May 30, 2016

Andreas Betsche

How visitors to Cambodian genocide sites translate their emotions and impressions into digital games

May 30, 2016 | Andreas Betsche

For the first time ever, a game made me dream at night. In my dream, I visited the burial place of Cambodia’s former dictator, Pol Pot, which was located somewhere close to the Thai border.

It was a maze-like museum combined with shops and restaurants, similar to those found in a shopping mall. As I delved deeper into the museum, I became lost, and the entire place gave me the creeps. I woke up sweating profusely. This happened after I played Cho-Am.

Cho-Am 2016-05-17 15-56-02-97
Cho-Am’s start screen

When travelling to Cambodia, visitors will unavoidably be confronted with the horrors of genocide. During 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot’s rule killed about 2 million people, and today, there are places like The Killing Fields, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Pol Pot’s grave that tell their horrible stories. I have been to some of these places myself, and I must admit that they leave you with a sense of emptiness, questioning life and humankind.

Mass graves on the Killing Fields

Different visitors have different ways of coping with the pain and memories associated with certain places. I came across two games, The Killer by Jordan Magnuson and Cho-Am by Aaron Oldenburg, where the developers used their personal experiences to create them.

The Killer

Magnuson refers to his game as a “not game” because of its serious topic, which might not fit the aspect of playfulness that is often associated with games. Even though I usually don’t like when things are defined by what they are not instead of what they are, I can understand Magnuson’s approach.

The Killer is a simple program that you can run in your browser without downloading or installing anything. Users can choose a version with or without music, and I highly recommend the one that only uses ambient sounds because the music is quite cheesy. You play as a stickman soldier carrying a gun, whose goal is to escort a prisoner to the fields. Despite its simplicity, the game’s sounds and background graphics create an emotional experience that puts you in the role of the killer responsible for genocide and makes you contemplate the cruelty of such actions.

Cho-Am 2016-05-17 15-59-57-30
The figure reacts to what it sees.

This game called Cho-Am takes a different approach to storytelling. Players control a faceless figurine that walks across a field made of tiles and vegetation. The game is emotionally challenging and the figure reacts to what it sees in a disturbing way.

At some point, players may reach Pol Pot’s grave. Cho-Am is more like a dream and it is open to interpretation by the player. There is no goal or end to the game. The creator, Oldenburg, transferred his impressions of visiting Pol Pot’s grave into a dreamlike virtual environment. Although I have never been to this place, I have heard about it. Pol Pot’s grave is an interesting way to think about death and what it means in a different cultural context. What happens after death? What are the consequences of one’s actions when alive? In Cambodia, people believe in spirits, ghosts, and resurrection, and these beliefs can affect the afterlife of someone like Pol Pot. Some believe that his spirit is good for business because he was a powerful man when he was alive. Cho-Am makes players think about all this and might even haunt them in their own dreams.

Human remains on display in the Killing Fields.

It is difficult to describe both games accurately, so my recommendation would be to play them. Despite being short, they offer intense experiences that tackle topics often overlooked by mainstream video games. I have a lot of respect for the developers who had the courage to attempt this.

Cho-Am 2016-05-17 16-00-00-94
Is this a dream?

Andreas Betsche

Andreas Betsche founded Virtual SEA in early 2016 after researching Cambodian mobile games for his Master’s thesis. He has a background in Southeast Asia studies and has worked and lived in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Since he has been actively playing games since the early 90s, combing both worlds in Virtual SEA brought together both of his passions.

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