How Gaming Became the Next Front in the War Over Hong Kong
‘Overwatch’ players have repurposed a Chinese character into a symbol of the protests, as the debate over the city spreads to the video game world
If we needed any more proof that the intersection of meme culture, gaming, capitalism, and politics is a defining element of contemporary global reality, now we have this: A first-person shooter gaming character has joined the fight between Hong Kong protesters and the Chinese government’s authoritarianism.
In the Blizzard game Overwatch, the character Dr. Mei-Ling Zhou is a climate scientist who freezes herself in an Antarctic cryo chamber during a catastrophic storm. She awakens nine years later in a world gone deeply awry, and must employ her special cold-weather-related powers (like her frost-jet-spouting Endothermic Blaster) against a variety of enemies.
As of Wednesday morning, Mei had found a new opponent to tackle: the Chinese Communist Party. In a meme video called “Mei Stands with Hong Kong,” published by a sympathizer to the Hong Kong protest movement, politically provocative Chinese subtitles and spliced protest footage are inserted into about two minutes of a stock Overwatch scene.
In the video, just after a photograph of Hong Kong’s highly unpopular Chief Executive Carrie Lam flashes across the screen, Mei is asked by another Overwatch character, Winston, whether she can “help us change this ruthless world.”
If you want to play in global culture, then global culture is going to play with you.
“I can,” she replies. She then leaves the Antarctic base, pulling a trailer full of weapons superimposed with the Chinese characters for the words “universal values,” a phrase generally held to reference freedom, justice, equality, and human rights.
The immediate catalyst for the video’s creation was Blizzard’s decision to penalize a Hong Kong Hearthstone player for publicly supporting the Hong Kong protest movement in a Taiwanese Hearthstone livestream. The action enraged free-speech-loving gamers and U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Blizzard’s motivations were obvious. Not only does the California-based gaming company derive roughly 12% of its annual revenue from the Asia-Pacific region, but Tencent, one of China’s largest internet corporations, owns just under 5% of Activision, Blizzard’s corporate parent. (Tencent also owns 100% of Riot Games, the creator of the massive international hit League of Legends, and 48% of Epic Games, the creator of the even more massively popular Fortnite.)
One could argue that the very creation of Mei — the first explicitly Chinese character in the game — was itself a direct nod to China’s huge presence in the ongoing globalization of gaming culture. In both 2017 and 2018, China owned the world’s largest gaming market as measured by gross revenue. In the same way that big-budget Hollywood movies are constructed with an eye to the all-important Chinese box office (and Chinese censors), games aimed at the global market are increasingly including representation that speaks to Chinese audiences, albeit with mixed success.
But if you want to play in global culture, then global culture is going to play with you. China’s presence in the international gaming scene has been rightfully viewed as proof of its economic rise and pop-cultural potency, but that also means it is a participant in a dialogue that the government in Beijing cannot fully control, however much it might try. The avowed goal of Hong Kong protest-supporting gamers who gather in places like the subreddit r/hongkong is to flip Blizzard’s business incentives in reverse. Their hope is that if the “Mei Stands With Hong Kong” meme goes viral — if, as one Redditor put it, “Hong Kong decides to use Blizzard character to become mascot of Hong Kong liberation movement” — then China would be forced to ban Overwatch in China, damaging Blizzard’s profitability.
One of the defining characteristics of the Hong Kong protests is they are led and organized by a generation of young people who cut their teeth in the internationally promiscuous environment of meme culture and gaming.
Blizzard did not respond to inquiries from OneZero on the repurposing of Mei as a Hong Kong freedom fighter, but it’s becoming clear that we are entering the earliest stages of a narrative in which gaming culture and international politics continue to become ever more mutually inextricable. China’s ability to control speech within its own Great Firewall is well known. But the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to control speech outside of China, whether it be by a Houston Rockets team executive, the animated show South Park, or a swarm of freedom-loving Redditors, is a censorship challenge of a different order.
It’s easy enough to scoff at the prospect that a few memes, however viral, will have any impact whatsoever on the Chinese Communist Party’s intention to clamp down on protest in Hong Kong. But one of the defining characteristics of the Hong Kong protests is they are led and organized by a generation of young people who cut their teeth in the internationally promiscuous environment of meme culture and gaming. The emergence of esports as a pop-cultural and economic global phenomenon has long included a strong Asian presence, at least as far back as when Korean Starcraft gamers began dominating the world in the 1990s.
It’s hard to imagine that the Blizzard game designers who dreamed up Starcraft back then could have foreseen that some of their fictional creations would be enlisted in titanic struggles embodying life-and-death implications for human rights and freedom of expression. But in retrospect, it seems inevitable. A global generation raised to believe that anything is possible in an infinite universe of high-definition virtual realities can be forgiven for believing that it might also be possible to remake their flesh-and-world existence as they see fit.