Category Archives: videogames

Theorizing the Web talk: cultural proximity and video game ideology in Eastern Europe

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

 Political discourse

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.

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Source: http://www.duma.gov.ru/news/273/59606/?sphrase_id=32650 [in Russian]

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Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/7809066/Russia-attempts-to-turn-the-patriotic-tide-by-funding-new-video-games.html

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’.

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Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-ethnic-russification-baltics-kazakhstan-soviet/25328281.html

More recently, two politicians have proposed legislation which would severely limit how game developers could portray Russian history.

moscowtimes

moscowtimes2

Source: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/new-bill-proposes-fines-for-online-maidan-video-game/496838.html

rferl mikheyev2

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-mikheyev-patriotic-bandwagon/25311997.html

calvertjournal

calvertjournal2

Source: http://calvertjournal.com/news/show/2227/spread-of-political-propaganda-and-protection-of-russian-history-feature-in

‘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.

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Metro 2033, a game based on a Russian book but made in a Ukrainian studio, shows Moscow’s metro architecture to advantage.

 

Allodstower

 

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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).

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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.

Conclusions

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.

Further reading

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).

 

 

 

 

Abstract for Canadian Game Studies Association 2014

I’ll be at CGSA again this year, presenting part of my thesis research on discourses about Russian videogame players. Here’s the extended abstract:

“Games are evil!” Examining disparate discourses about video gaming in Russia

Hackers and communists, troubled teenagers and patriotic entrepreneurs, software pirates and self-taught geniuses; nobody, in Russia or in the West, seems to be able to decide exactly what characteristics mark out the Russian video game player. Discussions about identity, nationhood, patriotism, youth policy, education and negative influences abound at all levels of Russian society, from politicians, through the print and online media, to parents of teenagers who game and gamers themselves. Moreover, the ease with which online games and gaming platforms connect players from around the world has led to a number of perceptions of Russian gamers from game journalists and players in other countries. In this paper, I analyse the different strands of discourse about gaming in Russia, comparing the ways in which video games and gamers are perceived by participants, onlookers and press inside and outside Russia. What are the differences between the self-perceptions of Russian gamers and how their Western counterparts perceive them? How is gaming viewed by the Russian authorities and press? How do these discourses compare with similar discussions about gamers in the West? What do these various narratives about gaming in Russia tell us about video gaming practices in cultures of alternative modernity?

Modern cybercrime and pseudo-Soviet corruption

Debates about Russian gamers and gaming are complex and sometimes contradictory. In the wider world, and particularly in English-speaking Western countries, Russian internet activity is frequently associated with cybercrime and a kind of online lawlessness. Data from Kaspersky Lab suggest that Russian gamers are at risk from cybercrime to a greater extent than any other nationality surveyed. In fact, of 11.7 million hostile attacks against gamers in 2013, 8,813,050 of these were directed at Russians (Eli, 2013). Russian gamers may be both victims and perpetrators of cybercrime. A recent report by market research company NewZoo showed that 75% of gamers in Russia acquire their games illegally (Usher, 2011). Timur Seyfelmiukov hypothesises that the practice remains rife as ‘there is almost no law enforcement going after people playing pirated games or distributing them on the web’ (Seyfelmiukov, 2013). However, Seyfelmiukov also notes that the cost of games is very high relative to average monthly income, and that access to games, pirated or legal, varies greatly across urban and rural locations (Seyfelmiukov, 2013). Conversely, co-founder of Valve Gabe Newell suggests that the idea that piracy in Russia is a problem is propagated by ‘the people who wait six months to localise their product into Russian’ (Cifaldi, 2011). Newell, like Seyfelmiukov, realises that the social cachet in acquiring new games as they come out is important to Russian gamers. Simply associating Russian gamers with cybercrime (usually as perpetrators) does not tell the whole story. At its core, this strand of discourse is about access, security and learning the economic realities of Russian gaming.

Within English-speaking game communities, conversations about crime and corruption merge with another set of stereotypes about Russian gamers. In EVE Online, for example, Russian players are persistently characterised as aggressive, secretive and cheating, echoing Cold War-era political rhetoric about espionage and machinations behind the Iron Curtain. The English-language gaming media draw upon similar stereotypes, repeatedly referencing militaristic or collectivistic aspects of Soviet culture when discussing contemporary gamers from the country. Titles, ledes and framing of articles emphasise the ‘otherness’ of gamers from Russia. An in-depth analysis in online gaming magazine Polygon made clear the Russian reaction to these stereotypes as they are enacted in World War II shooter Company of Heroes 2. Drawing upon interviews with and forum discussion amongst Russian players, the author concludes that ‘critics of the game in that country view it as yet another negative portrayal of themselves, the sub-human obedience-bot, primed for violence, ever-ready to throw his worthless carcass into the mill for the greater good’ (Cifaldi, 2013). The comments section of the piece showed that many Russian and Western readers alike agreed with his final statement: ‘There can be little doubt that this stereotype is alive and well in Western contemporary entertainment’ (Cifaldi, 2013).

Political and media opinion

Western perceptions of Russia are a topic of great interest to the Russian authorities. Government discussions of games and gaming tend to revolve around two ideas; mitigating harmful influences upon the country’s youth coming from the West (primarily North America), and ensuring that the economic potential of the game industry within Russia is maximised. The two goals are linked in that a strong domestic industry is considered by some politicians to be key in combating anti-Russian messages from the Western media. This strand of discourse is encapsulated within Pavel Zyryanov’s statement that,

 What we need is more programmers who have a patriotic education, who are on the right ideological level. Computer games today are part of a vital ideological platform that affects the consciousness of our young people. They learn history, they adopt values, and it’s important that this process is given a pro-Russian background (Shuster, 2010).

Such views are backed at the highest level of governance; during his time as President, Dmitry Medvedev suggested that a Russian-made version of World of Warcraft might be a valuable way of teaching young people about their country’s past (RIA Novosti, 2011). He cautioned that the American game could be ‘destructive’ and opined that the ideology of World of Warcraft due to its ‘hidden connotations related to the development of the human civilization’ (RIA Novosti, 2011). Essentially, Medvedev suggests here that World of Warcraft paints a picture of civilisation which favours the West and downplays Russia.

In the Russian media, negative influences are a strong theme in coverage of games and gamers. Broadly, news articles can be divided into three categories: video games hindering physical or emotional development in young children; games exerting a negative effect on the social skills of young people; and occurrences of violence or ‘extreme behaviour’. A fourth (and rarer) category contains discussion of games for education or professional training. Such articles are generally more positive in tone and focus on adult education and the business sphere rather than young people.

Russian gamers react

Survey research for the author’s doctoral thesis shows that Russian gamers are particularly invested in dispelling myths about themselves from the Russian print and online media. Much like their English-speaking counterparts, the gamers surveyed took a balanced view of their gaming habits, bringing up their treatment in the Russian press and systematically addressing their concerns about misperceptions and the ignorance of journalists. For example, the trope of ‘extreme play’ is discussed by gamers in terms of underlying mental or social issues, rather than a natural effect of gaming. Similarly, gamers argue the benefits of ‘non-educational’ games; such games are described in terms of the potential for self-improvement in areas such as hand-eye coordination, appreciation for art and music and problem-solving. Generally, Russian gamers position themselves as experts relative to an ill-informed media.

The talk accompanying this extended abstract will draw upon survey results, Russian-language media articles, coverage about Russian gaming in the Western press and Russian government reports. An analysis of images and quotations taken from these sources will demonstrate how the above interlinked discourses influence one another, and the key points of similarity and difference.

References

Campbell, C. (2013, July 25). Why gaming’s latest take on war is so offensive to Russians. Polygon.com. Retrieved from: <http://www.polygon.com/2013/7/25/4553536/is-company-of-heroes-2-anti-russian>

Cifaldi, F. (2011, October 24). Valve: Piracy is more about convenience than price. Gamasutra.com. Retrieved from: <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/38082/Valve_Piracy_Is_More_About_Convenience_Than_Price.php>.

Eli. (2013, December 25). Christmas warning: Kaspersky Lab finds 11.7 million attacks on gamers in 2013. DigitalSpidey.com. Retrieved from: <http://lifestyle.digitalspidey.com/2013/12/25/christmas-warning-kaspersky-lab-finds-11-7-million-attacks-on-gamers-in-2013/>.

RIA Novosti. (2011, July 22). Medvedev wants Russian World of Warcraft. Ria.ru. Retrieved from: <http://en.ria.ru/russia/20110722/165335270.html>.

Seyfelmiukov, T. (2013, October 30). Welcome to Russia, where most of your friends are video game pirates. Kotaku Australia. Retrieved from: <http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/10/welcome-to-russia-where-most-of-your-friends-are-video-game-pirates/>.

Shuster, S. (2010, June 7). Russia attempts to turn the patriotic tide by funding new video games. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/7809066/Russia-attempts-to-turn-the-patriotic-tide-by-funding-new-video-games.html>.

Usher, W. (2011, September 13). 75 percent of Russian gamers get their games illegally. CinemaBlend.com. Retrieved from: <http://www.cinemablend.com/games/75-Percent-Russian-Gamers-Get-Their-Games-Illegally-35054.html>.

IR13 talk slides plus notes

If you missed my IR13 talk The Russians Are Coming! Nationhood & Threat Perception in EVE Online – or just want to relive it in the comfort of your own home – here are the slides. I’ve added some presenter notes to guide you through the more obscure parts, which you can view by selecting ‘open in new window’ and clicking the ‘notes’ button at the bottom right. Questions, comments, feedback are all welcome.

Summer reading: Douglas Blum on globalisation and post-Soviet youth culture

Absorbing some final reading this summer as I plough through writing two and a half thesis chapters. My focus right now is on globalisation, particularly as it relates to youth culture. Douglas Blum’s ‘National Identity & Globalization: Youth, State & Society in Post-Soviet Eurasia’ is proving to be invaluable. Blum points out the usefulness of youth culture as a proxy for wider national identity, both because of the tendency of young people to have their fingers on the global pulse, and also because the activities of young people are (politically) seen to be a representation of a country’s future. This leads to some interesting ambiguities in the ways that state actors read youth activity: on the one hand, the ability to “be modern” and be effective in a global marketplace is seen as hugely important. On the other, cultural flows from outside must be carefully filtered so as not to erode indigenous narratives.

This is a neat theory to apply to internet use and videogame consumption, because all of the ambiguity that Blum sees in wider social discourse about youth activity is magnified in discussions about online activity. A broad survey of mainstream media discourse about gaming in Russia shows a lot of fears about anti-social activity, violence and a declining interest in literature and “real art,” concerns which have been echoed by Orthodox church spokesmen, politicians and even my own survey participants. Despite this, the Russian government has been quick – well, quick in bureaucratic terms – to subsidise the domestic game industry and encourage proficiency in gaming technology. There’s an obvious economic benefit in pushing domestic production, but the discourse surrounding videogames also has a strong ideological element to it. Just as Blum notes in the wider cultural field, the Russian authorities reconcile the divide between pernicious Western influence and the appeal of modernity by positioning their support of the Russian game industry as a protective measure. In encouraging Russian creators to produce games which portray positive elements of Russian history and mythology, the authorities suggest that their young people can learn to use computing technology and exercise their creative faculties by becoming producers themselves, without falling victim to Western messages of excess, consumerism and anti-Russian sentiment.

Filtering new media and trends in this way is a strategy which stretches back to the Soviet era, a new way of dressing up the old model of youth as “constructors of communism.” In the case of videogames, though, the authorities are drawing upon a neoliberal rhetoric of choice and personal (sometimes professional) development. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, it seems that my survey participants are far more interested in game quality than game message…

Russian ‘EVE Online’ players, griefing and cultural stereotypes

I’ll be back in Canada this May for the Canadian Game Studies Association‘s annual conference, where I’ll be talking about the Russian community in EVE Online. I’ll put the paper up here once it’s been delivered at CGSA and explore all these ideas in full, but here’s a brief outline.

My starting point has been to think about how game history interacts with existing cultural and historical stereotypes of ‘Russianness’, so that in-game behaviour comes to be presented as an extension of immutable national characteristics. Russian players are consistently represented by non-Russians as expansionist, ruthless and propagandistic in their military endeavours. There’s a second strand of thought that assumes economic poverty and revolves around the idea that a large proportion of Russian accounts are botters, farming ISK to “feed their families”.

There’s a lot of back and forth about unfair tactics, cheating and griefing as they pertain to the Russian player base, but I think what’s fascinating is the huge furore over what amounts to about 7% of the EVE population. It’s my hypothesis at present that for ‘Western’ players, it’s very convenient to draw upon past history to explain present in-game injustices. Lots of community discourse and meta-analysis about the Russian corporations and alliances in EVE draws upon Cold War terminology: the Russian bear, the Iron Curtain and so on.

This ties into a few pieces of work on griefing as being culturally subjective, in particular Holin Lin and Chuen Tsai-Sun on ‘white-eyed’ player culture, Melinda Jacobs’ article about reactions to Turkish players in Omerta and some really productive conversations with Nick Webber off the back of his griefing talk in Oxford last year.

I’d also like to link this research up to other work being done in EVE, so if you’re working on something or know somebody who is, get in touch!

 

Survey of Russian MMORPG players

A few months ago I came across a survey of the Russian-speaking MMORPG community by Yuri Bryzgalov. Both the results and the questions he was asking have been hugely productive for my thesis research and will supplement the results of my own survey work. The original documents are, of course, in Russian, but the results are way too good to keep to myself. There’s a real dearth of material about so many gaming cultures outside of the English-speaking world, and even as a non-native Russian speaker it can be incredibly difficult to find statistics about gamers in Russia and Eastern Europe. With that in mind, I recently emailed Yuri to ask his permission to translate his survey and responses into English and post them here. I’ve tried to be as faithful as possible to the original material, both in translation and in formatting. My thanks to Yuri for allowing me to make his valuable research available to English-speaking researchers.

You can download the original Russian document here [pdf].

My translation is available here [pdf].

If you are a Russian speaker who’d like to see the raw data, it’s available online here.

I have a few thoughts about the results that I’ll save for a later post. In the meantime, read, discuss, enjoy!