A Digital Soldier: How Russia Turns Computer Games into a Propaganda Tool

May 27, 2024
Computer games are highly popular all over the world. And so, the Kremlin is intent on using their potential to forge a new militarized citizen for Russia.

A Profitable Business, Entertainment, or ...?

In the world of video games, every step, every jump, and every task can be not only a part of virtual entertainment but also a tool for spreading ideological beliefs and influence. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that computer games that portray the country and its people in a negative light cause enormous damage. Therefore, he believes it is necessary to develop domestic games that incorporate Russian traditions in order to "maintain the foundation of stability."

According to the president, if Russian specialists themselves develop "content that includes respect for history, traditions, grandparents, parents, and the country," this will create "a huge, powerful foundation for stability in the state." "It's an extremely important thing," said the head of state.

Russian Teenagers Recreate Russian Military «Successes» in Ukraine in Minecraft

Minecraft, a sandbox indie game created by Swedish programmer Markus Persson, has evolved into a platform for various forms of expression. In this world made entirely of cubes, players have the freedom to create and reshape landscapes as they see fit, much like a digital Lego set. However, Minecraft has recently taken on a new dimension.

A group of Russian teenagers has undertaken a project within Minecraft by recreating real-life "military operations" carried out by Russian forces during the war with Ukraine.

Nikita, also known as "Nesich," one of the minds behind creating this playworld, stated that his motivation stemmed from patriotism and exposure to news and social media content depicting events in Donbas. "The idea for the project came easily and quickly. I've been a Russian patriot since 2014, and I've watched videos about what's going on in Donbas on Telegram channels. I've been to Ukraine and seen how badly Russians are treated; it's unjust," Nikita says.

The process of replicating real battles in Minecraft includes planning, map development, and even casting actors to play key roles. For example, the developers meticulously recreated the clashes around Bahmut, a city in eastern Ukraine, drawing on both real-life accounts and their own imaginative interpretations. 

According to Nikita, the entire production of a video, including map design and actor recruitment, can span over a month or longer, highlighting the dedication and attention to detail invested in this project.

Apart from recreating scenes, these teenagers also intend to use their platform for purposes. Their Minecraft creations are not featured on their social media accounts. They also serve as a way to show solidarity with Russian military operations. Russian troops have been portrayed as "liberating" Mariupol and fighting in battles, particularly in Hostomel, as part of the Russian-Ukraine war.

A block of flats in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine | Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Locals sit on a bench near an apartment building damaged during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine. April 28, 2022. Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

Nikita has expressed interest in expanding their efforts by organizing streamed fundraisers for Russian soldiers and possibly making a movie based on their Minecraft reenactments.

Their ambitions extend beyond gaming; they intend to create videos and music clips to rally support for Russian military operations in Ukraine. This underscores the growing influence of technology in shaping narratives and rallying support, particularly among Russian younger generations, in the context of the Russian war against Ukraine.

"Best in Hell": A "True Story" of the War Against Ukraine, Told by a Russian

On April 15, 2024, the NoName Company (from Vladivostok) published a trailer for a computer game called "Best in Hell". "Best in Hell" is a story-driven, tactical, co-op first-person shooter set in a real-life operation during the Russian "special military operation in Ukraine". According to developers, "When creating the game, we relied on the stories of combatants and focused on drama. We used real stories of fighters who gathered throughout the year".

It is emphasized that the plot of the game is based on the film "Best in Hell" by Yevgeny Prigozhin and Hero of Russia Alexei Nagin, associated with the Wagner PMC, released in 2022 by the Aurum studio.

"We believe that there is a current lack of patriotic game projects based on historical events in modern Russia. Therefore, this is both a gaming and a social project, but the game must be interesting to us. The game was developed without any government or other financial assistance. "This project is a personal initiative of the company's founder," NoName Company stated.


The studio also stated that the game employs a blend of cinematography and realism and that, thanks to artificial intelligence, it will not become another "shooting gallery."

Furthermore, in the trailer, a character similar to Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared and heard the film's slogan "Best in Hell": "We have a contract. A contract with the company, a contract with the Motherland, with conscience, and we will carry it out to the end. Alive or dead. We know we'll go to hell, but in hell we'll be the best."

Possible character of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Screen from the trailer "Best in Hell"
Yevgeny Prigozhin, Head of PMC Wagner

The trailer for the game “Best in Hell” also appeared on Telegram channels associated with PMC “Wagner”, such as “PMC Wagner. Briefs" and "Unloading Wagner". The controversy surrounding "Best in Hell" highlights the effects of gaming narratives linked with real-world situations, especially in the context of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, even though the game's release date is still unknown. “OUR VICTORY”: An Attempt to Test Knowledge or Rewrite WWII History? On May 8, 2024, the website also hosted another online game called "Our Victory". Russia appears to have planned to change some historical facts about WWII, particularly focusing on the period covering the “Great Patriotic War”.

"On the eve of Victory Day, game participants will learn new facts about the period 1941–1945 and get to know the accounts of families whose fates were linked by the Great Patriotic War. The historical online game "Our Victory" is being held as part of the project "International Historical and Educational Campaign Dictation of Victory."

To take part in the online game “Our Victory” in an individual format, any resident of Russia aged 14 years or older.

The tactic of Russian propaganda involves integrating a political message or ideology into various facets of life. Through virtual reality, players can get an understanding of how war is conducted in a real-world setting, including military operations and a military's potential, as well as an artificially formed idea of who are the "enemies of Russia", of course, including Ukraine. This is achieved through the use of symbols, images, and character dialogues, or even the creation of specific scenarios aimed at cultivating an unconscious liking or dislike for specific countries, ideologies, or political leaders.

Alona Hryshko
Analyst at Internews Ukraine