Tag Archives: russia

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.


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>.

Workshop notes: Ethics of Online Research in Russian and East European Studies

Just before the Christmas break, I co-organised a workshop on conducting ethical online research in Russian and Eastern Europe as part of a series by CEELBAS dedicated to postgraduate research ethics. Following much productive discussion, participants collated slides and notes in the hope that they would be useful to students unable to attend. The notes, and a summary of the day’s proceedings, are available here.

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!


Resources: 20th February

Three good pieces today, all related to Russian media practices.

Media Piracy in Emerging Economies

This bilingual report frames media piracy as “a failure of affordable access to media in legal markets”, an assertion which gels nicely with the fieldwork responses I’m receiving from Russian gamers. The authors pick up on themes of education, local markets and comparative economic power across six different regions, drawing upon regional specialists who do a great job of contextualising the findings in the appropriate historical and social background. There’s not much on Russian videogames, sadly: a brief note on p160 is about all, but the information on internet and computer penetration is up to date and smartly dissected. As a bonus, the chapters all have hyperlinked sections via some kind of computer wizardry so you can bounce around quite easily and save yourself some scrolling.


Tomsk State University’s ‘Digital Humanities’ e-journal

Russian-speakers only for this one. Tomsk State University has an e-journal focusing on the digital humanities which has yielded some gems. It looks like all of the submissions are from within the university but I’ve found D.V. Galkin’s ‘Computer Games as a Phenomenon of Modern Culture‘ useful. Other topics: chat robots for language learning purposes, anthropological aspects of information societies, the psychology of ‘cybersportsmen’, cyber-ethics.


Peasant Muse: ‘Textual Dualism & Augmented Reality in the Russian Empire

Jeremy’s been writing some fascinating posts about the long written history of ‘digital dualism’; this post is a really nice round-up of some of his ideas. In particular he discusses strategies used by Russian peasants to escape restrictive bureaucratic definitions of their identities. It’s worth following the links in this post too – he takes a historically grounded view of digital media development and plays with the relationship between analogue and digital in some smart ways.

Issue 6 of Digital Icons: transmediality, new digital phenomena in Russia

The new issue of Digital Icons is up, with a focus on transmediality and new digital phenomena in the Russian-speaking sphere. If you’re not familiar with Digital Icons, it’s a twice-yearly online journal dedicated to new media in Russia, Eurasia and Central Europe. All of the articles are available online in a combination of English, German and Russian.

They’re also launching a new project, Digital Memoirs. The latter promises a “collaborative historical narrative that would define use of digital media, including digital gadgets, digital forms of communication and digital practices, in a post-communist, post-totalitarian space”.

I’ve yet to read the articles in depth but two look particularly promising: Tine Roesen’s piece on the elite social network Snob.ru and Ellen Rutten’s exploration of the culture and news portal Openspace.ru.

UNICEF report on the RuNet Generation

Here’s a useful resource: a UNICEF study of internet use amongst young Russians. The authors present a broad review of available statistics and studies surrounding useage statistics, popular sites, technologies, access and identified risks. I’m pleased to note that they prioritise local expertise, particularly as it’s been my experience that by the time Russian sources are published in English they’re already months and years out of date.

Their findings in brief:

  • The number of Internet users grew from two million in 2000 to 46.5 million by the end of 2010
  • The Russian digital landscape is dominated by Russian-bred sites like Yandex, VKontakte and mail.ru
  • Meeting strangers is the most widespread risk encountered by Russian adolescents and young people. Forty per cent of Russians aged 9-16 reported meeting someone from the online world in real life
  • Significant risks discovered over the course of the study also include adult content, malicious software and cyberbullying

Unfortunately there’s not much about online gaming, just a line pointing out the “dearth of research concerning the prevalence and frequency of online gaming among Russian adolescents and young people” and some sparse statistics from this report which frankly I would like to see verified elsewhere:

  •  75 per cent of Internet users under 18 years of age who play online games play massively multi-player online games (MMOG).
  • On average, they play these games 6 days per week, 7 hours per day.
  • In addition, 25 per cent of this sample play games on social networking sites.
  • On average, games on social networking sites are played 5 days per week, 4 hours per day.

Sections on available technology, the digital divide, Twitter, blogging and e-commerce are somewhat more comprehensive, although that’s only to be expected. I’ve found that there’s a lot of interest in themes of economic development and political resistance when it comes to RuNet so resources abound.

Their final conclusion – that young people need to be educated about the risks of internet use – is a little anaemic. Given the apparent prevalence of internet use by young Russians, I would be very surprised if the conclusions drawn by the UNICEF team aren’t already well understood by the internet users themselves; a perfect example of shutting the stable door behind the horse, I’m guessing. Nevertheless, it’s a solid report and a good introduction to the Russian internet sphere. It’s available in full here.