Are mobile games the next platform for pushing government agendas?

words by

SANTIAGO J. ARNAIZ

videos by

GRETCHEN MALALAD

illustrations by

JIEGO GAVIN TOMAGAN

Late last year, Apple took down a number of Filipino-developed mobile games after over a hundred organizations called for their removal, claiming they “normalized mass murders and impunity through virtual games.” These games, the groups said, actively promoted murder, extrajudicial killings, violence, and the Philippine war on drugs .

While no longer on Apple’s platform, the games are still available on Android, Google’s mobile operating system and the most widely used platform in the country. Since they were launched 18 months ago, these games have been downloaded millions of times.

Tsip Bato: Ang Bumangga Giba!, a game endorsed and co-developed by the Philippine National Police (PNP) itself, had more than 500,000 downloads before it was taken down from the Apple marketplace.

Launched on Aug. 8, 2016, just six weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte’s inauguration, Tsip Bato shows a cartoon PNP Chief Ronald Dela Rosa barreling through an endless highway and shooting criminals.

The PNP billed Tsip Bato an “entertaining and educational game” meant to teach children the dangers of doing drugs. The game features cartoonish acts of violence against drug suspects, with the avatars of Dela Rosa Duterte shown running over the suspects with a truck, gunning them down with an assault rifle, or blowing them up with a missile launcher.

The game was released when the administration’s drug was was just over a month old, and the police and unidentified gunmen were hunting down and killing scores of suspected drug users and dealers in Metro Manila’s poorest communities.

These games may seem harmless and fun out of context, said the 131 human rights and drug user rights groups that signed a petition against Tsip Bato and similar mobile apps. But set against the backdrop of the ongoing war on drugs – a war that’s seen, and continues to see, thousands murdered – the games take on a more sinister tone.

Tsip Bat­o, in particular, raises concerns for being a government-sponsored project, specifically in its purported goal of educating the youth on how to fight drugs in their communities. By focusing on killing, the game signals that extreme solutions are needed to fight the drug scourge. Wittingly or not, it justifies, and in the view of the games’ critics, also valorizes and normalizes the drug war killings.

Hoping to capitalize on the meteoric rise of President Duterte’s popularity and his campaign to end the illegal drug trade, developer Ben Joseph Banta got his team working on a game built around the PNP’s new mascot, P01 Bato. Banta had previously found success developing games for the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) and was on the lookout for his next big project.

In the early days of the Duterte presidency, pictures of the bald, wide-smiling mascot based on PNP chief Dela Rosa went viral on Facebook and Banta saw it as an opportunity to garner some attention for his growing game development company, Ranida Games.

The Ranida Games team spent weeks designing a basic “endless runner” with P01 Bato zooming down a highway collecting tokens. Teaser videos of the prototype began to garner attention on Facebook—so much attention, in fact, that the PNP took notice and reached out.

“I received an email from the PNP and, honestly, I was quite scared to open it,” Banta said. “After working on that game for weeks, I didn’t want it to be pulled out.”

But instead of the cease-and-desist order he was expecting, Banta got an invitation from Chief Superintendent Gilberto Cruz, then-director of the Police-Community Relations Group, to work with his agency on making their prototype an official game of the Philippine National Police.

Cruz says he bonds with his children by playing video games with them. Noticing that they were constantly playing games on their mobile phones, he toyed with the idea of creating mobile games as a way to bring the anti-drug campaign to younger audiences. Stumbling upon Ranida’s prototype, he believed he had found just the way to do it.

“The game back then was really raw,” Banta said. “There were a lot of ideas coming from [the PNP] – the looks, following [General Dela Rosa’s] clothes, his biceps, the aesthetics and messages they wanted to appear.” Banta said the PNP wanted a strong-looking protagonist to match the high-octane gameplay.

Together the team designed a game that they hoped would promote the government’s deadly crackdown on drug users and peddlers, while still being fun to play. The result was Tsip Bato: Ang Bumangga Giba! – its name a suggestion from Dela Rosa himself.

The game made headlines when it was released, with footage of Dela Rosa gleefully controlling his gun-toting digital avatar spreading through social media. Thanks to the news coverage, Tsip Bato pulled in 195,000 downloads in its first month, peaking at a rate of four thousand users an hour.

Cruz attributes its popularity to the fact that the game is just fun to play. “I asked my children when they started playing it: They loved running and avoiding those obstacles, and they loved the shooting. And they were learning,” he said.

“They told me that they saw those ads and they saw those signages inside the game. ‘Avoid drugs’, ‘drugs kill’, ‘say no to drugs’. I was happy when they told me that they saw those,” he said.

In the game, the endless highway that players navigate is lined with billboards plastered with anti-drug-use messages. The main menu has Chief Bato (or President Duterte himself, depending on the player’s chosen character) standing on a podium bearing the words “Oplan Tokhang,” tying the game to the PNP’s larger campaign. According to Cruz, the game is a success because it teaches players a lesson about the ills of drugs. This, he says, is the main intention of the game.

The game’s messaging does warn against the dangers of drugs, but it doesn’t spell out what those dangers might be. What it offers instead is the image of a police chief taking down drug suspects with assault rifles and rocket launchers.

Joie Sales is the chairperson of the game development program at iAcademy, where she teaches not only the skills needed to create video games, but also the ethics involved. According to Sales, Tsip Bato is a very fun game. And it’s the fact that it’s so fun that makes it so concerning.

“The thin line between studying and learning is fun,” she said. “When you cross that line, and they’re having fun while they’re studying, that’s the time that they’d actually accept anything.”

She calls this the “flow state,” a technical term for the point of extreme focus when players become actively engaged with what they’re interacting with. In this state, Sales says players become incredibly susceptible to messaging.

This would be a good thing for a game so saturated with slogans admonishing drug use. But Sales explains that because the player’s focus is on gameplay and the messages sent there, details elsewhere get lost in translation.

Gaming companies hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the drug war, she said, may not be sensitive to the ethical implications and psychological impact of the games that they are putting on the market.

“Developers should be very careful as to what they want to give these kids,” said Sales. “Kids are like sponges… If you actually use the flow state to your advantage and you are an unethical person, you can manipulate that person. When they’re in that state, you can put any kind of image you want.”

In the case of Tsip Bato, the central message presented is not the anti-drug poster lost in the background as the character speeds by, but the image of the man in the middle of the road, gunned down or blown up by the player themselves.

Alfred Cholo Peteros is a 19-year-old studying communication at the University of Caloocan City. Like many of his classmates, Peteros lives in Caloocan, a city known to be one of the hotspots of the war on drugs.

Peteros says he’s a fan of mobile games and so was thrilled to see a fun, locally-produced app like Tsip Bato. He, along with a number of his classmates, enjoyed taking on the role of General Dela Rosa in killing criminals. It was only upon further reflection that he grew concerned the game might actually present a skewed version of reality.

According to him, if children were to play games like this, they might imagine that this is what the drug war is about, that this is what the criminals look like.

“In reality, this game isn’t what we see every day,” Peteros said. “It isn’t what you hear or see on the news.”

In reality, the drug war is butchered bodies wrapped in packing tape. It‘s bloody crime scenes. It’s murdered children, and the grieving families left in their wake.

On the evening of August 16, 2017, 17-year-old Kian delos Santos was shot and killed by plainsclothes officers in Caloocan City. Official reports claimed he was an armed drug runner who shot at the police as they gave chase.

But CCTV footage showed he was dragged to the spot where his corpse would later be found. One eyewitness claimed the boy had begged for his life before he was beaten and murdered. At the end of the investigation, the autopsy showed that Delos Santos was shot thrice: Two shots to the ear, and one to the back of the head – execution style.

Kian delos Santos’ murder spurred outrage from the public and other sectors of the government alike. But the killings continue. According to the PNP, nearly 50 people suspected of using and selling drugs were killed by officers in the past two months.

“There’s something missing to make [Tsip Bato] actually educational,” said 18-year-old Valerie Rosaldo, Pateres’ classmate the University of Caloocan City. “I don’t think it’s advisable for kids to play it. It’s still about killing people.”

The PNP isn’t the first government agency to look to mobile games to promote an agenda. Countries all over the world have been developing games as a way to tap into the minds of their citizens for years. The most striking example of this comes out of China.

In 2015, the Chinese government launched Sesame Credit, a joint venture between game development company Tencent and Ant Financial (an affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba) that hopes to attach a social score, much like the American credit score system, to Chinese citizens.

But instead of tracking credit history, this system rewards citizens with points for acts deemed patriotic, and demerits for acts that are considered unpatriotic. All of this is based, in part, on data gleaned from citizens’ social media activity. In effect, the users’ entire life becomes the game. The app is simply the reward system.

For current users of Sesame Credit, a higher score garners real world incentives, like discounts on online shopping. But in a move straight out of techno-dystopian TV series “Black Mirror,” that score will also dictate the what services users can get from government offices, their likelihood of getting a loan approved, and even the range of job offers they can access.

Sesame Credit accounts will be mandatory for Chinese citizens come 2020.

While mobile games like Tsip Bato are far less sophisticated and overtly controlling than Sesame Credit aims to be, any game mechanics that reward pro-government actions and enforce government agendas can only point to one thing: Propaganda.

According to Chief Superintendent Cruz, it was difficult grappling with the possible outcomes of this game. “Is it worth it to create a game like this?,” he said. “Can we achieve what we really want to achieve? Maybe, instead of them learning, we promote a culture of violence.”

Banta , the developer, said that glorifying violence was never the goal of the development team. “We created the game, made it fun for the kids to be interested in it, so they could receive the message,” he said. “So we added features in the game that would make it fun. Shooting criminals was to make the game fun, so we can solidify the gameplay.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook never formally responded to the organizations, led by the Asian Network of People Who Use Drugs (ANPUD), that wrote the October 2017 open letter calling for the takedown of five mobile games, including Tsip Bato. But a month later, Apple silently complied with their request. The same week, PNP Chief Dela Rosa was quoted welcoming the decision to take them down, saying the games misrepresented the point of the government’s anti-drug efforts.

Given the chance to change any aspect of Tsip Bato, Cruz said he would want to somehow incorporate rehabilitation efforts into its gameplay. “Once the criminal was placed there, points will be given when they were rehabilitated and got out”, he said.

If Cruz had his way, the PNP – and the government at large – would continue exploring mobile games as a way to reach the community. To that end, Sales suggests exercising caution.

“There are so many things you need to look into,” Sales said. “That involves a lot of people, not just a few [game] developers. It involves psychologists. It involves educators. You can’t just publish a game right away because it’s fun.”

Following the initial outcry against Tsip Bato, the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, has called for Google to follow Apple’s lead in taking down the pro-drug war games from their Play Store.

Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, called these games inhumane and horrifying.

“This is a real tragedy, not something to be turned into a game,” Hetzer said. “If these game developers wanted to be helpful in reaching out to youth, as they have claimed to, they should design games that give real, honest and evidence-based information about drugs, health and harm reduction, not create games that glorify murder.

Earlier this year, Google announced they had taken down tens of thousands of apps from their Play Store for “containing or promoting inappropriate content.” However, Tsip Bato, along with a number of similar games, is currently still available on the Android marketplace.