In 2018, the global games market is estimated to stand at about $137.9 billion. The numbers also indicate that Asia Pacific remains the largest gaming market based on revenues. Well aware of the opportunities in this growing industry, Bangladesh-based entrepreneurs Masha Mustakim and Zamilur Rashid came up with the idea of producing homegrown content that would appeal to the country’s young gamers. And a video game with Bangladesh’s war of liberation as the backdrop seemed to be the best bet for the purpose.

And so was created Heroes of 71, followed by Heroes of 1971: Retaliation, and Mukti Camp. Both Heroes titles became the most downloaded video games played in Bangladesh. Released on 16 December 2015, the anniversary of Pakistan’s surrender, Heroes of 71 was downloaded more than 7,000 times within a few hours on Google Play Store. The third-person shooting game depicts the freedom struggle of 1971 that ended in the separation of present day Bangladesh from Pakistan.

Heroes of 71 honoured those who sacrificed their lives for Bangladesh

The game design draws heavily from reality rather than the imagination. The arms, uniforms and surroundings recreate what existed during the actual war. Movies like Sangram, Ora 11 Jan and Amar Bandhu Rashed, which previously depicted the liberation struggle, helped the developers with the plot and world building. Their research also took them to the National Liberation War Museum in Dhaka so wartime was represented as authentically as possible in the game.

“We didn’t want to glorify war. We believe our generation and the next has to know what happened in ’71,” says Masha Mustakim, the 28-year-old CEO and co-founder of Mind Fisher Game (earlier known as PortBliss).

Zamilur Rashid, whose grandfather was part of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle, said the Heroes games were an attempt to promote the principles that drove the war for liberation. “Over the last few years, radicalism has been on the rise in the country, but the 1971 liberation war was driven by secularism, freedom and equal opportunity for all, and that’s what we wanted to promote through our games,” he explains.

Heroes of 71, the very first game in the series, honoured those who sacrificed their lives for Bangladesh. It had five main characters, from diverse backgrounds: Shamsu Bahini (named after Shamsul Alam, a former Pakistani Army officer); Kabir Mia, a worker; Tapash Maitra, a medical student; Sajal (modelled on Mahbub Chowdhury, a Dhaka university student); and Bodiuzzaman Bodi, an engineering student. The five comrades make their way stealthily to a Pakistani Army camp at Shonir Chaar, a fictional village in the Barisal district, situated on the banks of the Madhumati – one of Bangladesh’s longest rivers. The camp must be liberated and the village recaptured by the five protagonists – who’re armed with two light machine guns, one heavy machine gun, two standard issue rifles and grenades.

Heroes of 71 came to international media attention last year when an article published in The Economist, called it a bloodthirsty’ game that was humiliating to Pakistan.

Heroes of 71 had to be unpublished in Pakistan

Masha Mustakim disagrees. He points out that while Heroes is a shooting game, it isn’t gory like others with war-based storylines.

“After the (Economist) article went viral, a lot of players from Pakistan got agitated and started uninstalling our game. So, unfortunately, we had to unpublish the game in Pakistan,” he says, still sounding disappointed with the turn of events.

Rashid too says the game doesn’t vilify any country: “We don’t have anything against the common people of Pakistan as a country or a nation. We just tried to portray the heinous acts that were perpetrated by the Pakistani army on our country, and how we fought back.”

Heroes of 71: Retaliation – which picks up where the original game left off – was released on 26 March 2016. It has fresh challenges and new characters. Pakistani forces abduct a group of Bengali women and take them to a torture camp. Shamsu Bahini’s mission is to set these women free. While on the mission, Shamsu and his comrades meet a courageous woman called Anila – a freedom fighter who is an ace at fighting with guns and knives. The presence of a strong female character in a video game isn’t likely to go unremarked.

Mustakim says that Anila’s presence is merely a reflection of the reality from 1971, when women fought alongside men, every step of the way. “Women supported our war for liberation just like the men. So there is a good balance between male and female characters in our games as well,” he says.

The third installment in the series – Mukti Camp (or ‘Guerrilla Hideout’) – is a strategy game set in the lush countryside of the former East Pakistan. As a commander of a small camp, the player must gradually build the camp and its requisite houses, hospitals and defense structures, farm, recruit and train other freedom fighters the camp, and take them into battle against the Pakistani army. The 30 different characters in Mukti Camp are shown to follow diverse religions, Rashid says, to depict the collaborative effort that was the war for liberation.

Mukti Camp has had more than six million downloads since its release, with a significant numbers of users coming from India, the US, the Middle East and Brazil. Teenagers and young Bangladeshis are the main demographic.

“I wasn’t born in 1971, so I wanted to experience (it through) the game. During the liberation war, our freedom fighters fought against thousands of Pakistani soldiers alone,” says Asif-ul-Islam, an 18-year-old gamer from Dhaka.

The game has received a five star rating from 50,000 reviewers

Bangladeshi gamers haven’t tired of praising Heroes. They believe the games rouse a sense of patriotism and pride in the country. Pakistanis, however, are less than pleased.

“Proud to be a Bangladeshi, and thanks to those who have made this game. After playing this game I got the feel of the 1971 war [sic],” writes Team Jassi Ltd on Google Play.

Feroz Alam Arman, another player, comments on Google Play: “Khub e valo game. Multiplayer hole valo hoto. Ek sathe koyek jon attack kora jeto. (It’s a great game. It would be nice to have a multiplayer game, so that many could attack together). He ends his comment with the slogan “Joy Bangla”.

The game has received a five star rating from 50,000 reviewers.

The Bangladesh war of independence was a bloody, nine-month-long struggle which began after the Pakistani military launched Operation Searchlight, killing over 20,000 people in Dhaka alone. On the night of 25 March 1971, the Pakistani army crushed civilians in a bid to subdue the Bengali uprising that was triggered by the military leadership’s refusal to accept the election results of 1970, which the Aawami League (AL) had won by a whopping majority. It is estimated that three million people were killed while 10 million fled across the border to India.

Veteran Bangladeshi filmmaker and human rights activist Shahriar Kabir feels the games serve as a memoir of the war. “I took part in the freedom struggle. The new generation are almost identity-less, they know nothing about the creation of the Bangladesh, for which three million people sacrificed their lives. Nearly half a million women were raped during this dreadful war. The Heroes game is much-needed. We have to glorify the sacrifices of our colleagues, comrades, and friends,” Kabir says.

However, Afsan Chowdhury, the director of Advocacy and Human Rights at BRAC University, Dhaka, believes that the Heroes game rebuilds and strengthens the narratives the people of Bangladesh live on. “Firstly for a huge number of people, the narrative (of the war) is very broad, and this kind of game feeds into that narrative. Secondly, it also works socially and politically: You hate the Pakistanis; who are the pro-Pakistan parties in the country? BNP and Jam’aat. So the game strengthens the national narratives.

Interestingly, Heroes is partly state-sponsored, with the credits naming two state-run bodies – the ICT Division and the Bangladesh Computer Council.

Masha Mustakim says, “The game was completely our own idea. The ICT minister called me and appreciated our work and later, the government provided some funding, amounting to about $ 40,000.

And what of the opinion that his company is promoting the government’s agenda?

“It’s hard to disagree. I can make a game which can accidentally promote and support someone’s agenda, we definitely didn’t do it on purpose,” Mustakim says, with a smile.

Interestingly, Heroes of 71 is partly state-sponsored

How are video games such as Heroes of 71 and its sequels helping build diverse perspectives of the past – especially for youth whose understanding of the war itself is limited (and influenced by the narrative that comes from the winning side)?

Nationalism has been promoted down the years through movies, songs, books. Video games too can help foster a sense of national identity. How much of fact some of these games are based on is debatable.

The US in particular has promoted its nationhood and military prowess through films and video games – the latter being an easy tool for spreading a propaganda of superiority. Battlefield 1, a videogame depicting the horrors of World War I, is one instance where not much consideration is given to historical fact. Developed by a Swedish game developer (EA DICE) and published by an American video game company (Electronic Arts), Battlefield 1 positions the Allies as the heroes of WWI, with the Central Powers having little to no command over the story.

Another game that comes to mind is Ethnic Cleansing, developed by members of the National Alliance (an American white supremacist organisation), and published by Resistance Records (which specialises in white power music). The player can choose to be either a neo-Nazi, a Skinhead, or a Klansman. Entering into a minority seclusion (area) they shoot African-Americans, Latinos and Jews. The game ends when a fictionalised version of Ariel Sharon, the former Prime Minister of Israel, is killed.

China also uses video games to propagate nationalist and separatist values: a series of first-person shooting games are based on the country’s conflicts with Japan. Over the past few years, the Communist Party has funneled millions to game companies as grants and tax breaks to produce games driven by propaganda. The Resistance War series has made a generation of young Chinese familiar with the roots of anti-Japanese sentiment in the country. Often, these games celebrate war and bloodshed and inspire the younger generation to follow a popular belief – one so strongly held that none dare question its authenticity.

Using video games as military propaganda is a well-established formula. Glorious Mission, developed by China’s Giant Network Technology Co and backed by the People's Liberation Army, has been used to train and recruit military personnel – just like the Call of Duty in the US. The US army has another online game called America's Army that allows players to go on training missions and fight each other online. These games not only promote nationalist agendas, but the fear and hate they create about ‘others’ helps governments to spend more money on buying weapons and ammunition.

Voices raised against the Liberation War have been met with protests and brutal action, in some cases

The Heroes games reward players for killing Pakistani soldiers and the war is “dominated by the narrative of the victorious side,” writes Dr Sarmila Bose, a senior research fellow at Oxford University.

A book Bose published in 2011 – Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War – had caused quite a furore in the country at the time. Bose wrote that a number of non-Bengalis were killed by Bengalis in the name of ethnic cleansing during the war of ’71. The book met with severe criticism as it attempted to establish a story different from what the people of Bangladesh had grown up hearing.

Voices raised against the Liberation War have been met with protests and brutal action, in some cases. In 2011, screenings of Meharjaan, a movie about a love affair between a Bengali girl and Pakistan soldier during wartime, were violently halted because the story seemingly offended the spirit of the country’s struggle for independence.

In March 2018, a Dhaka University professor, Morshed Hasan Khan, was suspended because he allegedly made derogatory remarks about the Liberation War and Bangabandhu (translates as ‘friend of Bengal’) Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Khan had claimed that Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had declared independence at the time of the Liberation War while Awami League leaders, including Bangabandhu, left the country when it needed them the most.

Meanwhile, the government has funded Heroes of 71 because the series adheres to the common beliefs regarding the Liberation War and Bangabandhu – while censoring others who do not ascribe to the prevalent ideology about the war.

The government is also likely to pass the draft of a revised Digital Security Law, which could be a threat to individuals, media or any form of information disseminator who doesn’t follow the dominant narrative of history. According to the proposed draft, anyone perceived to be spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, via digital media, will risk imprisonment for up to 14 years and a fine of up to 10 million taka ($24,900).

The Bangladesh government’s backing of a violent video game seems to indicate a certain design

The Digital Security Law has to replace the existing section 57 of the ICT Act, which criminalises the digital distribution of any material that is damaging to law and order, injurious to the image of the State or a person, or religious sentiments. Global organisations such Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the Digital Security Law and consider it on par with the ‘de facto blasphemy law’, terming it ‘draconian’.

In a marathon seven-hour discussion last year, Bangladeshi legislators unanimously adopted a resolution declaring 25 March as ‘Genocide Day’, in remembrance of the atrocities carried out by the Pakistani army. Now, the Awami League wants the UN to declare 25 March as ‘Genocide Day’ globally.

The Bangladesh government’s backing of a violent video game seems to indicate a certain design. The Awami League – the governing party of Bangladesh – hopes to remind people of the high cost of freedom. The party, which has been fighting to control the country for decades against the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (an associate of the Jamaat-e-Islami) which had opposed independence from Pakistan, is positioning itself as the real winner. Unwittingly or otherwise, a video game like Heroes of 71 has helped the League reach a new generation of voters by reminding them of the party’s role in the country’s existence.​

The writer tweets @kaqibb

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