Dressed in makeshift armour in the likeness of their in-game characters, fans of the popular online game PubG have joined the on-going protests in Iraq.
As protests against government corruption and dysfunction continue across Iraq, one group of protesters are drawing particular attention. Clad in makeshift armour and helmets, they would be indistinguishable from other protesters. But they have adorned their armour with references that mark them as fans of the popular computer and mobile game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, commonly known as PubG.
It might come as surprising that PubG is such a recognisable fandom in Iraq. However, the game has been incredibly popular among younger Iraqis – and indeed, much of the Middle East – since its release. At the height of its popularity, even factions within the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) had their own dedicated teams. For better or worse, the game has become a staple of Iraqi popular culture.
However, controversy was never too far from the game. Governments in both Iraq and elsewhere tried to clamp down on the game by restricting bandwidth or increasing mobile internet costs. Extremist preachers have accused the game of spreading iniquity and other social ills. Within the PMU and other militias, there were attempts to restrict the game’s ubiquity. Fans of the game have been frequent subjects of mockery.
For the PubG fans participating in the protests, their expression of their fandom is not arbitrary but rather a symbol of the generational divide between Iraqi youths and a political class that is viewed as having grown older and more disconnected. Many of them feel that governmental and religious figures have blamed computer games and other innocuous objects of fun as the cause of social ills while ignoring the real causes.
By coming out in gear resembling the characters from their favourite game, they hope to show that they are not the lazy, aimless youth that they have often been depicted as. That doesn’t mean they are bereft of humour. For instance, many of these protesters are armed with pans – a favourite weapon among PubG players for inflicting a humiliating death on an enemy – adorned with political slogans and references to past broken promises from the Iraqi Government.
In the protests, the gear they carry such as helmets, heavy gloves and, of course, pans that have come in handy. PubG players have been at the forefront in deflecting tear gas canisters and protecting the unarmoured crowds from them. With tear-gas related deaths rising across the country, their actions may have saved lives.
Ultimately, what these gamers-turned-protesters want is no different than all the other protesters in the country: to have their voices heard and for their legitimate grievances to be understood.