How Animal Crossing became a protest site for China and Hong Kong - article

How Animal Crossing became a protest site for China and Hong Kong - article

On New Year's Day 2020 I participated in a protest march. My friend, a Croatian technology journalist for the South China Morning Post, and I, a passing visitor, left her apartment around noon. After a fortifying meal of phở we joined the thousands who thronged the streets of Wanchai on Hong Kong's Central Island.

Many of the protesters were dressed in black. For some it was also a family affair, with three generations showing up for the march. In Cantonese they sang: "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our era". It was a choir sung by everyone but especially by young people. They were creative: on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, hundreds had occupied malls and shopping areas, and many of them wore reindeer antlers. By November, college campuses had turned into fortresses full of students protesting using tables and umbrellas as bulwarks.

Protests have spread to the digital world as well.

Hong's anti-government protests Kong began in June 2019, triggered by the establishment of plans to allow extradition to mainland China. The bill was later withdrawn but the protests continued to include calls for full democracy and an investigation into police behavior. "The way the Hong Kong protests intertwined with the gaming community was fascinating but, at the same time, quite complex," says Hugh Davies, a researcher at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Davies investigated how video games were used as a means of political protest and wrote an article, in 2020, entitled 'Spatial Politics at Play: Hong Kong Protests and Videogame Activism'.

At the time, Davies was residing in Hong Kong to study how the city was represented in video games and had noticed that it was depicted more than 150 times in games such as Deus Ex, Shenmue 2 and Sleeping Dogs. He was trying to figure out the reason for this popularity when something even more interesting caught his attention.

"Geographical territory suddenly exploded creating a new area of ​​gaming culture," says Davies.

According to the researcher, the Hong Kong protests were a seminal moment in video game protests because of the way they pervaded so many parts of the community. These include esports, most notably in the famous incident during live streaming of a Hearthstone tournament; games like Pokemon Go, Animal Crossing and GTA V; and the locally developed titles 'Liberate Hong Kong' and 'Revolution in our Times'.

Uber, for its part, was chosen as the way to transport protesters to and from protest sites; Tinder, Airdrop, Telegram, among others, have become sources of information and recruitment. The physical protests themselves also became a game: the proposed locations, the times and tactics that were voted on on social media, and the street demonstrations were broadcast on Facebook and Twitch.

"As a medium communication, video games are in a unique position to explore local politics, "says Davies' article.

The politics of disappearance

Take Pikachu, for example. The fulminating yellow rodent, with its cute red cheeks, may not seem like a particularly political creature but, in 2016, it became just that.

Cantonese Pikachu on the left and Mandarin on the right Nintendo changed the transliteration of the Pokémon's name from Cantonese to Mandarin, and some Hong Kongers saw this decision as an affront to their linguistic identity. Dozens of demonstrators even marched to the Japanese consulate to demand a single translation into Cantonese.

How could something seemingly so trivial turn into such a critical issue? History provides the answer. After the British invasion of China in the First Opium War (1839-42), the rocky island of Hong Kong was ceded to the British until it was returned to Beijing in 1997. As this date approaches, the citizens of Hong Kong began to confront their history, trying to understand and consolidate their unique culture, worrying about how it could change under the overwhelming influence of Communist Mandarin China.

"In a 'space of disappearance', in the unprecedented historical situation in which Hong Kong finds itself, of being disputed between two colonizations (the British and the Chinese), there is a desperate attempt to cling to images of identity, however alien or stereotyped they may be, "argued M.Ackbar Abbas in his prescient 1997 book, 'Hong Kong: Culture and Politics of Disappearance'.

For this reason and in a much broader context, Pikachu has become a symbol representing the fear of the disappearing culture that subsequently appeared in the 2019 protests. Pokemon Go, meanwhile, would be used as a a way of indicating where the protests would take place, as well as being an alibi for protesters who claimed to have gathered to play the mobile game in order to circumvent police rules on public gatherings.

From a cute animal to one called Tom Nook

Since its release on March 20 last year, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has become a global phenomenon. Nintendo's title also sold very well in mainland China, which is even more impressive considering the game was never officially released in the country.

"It was a huge success," says Charles Yang Xuefei, who has been involved in video games in China since 2003 and is the editor of IGN China and Game Bonfire. Yang, who is a gamer himself, claims to have observed friends and acquaintances, who have never shown an interest in consoles, buy Nintendo Switch just to play Animal Crossing. "It's accessible, trendy, and a very cool experience," says Yang who notes that this is the first title in the series to include simplified Chinese text.

The "social circle" effect isn't to be underestimated in China, where people are highly influenced by seeing what others are doing, and this has partly boosted sales. The game can be purchased online but also in markets, through gray market vendors.

Chenyu Cui, a Shanghai-based video game analyst for market research firm Omdia, estimates that 1.5 million copies of New Horizons may have been sold in China by the end of 2020. This estimate is based on discussions with insiders and contacts, as well as a review of publicly available sales figures in online stores. As the game is not officially available, estimates are the only option. Other analysts I spoke to have provided similar figures, with estimates up to two million.

But in April last year, the game suffered a brief ban - multiple media outlets suggested it was used by Hong Kongers as a virtual meeting place to organize protests in the real world.

A screenshot, dated April 10, 2020, depicting the slogan that could be heard sung during the 2019/2020 Hong Kong protests "We can speculate that the temporary ban in 2020 was mainly driven by social media and online shopping sites themselves, rather than being ordered by the government, as it was revoked shortly after the discussion subsided, "explains Chundi Zhang, analyst at Ampere Analysis.

" It was more a result of self-censorship to avoid getting involved in politics and this process can also be symbolic of how shoppers found they could search for Animal Crossing's nickname '猛男 捡 树枝 (A tough guy who gathers tree branches)' to find and purchase the game. "

Emily Chan, from Hong Kong, has been an Animal Crossing fan since the days of the Nintendo DS:" I loved interacting with the villagers and all. " The 26-year-old, who works in the cosmetics business, bought the chapter for Switch at a store in Mongkok, a dense market district, in May 2020, and hasn't stopped playing with it ever since.

When Chan took the game, the incidents described above were mostly over and the girl didn't see any of that directly, but she thinks the in-game protests were creative: "this is quite out of the box, incorporate politics in the game. I also think that people are trying to express their political views through the game, personalizing or even creating those materials to share among others. This happens when you are not allowed to express yourself freely in reality ".

Watch on YouTube. Suiching Or lives about fifty kilometers from Hong Kong in the mainland city of Shenzhen, about a 45-minute drive away. But it's a different world. Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia and many international news sites are all inaccessible to Or due to the blockade by the Chinese "Great Firewall". But Or was able to see some of the political statements expressed through the game on Chinese social media sites like Weibo (before they were deleted). What did you think about all this?

"They certainly have the freedom to express what they want," says the 24-year-old who works as an online seller. "But the problems in Hong Kong were very intense at the time and their behavior also expressed, to some extent, a willingness to split up. It didn't feel right."

she She said that how individuals play a game is personal but she doesn't think a video game is the right medium for these types of expression. "I think the purpose of games is to make people happy, not to be used as a tool to promote ideas."

I pressed her: "Do you think it should be forbidden?"

She got out of balance: "I'm just saying it shouldn't be so".

This opinion might sound like it typical of a Mainland Chinese but I would like to draw your attention to how many people in Western countries oppose political gestures in public events such as football matches. In democratic countries some may not want to see overt political statements in their games (both physical and digital) but in China, where political expression is extremely limited, the population is even less used to seeing them. This, however, does not mean that, given the latitude, they are unable to participate. Unfortunately, however, one of the few ways in which mainland Chinese citizens are allowed to express themselves politically is in nationalistic and patriotic tones.

In December 2019, Hong Kong players started using a virtual private network (VPN) to access the Chinese servers of the Grand Theft Auto V open world game. Once inside, Hong Kong players they customized their avatars to look like protesters and started throwing Molotov cocktails, vandalizing train stations and attacking police in China's GTA V (Subagja 2019). Continental players responded quickly, using Weibo to enlist new followers and repel Hong Kong insurgents and adopting the avatar of police officers in riot gear. - Spatial Politics at Play: Hong Kong Protests and Videogame Activism ", Hugh Davies.

Speaking to Davies via Skype from his Melbourne home, he observes the irony of the above example: the GTA rules V encourage players to destroy property and conduct criminal behavior but, in this particular case, it was Mainland Chinese players who played "subversively", impersonating law and order.

The word "game" deserves a brief remark here. Both the term and the behaviors it describes can become very technical and academic but, to simplify, playing, in this context, means playfully testing the rules and boundaries of a game. According to Davies et al. particular field, this subversive idea of ​​play can have "radical transformative potential".

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Returning to Animal Crossing, Davies is not surprised that the protest has spilled over into this space but also underlines the idea of ​​catharsis. New Horizons is a relaxing experience and Hong Kong players, seeking to escape both the pandemic and political reality, have withdrawn into this world. If some players wanted to put facsimiles of beleaguered Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in this space and hit her with butterfly nets, then that may have been a cathartic experience.

In Hong Kong, both the political idea of ​​disappearance, in the way that locals fear the loss of language, political identity and cultural heritage, and, in 2020, the disappearance of spaces public to protest, due to the restrictions of the coronavirus, have made the digital realm become a key hub for sites and protest rallies.

As video games and digital spaces become ever wider and more confuse with the daily reality of people around the world, protests are likely to become an increasingly common occurrence in video game spaces.

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