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.
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>.