U Sen 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 upon War of Heroes – The PDF Game.
Since then he has been playing almost non-stop.
For Mr Sein Lin, 72, killing virtual Myanmar soldiers is a way to take part in real-life resistance to the country’s brutal army, which killed thousands of civilians after seizing power last year.
Since its debut in March, War of Heroes has been downloaded more than 390,000 times. Many players say they are inspired by the producers’ pledge to finance the resistance forces in Myanmar and help those displaced by the fighting.
“Although I can’t kill soldiers who brutally kill civilians, it’s still satisfying to kill in the game,” said Mr Sen Lin. “One way or another, playing games and clicking until I die will help the revolution.”
Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, had previously ruled the country for half a century and was at war with its own citizens for a long time. Since ousting elected officials in a coup last year, the government has tried to crush dissent by arresting opposition leaders, shooting unarmed protesters, bombing guerrilla camps and burning thousands of homes.
Many regime opponents have fled into the jungles, where they have formed the People’s Defense Force, or PDF, with more than 60,000 soldiers under the leadership of the shadow National Unity Government. A similar number of fighters in urban areas have formed semi-autonomous guerrilla units, known as the Local People’s Defense Forces.
War of Heroes was created by three Myanmar-born developers who left the country on February 1, 2021 before the military seized power. One of them, Ko Toot, said he was inspired to create the game after his arrest and then the tech’s disappearance. Business associates in Myanmar who were involved in, or whose family members were involved in, anti-coup protests.
The paid version of the game was released in mid-June, and within days it regularly landed in the top 10 game lists on Apple’s App Store in the United States, Australia, and Singapore. “Myanmar people all over the world are downloading it,” Mr Toot said.
In the game, players go into battle and kill regime soldiers, moving up the ranks as the game gets harder. At higher levels, players can target civilian spies, turncoat celebrities who support junta and coup leaders.
“You must join our resistance forces to protect innocent people from evil military forces,” says the game’s App Store description. “It is your duty to join the People’s Defense Force and become the best freedom fighter.”
The free version of the game earns money when players view advertisements. The paid version earns revenue when players download it or buy ammunition. Gamers who play enough to earn the equivalent of $54 for the game receive a “Certificate of Achievement” for participating in the Spring Revolution, as a protest in Myanmar, and for donating money.
So far, the developers say they’ve donated $90,000. A fifth of it has gone to help the displaced. The rest has been donated to more than two dozen local conservation groups.
Players in Myanmar need a VPN or virtual private network to get around internet restrictions to access the game. To avoid arrest at checkpoints or random police stops, players uninstall the game from their phones before going out and re-download it after returning home.
The game has attracted some unlikely fans, one of whom is a Buddhist monk and member of the Tatmadaw.
U Pinnyar Won Tha, a 32-year-old monk from the village of Lashio in northeastern Myanmar, is an avid athlete. Although the Buddha said not to kill the living, he said, people in Myanmar should protect themselves from the evil.
“Playing PDF games is against Buddha’s teachings, but I don’t feel guilty because we are dying under military rule,” he said. “If someone threatens our lives, we must kill them in self-defense. If not, they can kill us anytime.”
War of Heroes is the first fighting game he ever played, he said. Developers’ pledges to donate money to displaced people and resistance fighters made him fans.
“In true Buddhism, monks should be respected, but the military junta is persecuting and killing monks,” he said. “So, it’s worth playing a game to give them karma.”
The game has become so popular that even some soldiers are playing it. The number of defectors has increased since the coup. Those who remain in the army but are against 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 take the blame if he could but knew Tatmadav would take revenge on his family. Instead, to aid the revolution, he secretly provides inside information to the resistance forces, he said.
He also plays War of Heroes.
“After the lake, I really wanted to kill dictator generals and soldiers who treat people as their enemies,” he said. “But my situation doesn’t allow me to kill them in the real world. If circumstances permit, I will. “
Sports give him an outlet for his anger. “Killing Myanmar Army soldiers in the game is a great feeling,” he said. “At least, I’m happy to be able to earn money for the revolution by killing soldiers.”
Another fan is Ma Myat No Ai, 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 the rebel-held village of Laiza in Kachin State, where she volunteers as a People’s Defense Force paramedic.
In May, soldiers attacked and burned her village of Nai Pu Kone in Sagaing Division, forcing her relatives and 5,000 other people to flee. “I lost my job,” she said. “My family lost our farm and home. Now my entire family has to depend 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 Mayt Noe said her mother, 56, joined her at Laiza and now works as a cook for the People’s Defense Force. She introduced her mother to War of Heroes and now the elderly woman plays it every night before bed.
“I told her, whenever she hates the army, she can play sports to relieve her stress and help the revolution,” she said. “When I play the game, that’s what I feel. This revolution must be the end game.