Fighting a brutal regime using a video game
U Sein Lin, a retired history teacher in Myanmar, had never played a video game in his life. But about a month ago, while browsing Facebook, he came across War of Heroes – The PDF Game.
Since then, he has played it almost non-stop.
For Mr. Sein Lin, 72, killing Myanmar’s virtual troops is a way of participating in the real-life resistance to the country’s ruthless army, which killed thousands of citizens after seizing power in a coup. state last year.
Since its debut in March, War of Heroes has been downloaded over 390,000 times. Many players say they are motivated by the creators‘ promise to donate proceeds to help fund resistance forces in Myanmar and help those who have been displaced by the fighting.
“Even though I can’t kill soldiers who brutally kill civilians, killing in the game is also satisfying,” Sein Lin said. “Somehow playing the game and clicking till I die will help the revolution.”
Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, ruled the country for half a century and has long been at war with its own citizens. Since ousting elected officials in last year’s coup, the regime has attempted to crush dissent by arresting opposition leaders, shooting unarmed protesters, bombing guerrilla encampments and by burning thousands of houses.
Many opponents of the regime fled into the jungle, where they formed the People’s Defense Force, or PDF, an army of more than 60,000 fighters under the leadership of the shadow government of national unity. A similar number of fighters in urban areas have formed semi-autonomous guerrilla units, known as local people’s defense forces.
War of Heroes was created by three Myanmar-born developers who left the country before the generals took over on February 1, 2021. One of them, Ko Toot, said they were motivated to create the game after the arrest and subsequent disappearance of the tech. industry colleagues in Myanmar who participated, or whose family members participated, in protests against the coup.
A paid version of the game was released in mid-June, and within days it began to consistently appear on Apple’s App Store top 10 games lists in the United States, Australia, and Singapore. “Myanmar people all over the world are downloading it,” Mr Toot said.
In the game, players go into battle and kill regime soldiers, moving up the rankings as the game gets harder. At higher levels, players can target civilian spies, renegade celebrities who support the junta, and putschists.
“We need you to join our resistance forces to protect innocent people from evil military forces,” the game’s app store description reads. “Your duty is to join the People’s Defense Forces and become the best freedom fighter.”
The free version of the game earns money when players watch ads. The paid version generates revenue when players download it or purchase ammo. Players who play enough to win the equivalent of $54 for the game receive a “certificate of achievement” for participating in the Spring Revolution, as the protests in Myanmar are known, and for donating money.
So far, the developers say they’ve donated $90,000. About a fifth of this amount went to help displaced people. The rest was donated to more than two dozen local advocacy groups.
Gamers in Myanmar need a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, to bypass internet restrictions on accessing the game. To avoid being stopped at checkpoints or during random police checks, gamers uninstall the game from their phone before going out and download it again after returning home.
The game attracted unlikely fans, including a Buddhist monk and a member of the Tatmadaw.
U Pyinnyar Won Tha, 32, a monk in Lashio, a city in northeast Myanmar, is an avid gamer. Although Buddha said not to kill living beings, he said the people of Myanmar have to defend themselves against the junta.
“Playing a PDF game is against Buddha’s teachings, but I don’t feel guilty because we die under military rule,” he said. “If someone threatens our lives, we have to kill them just to defend ourselves. Otherwise, they can kill us at any time.
War of Heroes was the first battle game he played, he said. The developers’ promise to donate money to displaced people and resistance fighters made it a fan.
“In true Buddhism, monks should be respected, but the military junta tortures and kills monks,” he said. “So it’s fair to play a game to give them karma.”
The game has become so popular that some soldiers also play it. Since the coup, the number of defectors has increased. Those who remain in the army but are against the regime are called “watermelons”: army green on the outside and red, representing the pro-democracy movement, on the inside.
One soldier, whose name is withheld for his safety, said he would defect if he could, but he knows the Tatmadaw will take revenge on his family. Instead, to help the revolution, he clandestinely provides insider information to resistance forces, he said.
He also plays War of Heroes.
“After the coup, I really wanted to kill dictatorial generals and soldiers who see the people as their enemy,” he said. “But my situation does not allow me to kill them in the real world. If the situation allowed it, I would.
The game gives him an outlet for his anger. “It’s a nice feeling to kill Myanmar army soldiers in the game,” he said. “At least I’m happy to be able to kill soldiers and earn money for the revolution.”
Another fan is Ma Myat Noe Aye, 28, a nurse who quit her job at a government hospital in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, to protest the military coup. She fled to Laiza, a town in rebel-held territory in Kachin State, where she volunteered as a People’s Defense Force paramedic.
In May, soldiers attacked and burned her home village, Nay Pu Kone in Sagaing Division, forcing her relatives and 5,000 others to flee. “I lost my job,” she says. “My family lost our farms and our house. Now my whole family has to rely on the help of relatives. There are many families like us, so we have to win this revolution. Otherwise, we will all die under the regime.
Ms Myat Noe said her 56-year-old mother had joined her in Laiza and was now working as a cook for the People’s Defense Forces. She introduced War of Heroes to her mother, and now the older woman plays every night before she sleeps.
“I told her that whenever she felt hatred for the army, she could play the game to relieve her stress and help the revolution,” she said. “When I play the game, I feel the same. This revolution must be the end of the game.