A video game in which players use cartoon avatars to explore an imaginary island has been blocked in China after Hong Kong democracy activists used it for virtual anti-government protests.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch had been available in China since last month. Now it has abruptly disappeared after becoming the forum for protesters whose mass demonstrations have been stifled by the coronavirus.

“Animal Crossing is Fast Becoming a New Way for Hong Kong Protesters to Fight for Democracy!” Joshua Wong, 23, the leader of the political party Demosisto, wrote on Twitter. “The #Covid_19 pandemic has halted public demonstrations, so protesters are taking their cause to #AnimalCrossing.”

In a screenshot he posted, his avatar is standing in front of a log cabin next to portraits of President Xi and Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. On the ground is a black banner bearing the slogan, “Hong Kong Revolution Now.” In his hands he carries an axe.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong shortly after being released from prison in Hong Kong, 2019. The uprising was triggered by a controversial extradition bill that would allow suspected criminals to be sent to the mainland.

“For lots of people around the world who play, they have to put their ideal life into the game and for Hong Kongers, we have to put our protest movement and our protest sites inside the game,” he told the website usgamer.net. “Without the coronavirus I don’t believe Hong Kongers would go through such a tremendous effort in decorating their [virtual] islands to be protest sites.”

“For lots of people around the world who play, they have to put their ideal life into the game.”

Hong Kong was electrified by demonstrations that began last June as a protest against a proposed extradition law but that rapidly took on the qualities of a people power movement. At its height an estimated million people took to the streets. The law was abandoned but demonstrations continued.

The demonstrators have four other demands: an independent inquiry into police conduct; a blanket amnesty of all those charged with offences stemming from their involvement in demonstrations; a withdrawal of the police claim that protesters have been guilty of rioting; and fully democratic elections.

The protests became increasingly violent in the autumn, when stones and petrol bombs were thrown. Many protesters were arrested after occupying Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The strict lockdown imposed on Hong Kong following the coronavirus epidemic has made mass gatherings impossible.

“We set up a livestreamed online assembly, but livestream assembly is still a bit boring,” Mr Wong said. “With a new game out, we can have virtual protests and we just have to use our creativity to make a new kind of protest tool.”