Fighting a brutal regime with a video game

U Sein Lin, a retired history teacher from Myanmar, has never played a video game in his life. But about a month ago, while scrolling through Facebook, he came across War of Heroes – The PDF Game.

Since then, he has been playing almost non-stop.

For Mr. Sein Lin, 72, killing Myanmar’s virtual soldiers is a way to take part in real-world resistance against the country’s ruthless military, which has killed thousands of citizens since seizing power in a coup last year.

Since its debut in March, War of Heroes has received over 390,000 downloads. Many players say they are motivated by the creators’ promise to donate the proceeds to fund resistance forces in Myanmar and help those who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the fighting.

“Even though I can’t kill soldiers who brutally kill civilians, killing in the game is also fun,” Sein Lin said. “One way or another, playing the game and clicking until I die will help the revolution.”

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, previously ruled the country for half a century and has long been at war with its own citizens. Since ousting elected officials in a coup last year, the regime has tried to quell dissent by arresting opposition leaders, shooting unarmed demonstrators, bombing guerrilla camps and burning thousands of homes.

Many opponents of the regime fled into the jungle, where they formed the People’s Defense Forces, or PDF, an army of more than 60,000 fighters led by a shadow government of national unity. Similar number of militants in urban areas formed semi-autonomous guerrilla unitsknown as the local People’s Defense Forces.

War of Heroes was created by three developers from Myanmar who left the country before the generals took over in February. January 1, 2021. One of them, Koh Tut, said they were motivated to create the game after the arrest and subsequent disappearance of colleagues from the tech industry in Myanmar who were involved or their family members were involved in anti-coup protests.

The paid version of the game was released in mid-June, and within a few days it was regularly appearing in the top 10 games lists on the Apple App Store in the US, Australia, and Singapore. “It is being downloaded by Myanmar people all over the world,” he said. Tut said.

In the game, players engage in combat and kill mode soldiers, advancing in rank as the game becomes more difficult. At higher levels, players can target civilian spies, junta-supporting celebrity defectors, and coup leaders.

“We need you to join our resistance forces to protect innocent people from the armed forces of evil,” the App Store description of the game 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 earns income when players download it or buy ammo. Gamers who play enough to earn the equivalent of $54 playing the game receive a “certificate of achievement” for participating in the Spring Revolution, as the Myanmar protests are known, and for donating money.

So far, the developers say they have donated $90,000. About a fifth part went to help the settlers. The rest was donated to more than two dozen local defense groups.

Players in Myanmar need a VPN or virtual private network to bypass internet restrictions to access the game. To avoid getting arrested at security checkpoints or during random police stops, players delete the game from their phone before going outside and download it again after returning home.

The game attracted some unexpected fans, including a Buddhist monk and a member of the Tatmadaw.

U Pyinnyar Won Tha, 32, a monk from Lashio, a town in northeastern Myanmar, is an avid gambler. Although the Buddha says not to kill living beings, he said people in Myanmar should protect themselves from the junta.

“Playing a PDF game is against the teachings of the Buddha, but I don’t feel guilty because we are dying under military rule,” he said. “If someone threatens our lives, we must kill him to protect ourselves. If not, they can kill us at any time.”

According to him, War of Heroes is the first combat game he has played. The developer’s promise to donate money to displaced persons and resistance fighters made him a fan.

“In true Buddhism, monks must be respected, but the military junta tortures and kills monks,” he said. “So it’s fair to play the game to reward them with karma.”

The game has become so popular that some soldiers also play it. After the coup, the number of defectors increased. Those who remain in the army but oppose the regime are known as “watermelons”: army greens on the outside and pro-democracy reds on the inside.

One soldier, whose name has not been released for his safety, said he would desert if he could, but he knows the Tatmadaw will take revenge on his family. Instead, to help the revolution, he secretly provides insider information to the resistance forces, he said.

He also plays War of Heroes.

“After the coup, I really wanted to kill the dictator 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, I would have done so.

The game gives him an outlet for his anger. “It’s nice to kill Myanmar army soldiers in the game,” he said. “At least I’m glad 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 public hospital in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, to protest the military takeover. She fled to Laiza, a town in rebel-held territory in Kachin State, where she volunteers as a paramedic for the People’s Defense Forces.

In May the soldiers attacked and burned her home village, Nai Pu Kone in Sagaing County, forcing her family and 5,000 others to flee. “I lost my job,” she said. “My family lost the farm and the house. Now my whole family is forced to rely on the help of relatives. There are many families like us, so we must win this revolution. If not, we will all die under the regime.”

RS. Myat Noe said her 56-year-old mother joined her in Laiza and now works 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 bed.

“I told her that whenever she feels hatred for the military, she can play this game to relieve stress and help the revolution,” she said. “When I play, I feel the same way. This revolution must be the endgame.”