Article originally published on Voice of America’s website.
SEOUL — Somi is an unlikely South Korean political activist who has developed a video game to increase public awareness of growing government surveillance.
At the Busan Indie Connect (BIC), he wears a pair of large, black sunglasses with reflective lenses. Somi, a pseudonym, is well known among his peers at the conference for independent game makers in Busan, South Korea.
The glasses, however, are a small attempt to conceal his identity as a game developer from coworkers at his day job.
His multiple award-winning game Replica was inspired in part by the passage of South Korea’s first anti-terrorism law and government surveillance in the United States. He believes Replica is Korea’s first video game with a political message. It’s not a direct criticism of any government, Somi said, but it is designed to make its players question government.
“If we just follow the orders of our bosses, or if we do not think about what’s wrong or good and just act as we are ordered, we can be evil,” said Somi. “Normal people can be evil.”
It was a book – Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother – that provided Somi with the original spark for Replica. The novel follows four teenagers fighting off the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack.
Somi sees Replica as an echo of sorts for Little Brother.
“I wanted to make a second creation of that novel into my game. I really wanted to speak about the banality of evil in this game,” he said.
Replica poses a moral dilemma to its players: as a terrorist suspect following an attack, you can clear your name by hacking into another suspect’s smartphone to find incriminating evidence. Innocence and privacy are negligible if your snooping leads to an arrest.
Opposition parties are wary of such snooping and fear South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) could abuse its expanded authority under the new law. The opposition staged a world record filibuster for eight days in February and March to try and block the Anti-Terror Act, which allows the NIS to gather personal information and monitor the financial transactions of suspected terrorists.
“Of course the filibuster has failed and the law is now in effect,” said Somi. “The NIS has a lot of power; they can inspect privacy things legally now.”
Cautious game creator
After pressing him several times, Somi told VOA he graduated from law school and now works in a related industry. He said “maybe” when asked if he works in law enforcement.
“My boss, doesn’t know what I am doing now,” he said. “And if they know my game or I’m developing this kind of game, I don’t know what will happen. So I brought my sunglasses.”
The South Korean government, Somi said, has never contacted him about Replica. But the Game Content Rating Board (GCRB) did review it so he could sell it here.
“They didn’t say anything about the political content,” Somi said. “They just said that it has a few violent expressions.”
Following the Paris terror attacks last November, President Park Geun-hye and members of the ruling Saenuri Party pushed for parliament to approve the anti-terror law. It took effect in June and provides for the establishment of a new counterterrorism center.
Chang Byong-ock, former director of the Middle East Studies Institute at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said South Korea needs to be prepared for an attack.
“There is enough possibility of being attacked by Islamic states,” said Chang. “We (South Korea) cooperate with the United States in politics and investment and we have ties with the United States military.”
He said, however, it’s North Korea that’s the real focus of the new law.
“The main function of the center is to investigate spies in South Korea. They [NIS] want to collect information about North Korean spies so they can bring them in,” said Chang.
The center is still being set up, and a representative said they won’t be giving interviews to the media, foreign or Korean, until the end of the year.
With the expanded reach of the NIS through the counterterrorism center, many opposition lawmakers have expressed concern about potential human rights violations.
“Efforts have to be made to counter vulnerable areas [holes in South Korean intelligence]. But I’m also worried the government may use the bill to violate the basic human rights of people who don’t represent threats to national security,” said Hwang Do-soo, a constitutional law professor at Konkuk University.
Hwang said while he has concerns, he sees the law as progress and believes the country needs new “terror-preventing frameworks.”
Somi is still wearing his opaque sunglasses when he walks onstage to receive the BIC’s 2016 Excellence in Narrative Award.
As of September, Replica has sold more than 4,000 copies and has an overall “very positive” rating on the website Steam.
“Of course there are haters in Korea, because their conservative views feel uncomfortable when they see and read my message in the game, but most Korean people and most reviews in the steam store are very good,” said Somi.
The price of Replica has also attracted players — it’s only $2.99.
But others have picked up on Somi’s inspiration for a game that reflects real life.
“This game definitely criticizes the Patriot Act [U.S. anti-terrorism law] and South Korea’s Anti-Terrorism Act. This game has a point, and makes me think about the issue deeper,” said Mirauzo, a reviewer on Steam.
Sun Park, an independent developer in Seoul and co-founder of Turtle Cream game studio, believes Replica has the power to impact society.
“Already lots of Korean gamers played it. And it’s becoming really famous. One of most famous indie games in South Korea,” he said. “Adding a powerful message in game is more powerful than other media, I think. The experience in game is like giving the actual experience to gamers as a main character. Main hero of this story.”
Despite Replica’s politically charged message, Somi said, game development is just a side project he dives into after midnight once he’s put his young daughter to bed.