The mobile game funding a revolution in Myanmar
Ko Toot became so angry when soldiers arrested his friend and his pregnant wife after the February 2021 coup that he decided to use his IT skills to remove the military.
He developed an app-based mobile game based on “real events” in the country that has proven successful at incentivizing the ruling junta and raising funds.
“Never in their lives had they committed any crime,” Ko Toot said of the couple, who were detained for supporting democracy.
He had no idea what had happened to them. Despite being held for about a year and a half, the woman was released within a day, according to the BBC.
Ko Toot then heard that the military had detained the wife and infant daughter of a pro-democracy activist it had been unable to find.
“Can you imagine growing up in a dirty, stressful, sadistic prison with no idea what’s going on? It made my blood boil.”
Developing his game began after Ko Toot, an IT professional, decided he had to be part of the movement to oust the “cruel and dangerous” military.
The BBC spoke with Ko Toot via text message on an encrypted app, and he refused to reveal his location. In the wake of the coup, Myanmar descended into a full-scale civil war. We are using a pseudonym to protect him.
Since then, the military has killed more than 4,000 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group. A higher death toll is likely, according to the UN.
Military losses have been acknowledged, but no figure has been provided. 20,000 soldiers have been killed by the resistance, according to the exiled National Unity Government, but the BBC has not verified this claim.
The goal of Ko Toot’s campaign was to raise funds for arms and humanitarian aid for the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) as well as to increase awareness about the situation in the country.
“The international response to Myanmar’s crisis was unfavourably compared with the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” he said.
A real war fought by real people
In early 2022, he launched The PDF Game.
Players watch in-game ads to raise money, and Ko Toot estimates proceeds raised so far total at least $508,000 (£403,000).
Currently, he makes between $70,000 and $80,000 per month, and it is “increasing every month”.
There are missions similar to those in Myanmar in which players play as PDF soldiers fighting military troops.
Among the characters Ko Toot created were doctors, Muslims, and LGBT members fighting in the military.
Documenting them was important since “they are fighting in a real war”.
Ko Toot said the game has been experiencing issues because of Google and Apple’s policies surrounding sensitive events.
On Google Play, it is now called “War of Heroes – The PDF Game”. Content that “capitalises on or is insensitive toward a sensitive event” is generally not allowed by Google, but content that “intends to alert users to or raise awareness” about it is generally allowed.
Before it was removed from the Apple App Store, the name had to be changed to “War of Heroes” – Ko Toot called this a “huge blow”.
As well as its policy around violent conflicts, Apple said the app violated its guidelines, including the ban of enemies in games targeting “real government, corporations, or any other real entity”.
Since then, Ko Toot has made amendments, including changing the original artwork and removing some military missions.
“It’s definitely good news, and now we expect to make more money.” he said.
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Also in April, the ruling junta in Myanmar warned the public they could face legal action for “playing the PDF game”.
According to the report, “terrorist organizations”, such as the exiled National Unity Government, developed the game to raise funds for PDFs, sow distrust against the military, and thus “grow their anti-army revolutionary spirits”.