The Hong Kong protests continue in a video game proxy war on Grand Theft Auto

A sidewalk in Hong Kong, or in Grand Theft Auto V?
A sidewalk in Hong Kong, or in Grand Theft Auto V?
Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
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Over the past nine months, protestors in Hong Kong have taken over shopping malls, a university campus, and the city’s public transportation system. Now the protestors have taken their fight to a new platform: a video game.

A digital conflict seems to be erupting in the popular online game Grand Theft Auto V between players sympathetic with Hong Kong’s protestors and players from mainland China. As CNN reports, the online battle began when players in the semi-autonomous region realized that they could dress their avatars in the game the way protestors dress in real life, complete with gas masks and yellow helmets. Players shared the discovery on social media, and naturally others followed suit.

Soon, the protestor-players started behaving in the (famously sandbox-style) game the way they do in real life: they threw bombs, vandalized train stations, and attacked police, all within the game according to CNN.

Players in mainland China, meanwhile, took notice. They started dressing their characters like police to combat the digital protestors, countering their aggressions with water cannons and tear gas. After several intense standoffs, the police seemed to have defeated the protestors, in part because of sheer numbers, one player told CNN.

But it would be foolish to assume that this offers any insight into what might happen to the protests in Hong Kong—or that “winning” these standoffs is even the goal for these player-protestors. Participants in the famously leaderless movement have used social media and other online platforms in unique ways that further the goals of the movement but also protect their identities. Grand Theft Auto, it seems, is just another digital place for the protestors to demonstrate.