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 Sean Lin, 72, killing virtual Myanmar soldiers is a way to take part in real-life resistance to the country’s brutal military, which has killed thousands of civilians since 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.
“Even though I can’t kill soldiers who are brutally killing civilians, killing in the game is also satisfying,” Sen Lin said. “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 had long been at war with its own citizens. 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 fled the country on February 1, 2021, before seizing power. One of them, Ko Toot, said he was inspired to create the game after he was arrested and the technology disappeared. 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 in Apple’s App Store in the United States, Australia, and Singapore. “Myanmar people all over the world are downloading it,” 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. About a fifth of that 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.
Pinnyar Won Tha, 32, from Lashio village in northeastern Myanmar, is a hermit 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 the 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 coup, I really wanted to kill dictator generals and soldiers who considered the 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.”