U Sein Lin, a retired history teacher in Myanmar, had 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.
He’s been playing it almost non-stop ever since.
For Mr Sein Lin, 72, killing virtual Myanmar forces is a way to join the real resistance against the country’s ruthless military, which has killed thousands of civilians after taking power in a coup last year. .
Since its March debut, War of Heroes has been downloaded over 390,000 times. Many players say they are motivated by the creators’ promise to donate the proceeds to help fund resistance forces in Myanmar and to help those displaced by the fighting.
“While I can’t kill soldiers who brutally kill civilians, in-game killing is also satisfying,” said Mr. Signal Lin. “Somehow playing the game and clicking ’til I die will help the revolution.”
Myanmar’s army, known as the Tatmadaw, previously ruled the country for half a century and has long been at war with its own citizens. Since the regime overthrew elected officials in the coup last year, it has tried to quell dissent by arresting opposition leaders, shooting unarmed protesters, bombing guerrilla camps and setting fire to thousands of homes.
Many opponents of the regime have fled to the jungle, where they formed the People’s Defense Force, or PDF, an army of more than 60,000 fighters led by the shadow government of the National Unity. A similar number of fighters in urban areas have formed semi-autonomous guerrilla unitsknown as the Local People’s Defense Forces.
War of Heroes was created by three Myanmar-born developers who left the country before the generals took power on February 1, 2021. One of them, Ko Toot, said they were motivated to make the game after the arrest and subsequent disappearance of tech industry colleagues in Myanmar who were involved, or whose relatives were involved, in anti-coup protests.
A paid version of the game was released in mid-June, and within days it regularly made it to the top 10 games on Apple’s App Store in the United States, Australia and Singapore. “Myanmar people all over the world are downloading it,” said Mr. toot.
In the game, players go into battle and kill regime soldiers, increasing in rank as the game becomes more difficult. At higher levels, players can target civilian spies, junta-supporting celebrities, and coup leaders.
“You must join our resistance forces to protect innocent people from evil forces,” says the App Store description of the game. “It is your duty to join the People’s Defense Force and become the best freedom fighter.”
The free version of the game makes money when players watch ads. The paid version earns revenue when players download it or buy ammo. Gamers who play enough to earn the equivalent of $54 for the game will receive a “certificate of achievement” for participating in the Spring Revolution, as the protests in Myanmar are known, and for donating money.
So far, the developers say they donated $90,000. About a fifth of that went to help displaced people. The rest has been donated to more than two dozen local defense groups.
Players in Myanmar require a VPN or virtual private network to bypass internet restrictions on accessing the game. To avoid arrest at checkpoints or during random police stops, players delete the game from their phones before going out and download it again when they get home.
The game has attracted some unlikely fans, including a Buddhist monk and a member of the Tatmadaw.
U Pyinnyar Won Tha, 32, a monk in Lashio, a city in northeastern Myanmar, is an avid player. Although Buddha says he does not kill living beings, he said people in Myanmar must defend themselves against the junta.
“Playing a PDF game is against Buddha’s teachings, but I don’t feel guilty because we are dying under the military regime,” he said. “If someone threatens our lives, we must kill them to defend ourselves. If not, they could kill us any moment.”
War of Heroes is the first combat game he has played, he said. The developers’ promise to donate money to displaced persons and resistance fighters made him a fan.
“In real Buddhism monks should be respected, but the military junta tortures and kills monks,” he said. “So it’s fair to play a game of giving them karma.”
The game has become so popular that some soldiers play it too. Since the coup, the number of defectors has grown. Those who remain in the military but oppose the regime are known as “watermelons”: army green on the outside and red, representing the pro-democracy movement, on the inside.
A soldier, whose name is being withheld for his safety, said he would defect if he could, but he knew the Tatmadaw would take revenge on his family. Instead, to aid the revolution, he clandestinely provides inside information to the resistance forces, he said.
He also plays War of Heroes.
“After the coup, I really wanted to kill the dictatorial generals and the soldiers who see the people as their enemies,” he said. “But my situation doesn’t allow me to kill them in the real world. If the situation allows it, I would.”
The game gives him an outlet for his anger. “It’s a nice feeling to kill Myanmar army soldiers in the game,” he said. “At least I’m happy to be able to kill soldiers and make money for the revolution.”
Another fan is Ma Myat Noe Aye, 28, a nurse who quit her job at a government 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 to serve as a paramedic for the People’s Defense Force.
In May, soldiers attacked and set fire to her native village, Nay Pu Kone in Sagaing Division, forcing her relatives and 5,000 others to flee. “I lost my job,” she said. “My family lost our farms and our home. Now my whole family is dependent 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.”
Ms. Myat Noe said her mother, 56, had joined her in Laiza and was now working as a cook for the People’s Defense Force. She introduced her mother to War of Heroes, and now the older woman plays every night before going to sleep.
“I told her that when she feels hatred for the military, she can play the game to relieve her stress and help the revolution,” she said. “When I play the game, I feel the same. This revolution must be the endgame.”