The organisers of an escape room game in Taiwan which is based on the Hong Kong Polytechnic siege – one of the most brutal episodes of last year’s protests – have apologised and closed it down after sparking an online outcry for “re-traumatising” Hongkongers.
The activity was part of an exhibition about the unrest and was organised by VictoriTakao, a group of pro-democracy Hongkongers based in the southern city of Kaohsiung.
The group collaborated with the 831 Studio, which sells artwork by Hong Kong protesters living in exile, to present a room escape game based on the two-week police siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) a year ago.
When promoting the one-month exhibition which began last Saturday, VictoriTakao said the escape room was intended to let people experience how protesters had fled the university campus amid a heavy police presence. The organisers also charged 200 or 300 Taiwan dollars (HK$54-81) as an admission fee.
Netizens have slammed the activity on social media since last week, criticising the organisers as “inhumane” and “rubbing salt into the wound.” Some also left comments saying the PolyU siege “was not a game.”
One year ago, the Hung Hom-based university turned into one of the most brutal battlegrounds between police and protesters. Following violent clashes with the force, some demonstrators holed up inside the besieged campus for days while others surrendered. In May, 14 people were charged with rioting in connection with the campus unrest, while one person remains wanted.
On Tuesday, VictoriTakao issued a statement of apology. It said the game was intended to portray the “despair, helplessness and oppression” experienced by the demonstrators: “[We] used inappropriate words in our posts, such as ‘rave reviews’ and ‘game’; the organisation again apologises for making such mistakes,” VictoriTakao wrote on Facebook.
Another organiser 831 Studio said on Monday afternoon that the display in the escape room could not be removed for “administrative reasons” but would be replaced with a guided tour instead. It said there had been communications issues with the exhibition organiser, and announced it was withdrawing as a co-organiser.
“Some people on our team were trapped in PolyU, therefore we have discussed the psychological impact… the ultimate goal was not for fun, but to let people experience the feeling of being besieged,” the studio said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.
The organisers said the “Survivors” escape room activity would focus on providing a “sensory experience” and test people’s problem-solving skills.
A university student who was among those hiding in the red-brick campus last year told HKFP the escape room activity was inappropriate as it turned a traumatising experience into entertainment.
The 20-year-old, who declined to be named, said he spent four days in the university and saw desperate protesters searching for every means possible to leave the campus, including climbing down ropes and escaping via sewers.
He recalled how firefighters stopped demonstrators from going into the sewers for fear of poisonous gas. “Everyone was very agitated and there were tears in people’s eyes… I heard someone telling the firemen that they would rather endure whatever may happen in the sewer than staying on campus.”
Toby Ho from the Battlefield Social Worker group, who requested access to the PolyU last November to provide humanitarian assistance, said the game organisers gave the public an impression that they did not take the campus siege seriously. She told HKFP the escape room activity may “re-traumatise” Hongkongers still recovering from the mayhem.
“The PolyU incident is not a regular historical event. It is a trauma and it’s not just experienced by those inside the university… when you use a game to portray such a negative experience, it evokes trauma,” she said.
She added the public would prefer an exhibition similar to the one held by student unions at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which marked one year since police-protester skirmishes erupted at the Sha Tin campus.
“People could find comfort in that exhibition as it allowed them to grieve together,” Ho said.