I was recently invited to speak by Jeremy Antley at Theorizing the Web’s first game panel. TtW had been on my radar a while; they have been pretty effective in encouraging attendees to participate in the backchannel and I followed along on Twitter last year. It turned out to be an engaging and broad series of panels by a variety of students, academics, journalists and professionals from various industries. With that diversity in mind, I decided to dive right in and talk on a topic that had been at the back of my mind for some time. What follows are my presentation notes in a more readable format (click images for bigger versions). Disclaimer: this work is in its early stages!
Games of (Russian) Empire: cultural proximity and video game ideology in Eastern Europe
I occupy a strange space in research. My home discipline is Russian studies, where videogames are barely on the radar and the Russian internet is largely discussed in terms of potential for political dissent. However, I also spend a lot of time in game studies, where I think it’s reasonable to claim the majority of theory is strongly West-centric. I spend a lot of time critiquing this focus. I also, in the early days of my PhD, unwittingly replicated this kind of erasure.
One of the first elements of my PhD research was an online survey, delivered to the official Russian-language forums of three popular games. I had carefully identified a selection of games, taken into account the possible effect of my gender and nationality on the responses and had my questions vetted by two Russian speakers. What I didn’t count on was receiving a number of responses from Russian speakers who were not Russian. I found little space for these responses in my thesis, but three years later they still feel significant. Further research into the demographics of visitors to other Russian-language gaming sites supported those survey results:
Source: Google Analytics data for Habrahabr.ru.
The right column shows pageviews from different countries in millions. From the top: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Germany, Latvia, Moldova, USA, Israel, Estonia.
Source: Mail.ru analytics for GoHa.ru. Figure shows the percentage of traffic from various countries, from the top: Russia, Ukraine, ‘other countries’ heading expanding into Belarus, Kazakhstan, Germany, USA and Canada.
Why were Estonian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Polish players visiting Russian-language forums and filling out surveys, especially at a time when the relationship between Russia and many former Soviet republics is unprecedentedly tense? I want to theorise here why Russian-language gaming sources might be important outside of Russian borders. I also want to discuss how the concepts of empire and cultural power can help us understand the complex dynamics at play in the Eastern European gaming community; after all, there is a great deal of history behind the persistent power of the Russian media in the region.
My theoretical starting points were Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter’s Games of Empire and Dean Chan’s work on cultural proximity in intra-Asian gaming. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter consider games a vital medium of empire (in Hardt and Negri’s transnational sense of the word), a medium which, with its twin goals of fighting and trading impose and reinforce empire’s roles of “soldier-citizen” and “worker-consumer”. I don’t entirely agree with some of their claims: in particular they seem to (perhaps inadvertently) retain the sense that the United States are at the centre of empire. But I think the concept of empire can work on a smaller level if combined with the idea of cultural proximity.
Cultural proximity refers to the notion that audiences tend to prefer media which focuses on, relates to or shares linguistic, cultural and historical traits with their own nation or culture. In his great article on intra-Asian games networks, Dean Chan asks, “What are the cultural politics inherent in present-day games networks within East Asia? To what extent are intra-Asian game networks reflective of imbalanced power relations within the region?” We can ask similar questions about Eastern Europe, where former Soviet republics have historically been exposed to a great deal of Russian-language, Russian-made media and, despite increasing antipathy towards Russia, still have their own complex relationships with ‘the West’ generally and America specifically. In this scenario, there are a number of political and practical reasons why videogame players may orient themselves primarily towards Russia rather than to a Western centre like North America.
For starters, the Russian language remains important and widely-spoken in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; it is an official language in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and a secondary language in another dozen or so countries (including all three Baltic states and Israel). Beth Kolko and Cynthia Putnam’s work on gaming in Central Asia identifies the ability to speak and read Russian as a major predictor of whether or not an individual will play games – more important than speaking English, socio-economic status or gender.
Up to this point the focus has been on individual language and preferences. But games are starting to attract some attention in the Russian political and sphere and predictably we see an emphasis on games as a powerful influence and potentially corrupting power.
Source: http://www.duma.gov.ru/news/273/59606/?sphrase_id=32650 [in Russian]
In this case the discourse is focused on Russian youth, but with the popularity of Russian-made games in the region we can see that promoting a strongly Russo-centric ideology in games affects Russian-speakers outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Consider the recent claim by Vladimir Putin that he would protect the interests of ‘all Russians’ and the concept of using Russian games to promote Russian values and ideology in former Soviet republics doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Indeed, when Vera Tolz outlines five prevalent contemporary opinions on what the Russian nation should be, four revolve around the idea that Russia has a mission to bring together Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians, or to create a supranational ‘Russia’.
More recently, two politicians have proposed legislation which would severely limit how game developers could portray Russian history.
‘Russianness’ in games
A few more examples of Russian-centred ideology in games, this time from games which (to my knowledge) were made independently of government involvement.
Metro 2033, a game based on a Russian book but made in a Ukrainian studio, shows Moscow’s metro architecture to advantage.
In Allods Online, by Russian internet behemoth Mail.ru, a Soviet-style monument stands in a sea of communal apartments (yes, those little buildings at the back are accessible to player avatars).
IL-2 Sturmovik is a much-loved flight simulator which allows players to fly a number of World War II-era planes. This ties into the calls by Russian politicians to produce games accurately (‘accurately’?) depicting Russian military history.
Intentionally or not, Russian games depict images of Russian architecture, commemoration and cultural figures. They celebrate Russian military history and incorporate jokes and pop culture references to Russian people and media. I think this is very close to what Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter are arguing, but with a significantly different hierarchy of interests. First and foremost, ideologies displayed in Russian games (and games from Russian source material) are pro-Russian. They are (often) anti-West, or at least anti-US. They draw heavily upon military history, in particular employing discourses about the success of the Soviet military during World War II. Moreover, we see that these traits are strongly encouraged by Russian politicians. Based on political discourse surrounding videogames over the past five years, it seems that funding and supporting those videogames which promote Russian interests and history is absolutely a priority. Videogames are increasingly being seen as a viable and even effective way of spreading Russian political ideologies, in ways which mirror past dynamics of empire.
Dean Chan, ‘Negotiating intra-Asian games networks: on cultural proximity, East Asian games design and Chinese farmers’, Fibreculture journal no. 8, 2006.
Nick Dyer-Witheford & Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
Catherine Goodfellow, “Videogames.Ru: play, culture and identity in Russian virtual worlds”, in Videogame Identities: The Effect of Videogames on Culture, Narrative, Gameplay and Technology, M. Carr & E. Kirkland (eds.), Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press, 2013.
Catherine Goodfellow, ‘Kremlin Games: when programming meets politics’, http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/catherine-goodfellow/kremlin-games-when-programming-meets-politics, April 2013.
Vera Tolz, Russia: Inventing the Nation (Arnold, 2001).