is a Serbian-American journalist, blogger and translator, who wrote a regular column for Antiwar.com from 2000 to 2015, and is now senior writer at RT.
The battle for Hong Kong has spilled over into virtual reality, after Western-backed protesters discovered they could use new Grand Theft Auto (GTA) features to act out their frustrations and fantasies. But two can play that game.
GTA V, an action-adventure game originally released in 2013, was updated last month with the Diamond Casino Heist expansion pack, which expanded options for character clothing. Within days, gamers were dressing up in gas masks and yellow safety helmets, the “Hong Kong hero” outfit worn by protesters in the autonomous Chinese city.
The virtual protesters then set about re-creating real-life mayhem, throwing fire bombs at police, smashing mass transit stations, and so on.
There was a downside, however. GTA V has an online mode that allows up to 30 players to engage with each other, and mainland Chinese gamers reportedly made a point of dressing up as police and battling protester avatars, eventually overwhelming them with sheer numbers.
A video compilation of battles against “cockroaches” – a derogatory term for HK protesters – reportedly racked up over 175,000 views in short order after it was posted on the Chinese social media platform Weibo on Monday.
Video games already have a bit of a reputation for being more than an innocent pastime, alternately being accused of inspiring real-world violence and used to spread propaganda messages and reinforce narratives. The user “hack” of GTA seems to be a bit of both.
The current protests began in May, after the local authorities proposed a law to allow extradition to the Chinese mainland. Even after the controversial proposal was withdrawn, the protests continued, however, as masked demonstrators demanded “free Hong Kong” and waved US and UK flags. Hong Kong was a British colony for over a century, until it was ceded back to China in 1997. Additionally, most Western media outlets have described the protesters as “pro-democracy.”
This is obviously an anathema to both the Chinese government and the vast majority of the country’s population, who suspect foreign influence is behind the unrest.
While re-creating the conflict in a video game may seem like a clever way to spread one’s message to the masses, the counter-strike by Chinese gamers is a good reminder that this approach is a two-way street.
Then there is the peril of having the virtual world provide too much of an outlet for the wannabe protesters’ frustrations. It is far easier to set virtual police on fire or smash virtual subway stations, without risking one’s life and limb in real life. Soon enough, being a virtual “Hong Kong hero” might become more appealing than going out and rioting in actual streets.
Given the amount of damage and injuries already caused by the protests, perhaps it would be better for everyone involved if the clashes move entirely online – and stay there.