A group of Hong Kong activists have developed a homemade computer game that uses virtual reality to recreate what it is like to take part in the pro-democracy protests sweeping the financial hub.
Put together in less than a week, “Liberate Hong Kong” allows gamers to don a VR headset and dodge tear gas and rubber bullets during a nighttime clash in the district of Mong Kok, a regular scene of battles between police and protesters in the real world.
“This game will give you an experience you can’t get from reading news or watching live on TV about the protests,” Jane Lam, one of the developers and a spokesperson for the team, told AFP.
Hong Kong has been upended by five months of huge, often violent, protests seeking greater democratic rights and police accountability.
Increasingly violent clashes have broken out between hardcore protesters throwing petrol bombs and bricks at police, who are responding with increasing amounts of tear gas and rubber bullets.
But the movement has also prompted an outpouring of creativity, from so-called protest “Lennon Walls” springing up across the city to anonymously-composed protest songs that have racked up millions of views.
Now demonstrators have taken their movement into the virtual world.
The developers said they decided to create the game after local eSports player Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung was punished by Blizzard Entertainment for shouting a pro-democracy slogan during a livestreamed interview following a competition win.
They got to work recreating a real street in Mong Kok, filling it with the sounds and sights of protests, from walls and pavements daubed with slogans to the shouts of police warnings and the clouds of tear gas obscuring the neon-lit shop fronts.
The game developers — who asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals — invited Ng to play a demo, which was broadcast via Twitch, the hugely popular livestreaming platform used by gamers.
“This is so real,” Ng exclaimed as he played, his avatar getting shot and arrested by police multiple times.
An AFP reporter tried out the game at an industrial building that developers had hired out to showcase their work.
Unlike Hong Kong’s frontline protesters in the real world — who often hurl bricks and petrol bombs at police and trash pro-China businesses — players are not allowed to engage in violence themselves.
Instead they have to throw away incoming tear gas rounds, avoid rubber bullets using a road-sign shield or a well-timed dodge, and run away when police charge.
The game, which currently lasts only around 10 minutes, was submitted to Steam, the world’s largest gaming distribution platform, which hosts many amateur creations, but the developers did not hear back.
China’s politics can be hugely risky territory for game developers, especially studios that have a presence in the hugely lucrative mainland market.
Earlier this year, Taiwan-based studio Red Candle Games pulled its popular horror title “Detention” from Steam after Chinese mainland gamers spotted a hidden message lampooning president Xi Jinping.
After hearing nothing from Steam for a month, the Hong Kong developers submitted their game to Itch, a less well-known platform for indie developers where it is being offered for free.
“This is certainly political censorship,” the team said. “Steam is trying to avoid another Detention incident and losing its market in China.”
Steam did not respond to request for comment.
Lam said she wanted the game to raise international awareness for Hong Kong’s protesters — and also encourage local activists to keep going after more than 20 weeks of political unrest.
“We want to emphasize this is not a game,” she said.
“We don’t want anyone to feel they have achieved something in this virtual world. We hope they can return to streets after playing this,” she added.