They’re in the streets in hardhats and gas masks, calling for increased freedom for Hong Kong. But these aren’t the demonstrators who’ve been rallying in Hong Kong since March. They are players of the online video game Grand Theft Auto V who have taken the protests into the digital streets.
Grand Theft Auto V takes place in the fictional California city of Los Santos. But as pro-democracy protests roil Hong Kong, some demonstrators have learned how to make the game look like the real-life skirmishes that began in March when Hong Kong residents started protesting a new law that would allow extradition to mainland China. Meanwhile, players from mainland China have begun dressing as police and targeting the Hong Kong players in-game, as CNN reported, giving the online fights a new urgency.
A user on the Hong Kong-based forum LIHKG uploaded a picture of himself dressed in a protester’s uniform (all black, with a yellow hardhat) hurling a Molotov cocktail at an already-burning police car. The mayhem is nothing unusual for Grand Theft Auto; the series essentially provides an open map for firefights and destruction.
But that blank canvas has offered a form of catharsis for some Hong Kong players, who’ve even installed custom mods to make in-game police look more like the forces that face off against protesters.
Some Hong Kong gamers have talked of borrowing tactics directly from real-life protests. On LIHKG, users described themselves as playing in a “black bloc.” Popular at Hong Kong protests and others around the world, black bloc tactics involve a group of people dressed identically in black to conceal their identities and stymie opponents.
Players can join in-game black blocs by joining crews with names like “Stand With Hong Kong,” Chinese tech site Abacus News reported. But where Hong Kong residents organized online, mainlanders soon launched a counterstrike. Those players started roleplaying as riot police, cracking down on Hong Kong players in recreation of the violent clashes that have led to two deaths in Hong Kong this year.
The digital fights are more than a game; some users on the Chinese social media site Weibo have called their Hong Kong counterparts “cockroaches,” a slur that Hong Kong police have levied against protesters and journalists. “Cockroaches expressed their desire to kill GTA and beat us,” wrote one player on the Chinese social media site Weibo, according to CNN, “the war in this game may become more fierce and fierce. Are you ready?”
Mainland Chinese players also adopted police weapons in-game, dousing Hong Kong players with water cannons and tear gas.
Hong Kong protests have previously spilled into the gaming space, sometimes challenging how Western gaming companies address protests on their platforms. In October, Hong Kong-based gamer Ng Wai Chung voiced support for the protest movement during a professional competition of the game Hearthstone. “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” Chung said in a post-game interview. Hearthstone’s parent company Blizzard is based in California, but a sizable chunk of Blizzard’s revenue comes from players in China, employees have told The Daily Beast. The company banned Chung from the tournament and froze his $10,000 winnings, prompting a walkout by disgusted Blizzard employees.
Protesters in Hong Kong have also used video games to broadcast their situation to the world. In October, activists launched a “Liberate Hong Kong” game that placed players at the frontlines dodging police projectiles.
The game, which was scored by audio recorded at Hong Kong protests, was deliberately impossible to win, “just like the current situation,” one of its designers told Bloomberg. It always ended with the character shot or arrested.