Hanna Wirman investigates how online games are used in unforeseen ways
Games are everywhere – even in the most unlikely places. Hanna Wirman, Associate Professor at IT University of Copenhagen’s Digital Design Department, investigates extraordinary ways in which games are used for other purposes than entertainment including political protests and international conflicts.
We usually think of computer games as entertainment. However, today, games are employed in many different contexts and situations for reasons that are not necessarily about entertainment. “Games are everywhere, and they turn up in contexts where you would least expect it, for instance in situations like political demonstrations and during international conflicts,” says Hanna Wirman, Associate Professor at ITU’s Digital Design Department and member of the Center for Digital Play.
She has devoted a large part of her career to investigating ways in which games are used against their developers’ original intentions. In 2004, she introduced the term counter-play to characterise alternative approaches to playing games. Ever since, she has studied fan creativity and serious games to understand how players interact with games.
“The games industry is growing year by year and its sectors are becoming more specialized. It is essential to know how new games and how new game features may be used – and potentially misused – in different settings,” says Hanna Wirman.
Tactical use of Grand Theft Auto and Clash of Clans in protests
In her research, Hanna Wirman has found that protests and demonstrations are two settings where online games may be used for tactical purposes. Demonstrators against the Russian invasion of Ukraine carry out pro-Ukraine protests in the fictional world of Grand Theft Auto 5 Online
. On the streets of the fictional world the players take a break from stealing cars, driving recklessly, and robbing banks to don blue and yellow colors in online solidarity.
“Games facilitate settings for the establishment of an online community where people may gather in solidarity no matter where in the world they live. The protest inside the games makes it easier to demonstrate and show support, because you can do it from behind a screen. People can also participate anonymously and without risk to themselves,” says Hanna Wirman. She further explains that the players take screenshots of the online protests and share the pictures on social media channels to increase the attention and visibility.
Another tactical way to employ a game in a protest is when protesters use the chat function in an online game to communicate. In some countries, chat services may be restricted or under surveillance by the authorities, and therefore activists must think outside the box to communicate. “The chat function in the game Clash of Clans
, where players build villages and fight one another to procure more crops and resources, was allegedly used during the protests for women’s rights in Iran in 2022. The Iranian government monitored other chat services and claimed that the demonstrators used the chat function in Clash of Clans
to coordinate and organize the demonstrations,” says Hanna Wirman.
Communication through Pokémon Go
In November 2019, students barricaded themselves at Hong Kong Polytechnic University to protest the Hong Kong government. During the ensuing confrontation with the police, the students used the game Pokémon Go to communicate about safe hiding places. Pokémon Go
is based on augmented reality; the game world is rooted in the real world. This feature turned out to be very useful to the students hiding from the police during the turmoil. “While the students hid from the police, they gave their Pokémon avatars names such as ‘thisissafe’ and ‘pleasehelpme’, and in that way they showed their friends where they were hiding and if they needed help,” says Hanna Wirman.
In the article "Block the Spawn Point”: Play and Games in the Hong Kong 2019 Pro-democracy Protests
, Hanna Wirman identifies additionally four other ways in which games are used in protests: protest art, game slang, modifications, and protest games. Consequently, online games facilitate new possibilities for demonstrators to organize protests and pass on information, gain visibility and attention about their cause, and allow online communities to organise around shared beliefs and values.
New game features create special requirements for game designers
Connecting digital entertainment and political events illustrates new ways people use digital games. According to Hanna Wirman, the games industry keeps growing and diversifying. New types of games with new functionalities are being developed all the time. The purpose of the new games is typically to entertain the players, however new games, and new game features means new ways of interacting with the games.
“To a certain degree, game designers need to be aware of other potential uses of their games. It is essential that we identify and investigate the games’ different potential and features that can be used beyond designers’ initial expectations,” says Hanna Wirman. Theis Duelund Jensen, Press Officer, tel: 2555 0447, email: email@example.com