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Video Game Shows What It's Like Inside Hong Kong's Protests

Zheping Huang

(Bloomberg) -- In the concrete jungle of a modern metropolis, a black-clad young man gears up to battle hostile cops armed with tear gas and live ammunition. Masked and helmeted, he navigates metal barricades, flaming cars and flickering neon signs, one misstep away from getting busted -- or worse.

This isn’t Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. This is a game about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.

Assembled in a week by a ragtag group of students and office workers, Liberate Hong Kong is an extremely rudimentary first-person simulation of the often violent anti-China movement that’s gripped the semi-autonomous city since the summer. The game depicts the bleak experience of a front-line protester dodging swarms of projectiles from riot police, and it will launch this month in both PC and virtual reality versions, the developers said.

It’s the latest example of how Hong Kong’s internet-savvy population is using technology to mobilize a leaderless movement and spread the message internationally. Protesters have taken to Telegram to plan and execute demonstrations and broadcast their cries for self-determination in popular online video games like Activision Blizzard Inc.’s World of Warcraft. Now, they’ve gone one step further and begun to fashion their own virtual simulation of the action on the ground, hoping to target a broader millennial population while inspiring a vast gaming community that’s shown a readiness to support their cause.

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The developers of Liberate Hong Kong hope their simulation of the city’s democratic movement will help outsiders better understand what’s unfolding on the streets of Kowloon and Wanchai. They put the game together after Blizzard’s decision to ban esports player Ng Wai Chung, better known as Blitzchung, for staging an impromptu protest during a post-game webcast. That triggered a backlash, including calls for a boycott and demonstrations during the annual BlizzCon event starting Nov. 1 in California.

“The team can’t help thinking what will happen, and how the game industry will respond, if we are having a whole new game that is about the protests,” said a 30-year-old developer who asked to be identified only as Jane Lam because she took part in the often-illegal protests.

Last week, the developers offered a first glimpse of their game by releasing a trailer. Ng streamed himself playing it on Twitch in an hour-long session that garnered more than 14,000 views. While the gameplay is crude -- consisting mostly of dodging bullets and throwing tear gas canisters back at faceless police -- the purpose of the creators is to educate rather than entertain.

Constrained to a two-block radius and scoring only canisters collected, a Liberate Hong Kong session rarely exceeds 10 minutes. All end in one of two ways: the player ends up shot or arrested.

“There is no winning in the game, just like the current situation,” said Lam, who covered her face with a mask while talking to reporters on camera.

To make the game more true to life, the developers recorded chants directly from Hong Kong’s streets and recreated protest expressions from spray-painted slogans to the creative “Lennon Walls” of Post-it notes that have sprung up across town.

The team behind Liberate Hong Kong said it has submitted the title to Valve Corp.’s game distribution platform Steam, which has yet to grant approval. Forcing Valve to make a decision either way was itself intended to keep the Hong Kong matter in the global public eye, Lam said. If Valve declines, the developers plan to post their own download link online, keeping the PC version of the game free and charging HK$100 ($12.80) for a VR edition. All profits will be donated to a fundraiser for protesters, Lam said. Valve marketing chief Doug Lombardi did not respond to a request for comment.

In a touch of levity, Liberate Hong Kong’s creators added a collectible Winnie the Pooh toy into their game, a wink to the A. A. Milne character that became a meme for its perceived resemblance to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It’s the only item players can grab and toss other than tear gas canisters.

“From the very beginning we just wanted to start an issue in the gaming industry and wait for the feedback,” Lam said. “It is a very short-term imitation of real-life experience.”

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--With assistance from Josie Wong and Stephanie Chung.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zheping Huang in Hong Kong at zhuang245@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Elstrom at pelstrom@bloomberg.net, Vlad Savov, Edwin Chan

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