May 30, 2016

Andreas Betsche

How visitors of genocide sites in Cambodia transfer their feelings and impressions into digital games

May 30, 2016 | Andreas Betsche

For the first time ever, a game made me have a dream at night. I dreamt of visiting the place where Cambodia’s former dictator Pol Pot was buried (somewhere close to the Thai border). In my dream, this was a maze-like museum mixed with shops and restaurants as one might expect them in a shopping mall. I got lost and the whole place gave me the creeps as I travelled deeper into the museum. I woke up, dripping with sweat. This was after I played Cho-Am.

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Cho-Am 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 or Pol Pot’s grave that tell their horrible stories. I have been to some of these places myself and I have to admit that they leave you with a sense of emptiness, questioning life and humankind itself.

Mass graves on the Killing Fields

Visitors have different ways to handle and endure the pain and memories that lie within these places. I recently found two games, in which their developers processed their experiences: The Killer by Jordan Magnuson and the aforementioned Cho-Am by Aaron Oldenburg.

The Killer

Magnuson does not even consider his game to be a game at all. Interestingly he calls it a “notgame”, probably because the topic is so serious and the aspect of playfulness that comes with games might not fit the topic. Although I usually do not 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 the need to download or install anything. Users start by having to choose a version with and one without music. I highly recommend the one that only uses ambient sounds because the music is just too cheesy. You “play” as a soldier, who is not more than a stickman carrying a gun and your goal is to escort a prisoner to the fields. As simple as it is, together with the sounds and the background graphics, this is quite an emotional trip. It puts you in the role of the killer, the soldier who was responsible for killing someone during the genocide. It makes you think about what it means to be acting in such cruelties.

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The figure reacts to what it sees.

While this game is quite emotionally challenging within its technical limitations, Cho-Am takes a completely different approach. Players take the role of a nameless and faceless figurine that walks across a field made of tiles and some vegetation. The figure reacts to what it sees in a very disturbing way. At some point, one might reach Pol Pot’s grave. This game is more like a dream and is very open to interpretation by the player. There is neither goal nor end. Oldenburg transferred his impressions of visiting Pol Pot’s grave into a virtual dreamlike environment. I have never been to this place myself but I have of course heard about it. In an interesting manner, Pol Pot’s grave is a good way to think about death and what that means in a different cultural context. What happens after death? What are the consequences of your actions when you were alive? In Cambodia, people believe in spirits, ghosts and resurrection. Moreover, those things do affect the afterlife of a cruel man like Pol Pot. Some people, for example, believe that the dictator’s spirit is good for business, because he was such a powerful man when he was alive. Cho-Am makes you think about all this and might even haunt you in your own dreams.

Human remains on display on the Killing Fields.

Because it is so hard to describe both games, I highly recommend playing them. They are two very short but rather intense experiences, that deal with topics often neglected or ignored by mainstream video games. I have much respect for the developers brave enough to try this.

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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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