Staff Editorials

Russia in Videogames - Who's the Real Enemy?
Posted: 03.01.2014 12:58 by Michael_Westgarth Comments: 10
PC gamers are no strangers to the idea of war-based entertainment. And while there's nothing wrong with playing and enjoying “war games” of all shapes and sizes, the Russian Federation's recent reaction to games featuring their nation's military – and Company of Heroes 2 in particular – has led many gamers to question the importance of accuracy in games depicting past and present military conflicts.

Should PC gamers make more conscious choices as to which war games they buy based on that game's historical accuracy? Should videogame developers and publishers take more responsibility when selecting the nations represented, and often vilified, in their games?

Company of Heroes 2 was released for Windows worldwide on June 25, 2013 to fairly positive reviews, including our own. Yet one month later, developer Relic Entertainment would receive its harshest criticism when Russian videogame distributor 1C-SoftClub announced that it would no longer sell the game.

1C-SoftClub's decision was made following a slew of complaints accusing Company of Heroes 2 of downplaying Soviet military efforts during World War II, as well as unfairly portraying Soviet forces as ruthless butchers willing to murder surrendered German forces and civilians, and for exaggerating Stalin's Order No. 227 by depicting numerous conscript executions. Some complaints even go as far as to suggest that Relic Entertainment attempted to generate Nazi sympathy in Company of Heroes 2 by making the German forces out to be the lesser of two evils.

It may seem like a storm in a teacup to most Westerners, but it's a teacup that boiled over in October of this year when the Russian government officially announced plans to offer grants to developers willing to create games that offer “realistic and historically truthful representations of events” regarding Russia's past military activities.

The quote above came from Arseny Mironov, aide to Russian culture minister Vladmir Medinsky, who stated the importance of historically accurate videogames, and the possibility of banning those that aren't, to Russian paper Izvestiya – which was translated by The Hollywood Reporter.

Vladmir Medinsky is also the head of the Russian Military History Society – the organisation that will be awarding the aforementioned grants – and has already started work with an undisclosed developer on a videogame project focussing on the inception of Russian military aviation during the First World War.

Again, Russia's reaction to a single game may seem exaggerated to Westerners, but Company of Heroes 2 is hardly the only Western videogame to portray Russia as the enemy. So just why do so many developers and publishers target Russia and its peoples?

The Rise of the Modern War Game:

Videogames, like every entertainment medium, influence, and are influenced by, the cultures they're intrinsically linked to i.e. the content within a videogame reflects the needs and wants of the people it is sold to. For example, the early 80's saw the beginning of the end of The Cold War, and as such, a great deal of Western videogames released during that period has military or espionage themes and shamelessly featured Russia as the enemy.

The cultural fallout of The Cold War could be felt right through the 80's, yet quickly fizzled out in the early 90's as a result of the First Gulf War – hence the rise and popularity of games such as Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf and Super Battletank on home consoles. However, the quick conclusion of The Gulf War brought a brief period of relative peace during the later half of the 90's. Thus, the gap left in then-current warfare was filled by the videogame industry with World War II titles – that is, until September 11th, 2001.

For the vast majority of PC gamers, the “War on terror” was their first experience with the devastating ramifications of real life war and terrorism. And as America and its allied forces became preoccupied with war in the Middle East, so did the Western videogame industry.

No game epitomises the shift of Western culture's eyes over to the Middle East as much as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – one of the most monumental videogame releases of all time. The game's success can be attributed to numerous factors, but it stands to reason that one of them was developer Infinity Ward's choice to build the game around a fictitious Middle Eastern conflict orchestrated by Russian ultranationalists.

It's entirely plausible that an unquantifiable proportion of Westerners – many of which being Americans – purchased Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare as a means to vent their emotional distress over the events of 9/11. Regardless, many other publishers attempted to follow in Activision and Infinity Ward's footsteps with the likes of Battlefield 3, the Medal of Honor reboot, Spec Ops: The Line and Army of Two for home consoles, to name but a few.

It may see unfair to target Call of Duty specifically, but the series' phenomenal success was felt worldwide, within and outside of the videogame industry, and as mentioned above, the series was now a trend setter. With all eyes on Infinity Ward and Activision, the pair had the opportunity to highlight the current political unrest of their choosing in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

They chose to vilify the Russians.

The Videogame Vilification of Russia:

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's infamous “No Russian” single player mission is one of many – and for the purpose of this article, the best – examples of a recent videogame actively and negatively painting the Russian military and/ or the Russian peoples.

The mission in question puts players in the role of an undercover American agent who is ordered by Russian terrorists to open fire on unarmed Russian civilians in a Russian airport. The game offers two choices: watch the massacre unfurl, or join in. However, attempting to save the civilians by killing or incapacitating the Russian terrorists results in the failure of the mission, implying that the American agent's undercover status is of higher value than the lives of hundreds of Russian civilians. The rest of the game is, of course, spent pushing back a Russian invasion on American soil.

With this single example in mind, it's not difficult to see how the Russian people and their elected governmental representatives would be upset, especially considering that, at the time of its release, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the second best selling game of all time in the UK and USA.

But The Cold War is over, so what real advantage is there to Western videogame developers and publishers attempting to highlight, or even reignite, such a bitter East vs. West rivalry? It's important to note that despite the threats of Arseny Mironov, no videogames have ever been banned for sale within Russia. It is only now, as a result of what are essentially “anti-Russia” Western videogames, that the Russian government is having to re-evaluate their policies.

Perhaps it was Company of Heroes 2 and its downplaying of the millions of Russian lives lost during the Soviet Union's successful efforts to end World War II that has pushed the current Russian government over the edge. After all, while the content in the Modern Warfare games is fictional, Company of Heroes 2 prided itself on historical accuracy.

It seems somewhat obscene that at a time where the communicative power of the internet and social media is dissolving the boundaries between nations, cultures and peoples, that gamers the world over are still indulging themselves in videogames that directly or indirectly enforce those boundaries.

It's the opinion of this writer that PC gamers should continue to enjoy playing “war games”, but should consider the gameplay scenarios presented within those titles and openly critique their historical accuracy and their possible cultural and political ramifications. Because when all is said and done, adding to political tensions has and can continue to result in conflict – and real life war is never entertaining.
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By Gale47 (SI Core) on Jan 03, 2014
I don't get all the fuss over the "No Russian" mission in Modern Warfare 2. Anybody aware of ANY context at all would know that Makarov and his group do not represent the russian people or government. As a matter of fact, the people they murder are russians themselves, and the government tries to stop them. If anybody was portrayed as a villain there, it was the american operative that went along and killed the civilians instead of shooting Makarov down ASAP.
As for CoH 2... I can't comment since I haven't played the game yet.
By Chosen_One (SI Elite) on Jan 03, 2014
Russia will be the enemy always, because of our lands and resources. We fought and will fight for it, if needed, to the end. Major problem was that "Company of Heroes 2 prided itself on historical accuracy". Thats it, if it wasn't stated the things, that its accurate to historical events, I doubt that there would be such issues.
By Gale47 (SI Core) on Jan 03, 2014
The same thing is happening with China too, isn't it? I believe that we should have more AAA titles played from the point of China and/or Russia and similar "bad guy" countries so that the playground levels itself out. Enough with the beefy americans already.
By Hammerjinx (SI Core) on Jan 04, 2014
But most peeps that buy action shooters are young american males. They'd rather play a despicable US soldier than a hero from any other country.

Russia is used as the bad guys because of the cold war. That's it. After WW2 Russia made it very clear that they weren't interested in being friends. There was prolly more that the US and/or Britain could have done about it, but Stalin wouldn't have been the easiest guy to negotiate with. Both sides mildly antagonised each other right up to the Russian economic collapse, but there were a number of serious incidents, like the Bay of Pigs, and both sides' atrocious behavior in Afghanistan in the 80s (which is what caused groups like Al Qaeda, btw)

Even after the USSR's money problems there was the feeling that there were elements who wanted to keep fighting, and there was a sting of movies and games dealing with rouge military, stolen nukes, and secret KGB retaliation plans.

Russia has been used as a punching bag in games and movies a long, long time, because they were seen as the threat for a long, long time. I think that people using them as baddies today need to practice a little more creativity unless it's historically appropriate.

The problem facing devs making military shooters is that we don't have any active enemies that can offer a sizable direct conflict. Maybe North Korea, but while they could certainly offer a serious threat they're seen as unstable and crazy, like they could just decide to launch nukes because they didn't enjoy breakfast that morning, rather than the faceless hatred always looking for the chink in the armour that Russia offered in the cold war.

CoH2 is a different matter. I think, especially given Relic's boasting of historic accuracy, that it's reasonable for Russian's to get a bit pissed about that. There's a couple of threads on this site from when the whole issue came out, so I won't go into further detail here.
By DaveBMF (I just got here) on Jan 05, 2014
Testify Hammerjinx. I am Canadian, but I know you are right. Too few are willing to express such ideas in North America, but I see it as you see it.
By GamerY (I just got here) on Jan 06, 2014
The issue is beyond Russia and video games altogether. Do you really think that millions of dollars in development and marketing would be spent without a plan/agenda? The media is being used to create fear and impose a culture upon its consumers, not to portray reality, and certainly not "historical accuracy".
By Hammerjinx (SI Core) on Jan 06, 2014
So, all Russian baddies are for propaganda? I doubt that's been a serious thing since the 60's. Narp. I think it's just that most the ppls making these games and movies grew up in the 80s when people were still genuinely concerned about the Red Threat and nuclear war. I'd imagine that Russian civilians had similar concerns about the US at that time but that neither side (apart from a few whackjobs) really wanted to start something.

A lot of Russian bad guys these days are seen as the "tough" opponent. Near invincible men and women with super human strength that transfix all who gaze upon them with fear and awe. Uncompromising, disciplined, and ruthless.

I'd consider Russia relatively friendly at this point. I'd accept a holiday there ahead of a lot of other countries. A lot.
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Jan 06, 2014
"Do you really think that millions of dollars in development and marketing would be spent without a plan/agenda?"

Not at all! That plan is called turning a profit. One good thing about capitalism is that a profit is a hell of a lot more appealing to everyone involved than stupidly complicated evil schemes.
By Michael_Westgarth (SI Newbie) on Jan 06, 2014
There's some really great ideas being thrown around here and I think the crux of the problem was laid out by Hammerjinx i.e. America and the West have no culturally distinct enemies at the moment that are "worth" making a game about -- at least from a publisher's point of view. It's now considered bad taste to make games about the wars in the Middle East and the North Korean situation is too volatile to touch.

I think there may be an element of propaganda to the last decade of shooters, but only on a societal level. Westerners want to believe that the members of their friends and family who had gone out to fight in the Middle East were fighting for something important. I'm not saying that they AREN'T (that's an entirely different debate), just that recent games enforce that idea and they also suggest that the West is winning. People like that, people pay for it etc. etc.

Thanks for the comments!
By bosnian_dragon (SI Core) on Jan 08, 2014
I know of some games that completely vilify the current American system and their government, and ridicule their military and their way of life.

There are even games that vilify Capitalism as a system and the whole corporatocracy that we're slowly drifting (not so slowly anymore though) towards.

As for the CoD (and other FPS) series, they just use the current situation where all Muslims are vilified in everyday media so they squeeze all the money from it. One day when Korea or any other "rogue state" as the US like to name them begins a new war (or they become forced to start a defensive one) the spotlight will shift to the Far East and that's how things work.

Russians are 'eternal' enemy to the West because they're an Empire just like the USA. Like it or not, USA & Russia are the two biggest superpowers in the world (China is strong but I believe them to lack the drive the other two have) and it's quite natural that they are competing on all fields, even in gaming industry which is not a small piece of cake nowadays.