Fighting a Brutal Regime With the Help of a Video Game

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 stumbled on War of Heroes — The PDF Game.

He has been playing it nearly nonstop ever since.

For Mr. Sein Lin, 72, killing virtual Myanmar troops is a way of participating in real-life resistance to the country’s ruthless military, which has killed thousands of citizens after seizing power in a coup last year.

Since its debut in March, War of Heroes has been downloaded more than 390,000 times. Many players say they are motivated by the creators’ pledge to donate proceeds to help finance resistance forces in Myanmar, and aid those who have been displaced by the fighting.

“Even though I can’t kill soldiers who are brutally killing civilians, killing in the game is satisfying, too,” Mr. 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 the coup last year, the regime has attempted to crush dissent by arresting opposition leaders, gunning down unarmed protesters, bombing guerrilla encampments and burning thousands of homes.

Many regime opponents have fled to the jungle, where they have formed the People’s Defense Force, or P.D.F., an army with more than 60,000 fighters under the leadership of the shadow National Unity Government. A similar number of fighters in urban areas have formed semiautonomous guerrilla units, known as the local people’s defense forces.

War of Heroes was created by three Myanmar-born developers who left the country before the generals seized power on Feb. 1, 2021. One of them, Ko Toot, said they were motivated to create the game after the arrest and subsequent disappearance of tech industry colleagues in Myanmar who were involved, or whose family members were involved, in anti-coup protests.

A paid version of the game was released in mid-June, and within days it began landing regularly on lists of top 10 games at Apple’s App Store in the United States, Australia and Singapore. “Myanmar people all around the world are downloading it,” Mr. Toot said.

In the game, players go into battle and kill regime soldiers, moving up in rank as the game becomes harder. At higher levels, players can target civilian spies, turncoat celebrities who support the junta and coup leaders.

“We need you to join our resistance forces to protect innocent people From Evil Military Forces,” says the game’s App Store description. “Your duty is to join People’s Defense Force and become the best freedom fighter.”

The game’s free version makes money when players watch ads. The paid version takes in revenue when players download it or buy ammunition. Gamers who play enough to make the equivalent of $54 for the game 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 have donated $90,000. About a fifth of it has gone to help displaced people. The rest has been donated to more than two dozen local defense groups.

Players in Myanmar need a VPN, or virtual private network, to get around internet restrictions for access to the game. To avoid arrest at checkpoints or during random police stops, players uninstall the game from their phone before going out and download it again after they return home.

The game has attracted some unlikely fans, among them a Buddhist monk and a member of the Tatmadaw.

U Pyinnyar Won Tha, 32, a monk in Lashio, a town in northeastern Myanmar, is an avid player. Although Buddha says not to kill living things, he said, people in Myanmar must defend themselves from the junta.

“Playing a P.D.F. game is against Buddha’s teachings, but I don’t feel guilty because we’re dying under the military regime,” he said. “If someone is threatening our lives, we must kill them just to defend ourselves. If not, they can kill us any time.”

War of Heroes is the first battle game he has played, he said. The developers’ pledge to donate money to displaced people and resistance fighters made him a fan.

“In true Buddhism, monks must be respected, but the military junta is torturing and killing monks,” he said. “So, it’s fair to play a game to give them karma.”

The game has become so popular that some soldiers are also playing. Since the coup, the number of defectors has grown. Those who stay in the military but are against the regime are known as “watermelons”: army green on the outside and red, representing the pro-democracy movement, on the inside.

One soldier, whose name is being withheld for his safety, said he would defect if he could but that he knows that 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 enemy,” he said. “But my situation does not allow me to kill them in the real world. If the situation allowed, I would.”

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

In May, soldiers attacked and burned her home 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 house. Now my entire family has to rely on relatives’ help. 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 now worked 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 she sleeps.

“I told her, whenever 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.”

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