On lockdown, Hong Kong activists are protesting in Animal Crossing

A group of teenagers in shorts and summer dresses stand in front of a semicircle of tiki torches, whacking the ground with what look like fishing nets. The beach is lit up only by smouldering camp fires.

This isn’t a dystopian scene from the latest season of Survivor but a moment in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a video game mostly known for its cute animal companions. Its escapist qualities have made it a best-seller during the global coronavirus pandemic.

The group on the beach is made up of players from Hong Kong and they’re whacking pictures of Carrie Lam, their head of government. A banner laid out in front of them is familiar to anyone who followed news out of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory last year. The flag reads “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now.”

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Protests in Hong Kong escalated in June last year over a now-scrapped extradition bill and later evolved into wider demands for more democracy. The protests drew hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers of all ages, many of them masked to protect their identities.

But the demonstrations have stalled since Covid-19 first appeared in China late last year and spread across the globe. The pandemic gave the Hong Kong government, which called many of the demonstrations unlawful, an excuse to impose a lockdown, which it used to further crack down on pro-democracy activists. More than 8,000 people have been arrested since the beginning of the protests.

Like the rest of the world, Hong Kongers have taken to playing the newest version of Animal Crossing as a welcome escape. And they have brought their protest message and art with them.

Animal Crossing is a place without political censorship so it is a good place to continue our fight,” says pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who is widely regarded as the face of the city’s 2014 Umbrella Movement. Wong remains an important figure in the current protests. “Even lawmakers in Hong Kong are playing this game,” he says.

In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players travel to a deserted island where they can make friends with their animal neighbours, go fishing or hunt for bugs, and build their own homes. They can also invite friends, which is perfect at a time when what feels like the entire world is living very much online and in self-isolation. Since its release on March 20, Nintendo has sold millions of copies, shattering sales records in many countries, including in the UK. On its website, Nintendo asks players to “show off your island utopia.”

Wong, who is the secretary-general of pro-democracy party Demosistō says he recently started playing the game himself. In a screenshot of his island, his character is standing in front of a tiny hut in jeans and what look like Timberland boots, holding a hatchet in his hands. His garden is decorated with a big black protest banner and portraits of Chinese president Xi Jinping and Carrie Lam, as well as a pink cherry tree in full bloom.

“Since the setting of Animal Crossing: New Horizons is that players start their life on a deserted island, we can decorate the island any way we like, and share the message we want to tell the world,” says Li, a student in her 20s, who did not want to give her full name.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters have been unique in their use of social media and eye-catching artwork to amplify their political demands. Before the pandemic, colourful “Lennon Walls” of post-it notes could be seen all over the city, in underground subway passages and outside malls. Authorities continue to remove the protest artwork, now citing sanitary concerns in light of Covid-19.

Li says she first saw other Animal Crossing players from Hong Kong posting their protest art and photos of their islands in an online forum and was inspired to do the same. “This is also a way for us to remind people not to forget what happened in the past eight months,” she says. “Not everyone is open to political stuff, Animal Crossing is a good way to promote our mission to those who are politically apathetic.”

The game allows players to design their own artwork and clothes and share them via QR codes. Hong Kong activists have used this to recreate their movement’s iconic designs and share them on social media and LIHKG, a local equivalent to Reddit that is popular with protesters.

Fung, another Hong Konger in her 30s who only wanted to give her last name, says she recently started creating her own protest-themed clothes in the game, which she then shares with friends.

“I just draw the thing I most care about and love, just like someone draws their (pop) idols … I draw 連狗連豬,” she says in a Facebook message, referring to Hong Kong’s unofficial protest mascots, a pig and a dog. “One of the selling points of Animal Crossing is that you have the freedom to do anything on your island.”

Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ custom design feature has also been popular elsewhere. Artists have used it to hold exhibitions online, while galleries remain shut, and fashion designers dress Animal Crossing characters in their newest lines.

In mainland China, some players are sharing Communist Party propaganda on the game, which isn’t actually officially allowed in the country, where the availability of video games is tightly controlled (the Nintendo Switch only recently became available, with only three approved titles – all Mario games).

Players in Taiwan and Japan have also used the game to share political messages. Studio Incendo, which first shared the video of Animal Crossing characters “batting” Carrie Lam, says it got the idea from a video where players were doing something similar to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“I think it is a way for Hong Kongers to reduce stress and express our anger at the government,” says a member of the group, which consists of Hong Kong photographers and which normally shares more serious content from the frontlines of the protests. “Hong Kongers have been too stressed and unhappy,” they add – with the mounting pressure of the government crackdown and the pandemic, Animal Crossing is providing an unlikely outlet. “We thought the video would make people laugh”.

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