Protests against the war between Israel and Gaza have swept the world, with citizens on both sides of the conflict taking to the streets to call for an end to the bloodshed.
But this is not the only way for protesters to express their disagreement.
In Roblox, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game in which players – mostly children and teenagers – create their own virtual worlds for others to explore, protests have been held regularly since the war began.
In one, started by a popular Malaysian gamer, blocky avatars, ranging from cowboys and princesses to reptilian creatures and zombies, wave Palestinian and Malaysian flags and sing together via the game’s chat function. site the site hosting the event was visited nearly 400,000 times.
Other protests take a different tone.
In one of them, two Israeli flags burn perpetually next to a crowd of demonstrators brandishing signs.
In another, players can act as members of the Israel Defense Forces, defending the state’s borders.
Outside of the video game world, many people are surprised by these virtual political protests.
But for those who play virtual games, the space to express disagreement is part of its appeal.
Find a voice
For Carolanne*, a cosplayer, gamer and content creator based in Montreal, making meaningful connections is part of what led her to her game of choice, Final Fantasy XIV.
“The community is very welcoming… They are very passionate,” she says.
“There is a lot of respect for each player and for the developers.
“We feel comfortable; we’re not afraid to talk to strangers… Everyone is just very open.”
Final Fantasy is also, for her, a platform of protest.
She participated in a virtual protest on abortion rights last year, days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade.
She was playing her usual avatar when she encountered hundreds of others, standing still and all sharing the same campfire animation, as if they were holding a candlelight vigil.
Players shared their comments about the protest and “encouraged people to learn about women’s rights,” says Carolanne.
This cause moved her deeply and she joined the vigil and shared screenshots on other online forums to spread the message.
For Carolanne, protesting in this way seemed safer than making her voice heard in the streets.
“I’m someone who walks a very feminist path… (but) I don’t go to real protests for health reasons, and I also suffer from chronic anxiety,” she says.
“If I can share my voice in a different way…I want to.”
Bring in the outside world
Online multiplayer games have been closely linked to activism since their inception in the 1990s.
Steven Conway, senior lecturer and course director in games and interactivity at Swinburne University of Technology, calls early MMOs “the first really big games that attracted this kind of political activity.”
“It often started as a protest against a change in the game… and slowly but surely, players began to bring the outside world into the game world,” he says.
He discusses major political events, such as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which sparked in-game protests.
In 2017, MMO players formed an online group called Avatars against Trump which brought together players from several games to protest the then-US president’s controversial immigration ban.
In 2020, the world-building game Animal Crossing hosted both Black Lives Matter protests and democracy protests in Hong Kong.
And last year, in Final Fantasy XIV, avatars dressed in yellow and blue flooded fictional cities in support of Ukraine during the Russian invasion.
Although activism in games is often introduced by users, some games incorporate it into their design.
Brendan Keogh, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at the Queensland University of Technology, says there is “a very broad history of creating political games to convey a message through play”.
He cites a game called September 12th: A Toy World, released in 2003, in which players launch missiles at an Arab city in an attempt to kill terrorists, but in doing so kill and radicalize civilians.
“It’s really a pretty simple but also powerful message from the circles of violence,” he says.
An “exceptional media” of protest
Roblox and similar games like Minecraft give players “tremendous freedom” to “create their own virtual world,” says Dr. Conway.
“That’s part of the power of the game…and that’s what makes it such an exceptional means of protest.”
Events in online games can be organized and shared around the world very quickly and can feature custom flags, posters, outfits and decor.
“It allows for a lot more flexibility, a lot more accessibility, and a lot more action than you would have in a standard event,” says Dr. Conway.
Protesting virtually can also offer some protections.
“Expressing a particular point of view carries many risks: being bullied, being reprimanded, even losing your job or getting into trouble with the law,” says Dr. Conway.
“The ability to protest anonymously is the removal of this social and psychological (barrier).”
Dr Keogh says virtual squares are essential places for people to express their political beliefs, including as real-life meeting places. decline.
“We see that public space is less and less available for young people around the world, but especially in the West,” he says.
“To be able to find this alternative site and feel like you’re part of this kind of larger global movement is definitely empowering.”
Meeting with the creator
It’s not just about foreign policies expressed in virtual worlds; It’s internal too.
If players disagree with decisions made by a company or developer, a common protest tactic is to “throw a blackout” by ordering a mass of users into the system. a game at the same time.
“(It’s) somewhat similar to taking a product or service off the grid,” Dr. Conway says.
Gaming companies don’t tend to like having their own technology used against them and often “respond harshly”, for example by banning or suspending players.
Other types of virtual protests, like sit-ins or marches, are moderated more leniently, although this is a “gray area.”
“It’s very, very difficult to detect these events in real time, I would say almost impossible,” says Dr. Conway.
“There are so many players, so many servers… you would have to pay thousands of people to moderate.”
This means that companies must generally act retroactively, relying on public discussion forums to identify problem users.
But players often “self-moderate” too, Dr. Conway says.
“It’s like someone going thug (protester) in the middle of a city. The other protesters would say, ‘Hey, stop it.’
Pay to protest
A virtual event may be widely accessible, but it is not necessarily free.
Purchasing an avatar’s clothing, weapons, or abilities has long required microtransactions in the MMO ecosystem.
They were widely criticized as being exploitative, especially in children’s games.
For example, pro-Ukraine protesters in Final Fantasy XIV you often have to pay for the blue and yellow “dyes” of their avatars.
Black Sims players, including those wishing to protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, have reported having to pay extra for accurate skin tones and hairstyles for their characters.
This highlights an important point for gamers to remember, says Dr Keogh: games “are not actually public, democratic spaces”.
“They are owned by private companies, who have a lot of say in what is allowed to take place there, but who also derive direct value from the people protesting in these spaces.
“A lot of these games now are entirely driven by these micro-transactions… so it’s ripe for that kind of profit.”
Activism versus slacktivism
Players like Carolanne say virtual protests make them feel empowered, but many say it’s a form of “slacktivism”; that is, supporting a cause publicly but without significant effort or commitment.
“It’s probably a lot easier than getting on a train into town on a Sunday afternoon to attend a protest,” says Dr Keogh.
“But at the same time, it’s never really black and white. I think the virtual protests have really brought broader attention and visibility to various difficult situations that may not be reported in the mainstream media. “
Rather than competing with a physical protest movement, virtual activism should be seen as “complementary”, Dr Keogh believes.
“Just protesting in an online multiplayer game won’t do anything on its own, but I think it can be a valuable and legitimate physical protest (amplifier).
“This is a potentially very powerful grassroots tool that people can use to increase their visibility and rally more people to a cause.”
*Last name withheld to protect confidentiality.
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