popular battle royale games is called PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). There are first-aid kits or supply kits on the floor for players to pick up. In Hong Kong protests, we also see the same strategy being used. In the early days of the movement, supplies stations were systematically organised at protest sites. But when these supplies stations were banned, protesters resorted to leaving supplies such as helmets, masks, umbrellas, water and first aid kits along the roadside, just like what they did in PUBG. It was a feat of collaboration between strangers. Some extrapolated that because many protesters were from a generation that grew up with survival games, therefore team coordination or tacit knowledge of military tactics have already taken root in these protesters’ consciousness. Adopting tactics such as the one in the battle royale game really came as no surprise.
A Japanese journalist came to Hong Kong during the protest, and concluded that the protest movement was actually an ‘Otaku War’, as many younger generation protesters grew up with video games and were fans of manga and anime.
Heung Sing Online
For me, Heung Sing Online is the most imaginative and influential protest ‘game’. Technically speaking, Heung Shing Online is not a game. It is a highly informative strategy guide in an Excel sheet with detailed descriptions of gears and tactics needed for the different levels of participation in the protest. But the terminology and the organisation of information or the logic follow that of a video game.
It began with an idea posted by a member of LIHKG, a very popular online forum like reddit. This forum had been highly influential especially during the early stage of the movement, generating protest memes, slogans, discussions and strategies. As early as June 2019, LIHKG already suggested protesters to learn from the video game Riot: Civil Unrest.
A month later, in July 2019, there was another post about the idea of creating an online game like Sim City that simulates street protests in Hong Kong. Shortly after the idea emerged, Heung Shing Online appeared. The excel sheet begins with the following disclaimer note: “We urge all netizens to be clearheaded. Please distinguish reality from fantasy. Don’t indulge in gaming to excess. This webpage is only for the purpose of gaming. We don’t instigate nor encourage violent acts nor criminal behaviour in real life. We take no legal responsibility in the usage of the content of this webpage.” Heung Shing Online was never meant to be a real game. However, it was labelled by pro-Beijing media as the “Biggest real life role-playing game” that instigated violence against police.
Hong Kong’s cityscape has been used as a backdrop for SF films and manga for many years. There are also numerous games that use Hong Kong’s history but again as a backdrop. For me, these games as a whole are interesting because it feels like they are presenting multiple futures of Hong Kong. Hong Kong as part of China, Hong Kong as an entity, or as a battlefield with foreign peacekeeping troops. But actually none of these games are meant to be political. I hope that the historical juncture that we find ourselves in will inspire a new generation of local writers and game designers to think about the future of the city, because our future has yet to be determined.
ACAB lives and works in Hong Kong.