Digital Activism on Animal Crossing — Calls for #JunkTerrorBill

On June 12, 2020, the Philippine Independence day, we saw the Filipino spirit of resistance live just as strong as the irrepressible patriotism of our age old heroes. Today, we examine how it remains in the midst of a pandemic. Various grand Mañanita- themed protests reigned nationwide with the spotlight on UP Diliman. People took to the streets and voiced their dissent. However, despite the strong publicity, the protests, admittedly, weren’t as big as the usual movements have been. But those weren’t the only protests going around. In this take, we explore digital activism on the likes of video games. Specifically, the current hottest game without age boundaries— Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Animal Crossing is a sandbox game that provides much space for creativity that you can share everywhere. It’s basically perfect since digital activism is just about digital tools used for political and societal change. Without an actual explicit goal, Animal Crossing offers a space entirely up to players.

We’ve asked UP Professor Eloi Hernandez, the organizer of an Animal Crossing #JunkTerrorBill protest, on her thoughts on digital activism. To provide more insight, we’ve also asked JM Tuazon on what it’s like to participate in online protests.

For how long have you been playing Animal Crossing?

Eloi: Since May 26.
JM: Since March 2020.

Why did you choose animal crossing as your platform for digital activism? 

Eloi: Since I cannot physically join the mañanita planned on that day due to personal reasons, I decided to use the game’s social function to protest the anti-terror bill. The game is very social, we enjoy visiting each other’s islands. I thought, “Why not use this aspect of the game to stage a protest?”

JM: It’s a fun and accessible game that’s not just for digital activism, but for getting together with friends and like-minded people despite the quarantine. It lent itself well to protests, esp. since it’s also being used by players in Hong Kong and the USA for protests in their respective countries.

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Were you inspired by other protests happening around the world also battling censorship like us? Or is it in lieu of the current pandemic and the inability of many to protest physically?

Eloi: Both. People around the world are finding creative ways to protest. The pandemic is also a factor.

JM: It’s more of the latter. I wanted to join the Grand Mañanita but didn’t want to risk my health and safety during this time, so protesting virtually via Animal Crossing is a good alternative.

How did you organize the protest as the leading figure in conducting it?

Eloi: Thought of it the week before. Sounded off the idea to a few of my friends who play, most were my former students in Ateneo and UP.  I created an FB page for it. That’s where we organized into several batches. Some people donated designs and materials. I transformed a portion of my island in front of the plaza into a protest area.

What are the differences, advantages of using animal crossing instead of the more popular sites, facebook, twitter, and instagram? Who was your target audience to participate and how did you spread the word that there will be an online protest in Animal Crossing?

Eloi: It has difficulties due to limited number of people allowed at a time (8), slow and unstable internet. But it also has its upside like being able to design, wear protest stuff, “chant” take pictures, etc.

Who was your target audience to participate and how did you spread the word that there will be an online protest in Animal Crossing?

Eloi: My target were my friends who I play with and they also invited their friends. I used FB as a platform to organize. After we did a couple of batches, I opened it up to people who are not my friends but expressed interest to join.

How did you get to know that there will be a protest? What did you do during the protest? Why did you participate in the online protest?  As a participant of the online protest, how was the experience? 

JM: It was fun because I was there with some of my friends, plus there were some acquaintances also from Ma’am Eloi’s circle. It’s nice to meet people whose principles are aligned with yours, even if virtually. Ma’am Eloi is an old friend from my UP days, and she knows I play Animal Crossing so she invited me for the June 12 protest.

Have you participated in other protests? Have you heard about the AC protests from Hong Kong, the BLM movement, Pride (LGBTQ+)? If so, do you think that their fight for media coverage was impactful on its own?

JM: Yes I’ve heard of the protests around the world, and there are a lot of creative ways to protest—be it on the street, on social media, and in our case, in an online game. The Animal Crossing community is a very positive space, and a lot of the players welcomed these kinds of protests being done on AC.

What’s your view of the Animal Crossing community here in PH? Do you think that the community (the players themselves) is old enough to understand the implications of politics? At the same time, do you think that the community is socially aware? Or are they apolitical?

JM: It’s a pretty small group for now, and it’s the same with global—it’s a very positive community and everyone is kind and respectful. Not sure about their political leanings, but I haven’t heard any complaints from other players, so I guess they’re okay with it?

As an avid video game player, do you think that social awareness and activism have a place in gaming?

Eloi: Of course. Ragnarok Online was a popular game before and they held rallies there. Also check out Politics and Games exhibit held in Ateneo Art Gallery last year. (See it here)

JM: Social awareness and activism have a place anywhere. These things and issues permeate a lot of the aspects of our personal lives, and it’s important to raise important issues in avenues where people can have a free discussion about their implications on people’s lives.

Of course, by now, your standing with the Anti-terrorism bill is very clear with the you opposing it. What do you think of the Anti-terrorism bill and what’s in it for Filipinos?

JM: It’s a very broad and far-reaching bill that, in the hands of the wrong people in power, can get very dangerous even to ordinary Filipinos like me. The law has not been passed yet and we are already seeing people like Mocha Uson and state agents like the PNP tagging certain groups as “terrorists”. This is exactly what we fear and what we’re protesting against—because through this law the government can just simply tag a person or a group a potential “terrorist” and deal with them in ways outlined in the law.

Recently, there were 4 people from Valenzuela City who were arrested for making an online protest to end contractualization during labor day. As an overview, they were arrested, questioned on who was behind the online protest, then released by night without charges filed. As online protestors expressing dissent on different platforms and different subjects, what are your opinions on the event?

JM: Like I said, the Anti-Terror Law has not been signed yet and we’re already seeing state agents like local police exercising what they think is a justified execution of current laws—which are actually not. This government is hell-bent on quelling dissent and avoiding its accountability and responsibility to see the country through to this pandemic, which is the bigger enemy that we should all be tackling right now.

What was the impact you wanted to achieve with the AC online protest on #JunkTerrorBill? After organizing one on June 12, what are your plans going forward? 

Eloi: Personally, I just wanted to have an avenue to protest. But also I want the young people, people who play the game, to see it as a way to express dissent and make their voices heard. We plan to use AC as a platform to protest against oppression, injustice, impunity. There’s Pride 2020, SONA, etc.

JM: It’s really just about registering our dissent and making sure that we add to the growing chorus of voices both offline and online who are against the Anti-Terror Bill. So hopefully more people become aware about its dangers. Ma’am Eloi said she intends to keep the group for future kinds of similar protests and even celebrations, such as Pride Month 🙂 Will definitely participate again!

Are there any other games being used for digital protests? Do you think we’ll see more gamers take part in protests around the world through games?

Eloi: I hope so.

JM: I’m not so sure about other games, but yeah as long as the game allows for a certain kind of creative manipulation then we can definitely see more people utilize these areas to voice out their stands and opinions on the issues of the day.

Lastly, do you think that online platforms are the foreseeable future in activism and expressing dissent? 

Eloi: We still need the physical aspect, but it can very well go hand in hand with that considering the current situation.

JM: Yes. It’s happening now, since a lot of the issues being pointed out by social media users regarding how the government is handling the COVID-19 crisis is getting noticed not just by media but by the government itself. So we just need to continue being vigilant and registering our dissent and making our opinions known through our own, personal, creative ways to make sure that we are heard.

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