Although war is the main theme of many video games, no one imagined that these playful conflicts could materialize in real life until Russia started a full-scale war against Ukraine. And now, Russian propaganda is even infiltrating such hugely popular games as Roblox and Minecraft.
Molfar, a Ukrainian consulting firm that analyzes Internet threats, has identified pro-Kremlin propaganda in Minecraft, Roblox, the Russian version of World of Tanks, World of Warships, Fly Corp, Armored Warfare, War Thunder, and other games. Almost everyone praised the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
Microsoft-owned Minecraft has become a particularly popular way to promote Russia’s claim that its invasion of Ukraine is justified. According to The New York Times, players who support Russia’s war against Ukraine even used the game to re-enact the battle when Russian invaders captured the Ukrainian city of Soledar in January of this year. Videos from the game were published on the VKontakte social media platform.
In Minecraft, a concert was also organized for players in honor of Russia Day. One of the organizers of this event was a Russian official whose mother actively supports Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, Roblox, a popular game creation platform among children and young people, celebrated Russia Day with a military parade.
In addition, the VKontakte channel of the Russian version of World of Tanks celebrated the 78th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by showing a Soviet tank parade in Moscow in 1945.
These games and related discussion platforms like Discord and Steam are becoming online playgrounds for Russian propaganda. In these environments, propaganda aimed at young people is spread, which is a way for the Kremlin to justify the war in Ukraine.
Quote: “The gaming world is really a platform that can impact public opinion, to reach an audience, especially young populations,” said Tanya Bekker, a researcher at ActiveFence, a cybersecurity company that identified several examples of Russian propaganda on Minecraft for The New York Times.
Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, announced in April 2023 that the company’s security services had discovered Russian attempts to “fundamentally infiltrate some of these gaming communities”. He gave the examples of Minecraft and Discord discussion groups. He further noted that it is important to stop these attempts because they can spread propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine. “Actually, it’s not the No. 1 thing we should be worried about. You know, it just happens to be a good place for them to circulate information,” Smith said at an economic conference in Washington.
Clint Watts, head of Microsoft’s threat analysis team, also said that the Russian armed forces, fighters of the Wagner Group, are promoting “malicious narratives” on Discord and Steam. Thus, they express support for the Kremlin’s positions. “The main purpose of the propaganda is to make Wagner and the Russian military look cool and threatening,” Watts told to researchers studying extremism in video games.
However, it is not only pro-Russian civilians and civil servants who understand the value of games in spreading propaganda. Only recently, Putin himself said that the game should “help a person develop, help find himself, help educate a person both within the framework of universal human values and patriotism”. The Kremlin’s activity in video games shows how persistently the Putin government has tried to use social media to achieve its political goals in the West, despite the diplomatic and economic isolation of the Russian Federation.
This isn’t a single-time or once-in-a-blue-moon effort. There have been several attempts that drew flak or came to light. Here are some more examples, as highlighted in the report. Players have adopted the “Z”-sign which symbolizes the Russian troops from the invasion. Moreover, the report notes that they have even hailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to speak ill of Ukrainians and hold the West responsible for the ongoing conflict, as per the report in the New York Times.
If this wasn’t enough, a video tutorial on Minecraft displayed a Russian flag on a flagpole over a cityscape labeled as Luhansk, a Ukrainian province that Russia has unlawfully annexed, accompanied by the declaration “Glory to Russia.”
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Microsoft has announced that it will suspend sales of new products and services in the Russian Federation. But the Russians continue to find ways to successfully exploit popular video games and sites like Discord and Steam for propaganda.
Although Microsoft and other Western companies have suspended sales and services in Russia, users often find ways to continue playing them. It was recently revealed that piracy has become an even bigger problem since the start of the war, with 69% of gamers saying they played at least one pirated game in the past year, and 51% admitting they bought more games in 2022 than in 2021.
Aside from Wargaming’s announcement that it was pulling out of Russia and Belarus last year after a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it’s unclear what steps Microsoft or other companies have tried to take to prevent the Russians from using their games to spread propaganda.
Jacob Davey, Head of Research & Policy, Far-right and Hate Movements at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London, said hostile actors know they are using games to reach and shape young minds and influence people. But this game, as they say, can be played together. For example, the game CS:GO is used differently to circumvent the restrictions imposed by Russia and inform the Russians about the war.
The used images are screenshots from the referenced web pages.