Russia Takes Its Ukraine Information War Into Video Games (2024)



Supported by


Propaganda is appearing in Minecraft and other popular games and discussion groups as the Kremlin tries to win over new audiences.

Russia Takes Its Ukraine Information War Into Video Games (1)

By Steven Lee Myers and Kellen Browning

Reporting from San Francisco

Russian propaganda is spreading into the world’s video games.

In Minecraft, the immersive game owned by Microsoft, Russian players re-enacted the battle for Soledar, a city in Ukraine that Russian forces captured in January, posting a video of the game on their country’s most popular social media network, VKontakte.

A channel on the Russian version of World of Tanks, a multiplayer warfare game, commemorated the 78th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in May with a recreation of the Soviet Union’s parade of tanks in Moscow in 1945. On Roblox, the popular gaming platform, a user created an array of Interior Ministry forces in June to celebrate the national holiday, Russia Day.

These games and adjacent discussion sites like Discord and Steam are becoming online platforms for Russian agitprop, circulating to new, mostly younger audiences a torrent of propaganda that the Kremlin has used to try to justify the war in Ukraine.

In this virtual world, players have adopted the letter Z, a symbol of the Russian troops who invaded last year; embraced legally specious Russian territorial claims in Crimea and other places; and echoed President Vladimir V. Putin’s efforts to denigrate Ukrainians as Nazis and blame the West for the conflict.

“Glory to Russia,” declared a video tutorial on how to construct a flagpole with a Russian flag on Minecraft. It showed a Russian flag over a cityscape labeled Luhansk, one of the Ukrainian provinces that Russia has illegally annexed.

“The gaming world is really a platform that can impact public opinion, to reach an audience, especially young populations,” said Tanya Bekker, a researcher at ActiveFence, a cybersecurity company that identified several examples of Russian propaganda on Minecraft for The New York Times.


Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, disclosed in April that the company’s security teams had identified recent Russian efforts “basically to penetrate some of these gaming communities,” citing examples in Minecraft and in Discord discussion groups. He said Microsoft had advised governments, which he did not name, about them, but he played down their significance.

“In truth, it’s not the No. 1 thing we should worry about,” Mr. Smith said at an economic conference in Washington organized by Semafor, the news site. “They’re going to publish information somewhere. You know, it just happens to be a good place for them to get the information into circulation.”

The head of Microsoft’s threat analysis team, Clint Watts, told researchers at New York University’s Stern School of Business that the Russian paramilitary force known as the Wagner Group promoted “malign narratives” on Discord and Steam to support the Kremlin’s views. It may have also sought to encourage enlistments when Russian combat casualties were taking an enormous toll.

“The propaganda mainly seeks to make Wagner and the Russian military look cool and menacing,” Mr. Watts told the researchers, who were examining extremism in video games.

Microsoft declined to elaborate on its executives’ comments or to respond to questions about the Russian examples except to say in a statement that the company reviews content that violates its community standards.

Although some of the material reflects the views of ordinary Russians, other examples suggested government involvement. The Kremlin’s reach into video games shows how tenaciously Mr. Putin’s government has sought to bolster its political goals by using Western social media and consumer products despite diplomatic and economic isolation.

In June, celebrities, musicians and at least one Russian government official staged a concert on Minecraft celebrating Russia Day. The official, Ekaterina Mizulina, is a member of the Civic Chamber, an advisory body, and the head of the Russian Internet Safety League. Her mother, Yelena, serves in the upper house of Parliament and has been a prominent ally of Mr. Putin’s, sponsoring conservative legislation targeting, among other things, hom*osexuality.

Other memes appearing in games are sympathetic to the Wagner Group, which was led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin until a mysterious military mutiny unraveled last month. Mr. Prigozhin, once a close ally of Mr. Putin’s, is a veteran of information operations, having founded the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg company that interfered in the American presidential election in 2016.

This month, Mr. Putin underscored the Kremlin’s interest in the gaming industry as a potential tool for the government to instill values. He called it “a colossal business” in remarks to a civic organization he founded in 2018 to focus on youth social and economic issues. One in four Russians plays games online, according to a deputy prime minister who spoke at the same meeting. Mr. Putin said games “should be at the intersection of art and education.”

“A game should help a person develop, help him find himself, should help educate a person both within the framework of universal human values and within the framework of patriotism,” Mr. Putin said in remarks in the Kremlin.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Microsoft announced that it would suspend new sales of products and services to Russia to comply with sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, but Russians have continued to find ways to use its games and sites like Discord and Steam to reach broader audiences. Many of the examples are in Russian, suggesting that the intended audience is at home or among Russian speakers in neighboring countries, including Ukraine.

“Russian propaganda is trying new things to promote its regime,” said Artem Starosiek, the head of Molfar, a Ukrainian consultancy that analyzes online threats.


Molfar’s researchers identified more than a dozen instances of pro-Kremlin propaganda in Minecraft, Roblox, the Russian versions of World of Tanks and World of Warships, Fly Corp, Armored Warfare and War Thunder. Almost all extolled the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, a theme Mr. Putin and his advisers have used to build support for today’s war. Some of it had explicit links to political parties or government agencies.

It is not clear what steps, if any, Microsoft or other companies have taken to block Russian efforts. Wargaming Group, the Cyprus-based creator of World of Tanks, World of Warships and other games, spun off its Russian and Belarusian business last year to Lesta Studio, a subsidiary in St. Petersburg. “Wargaming is vehement in the support of the people of Ukraine, our studio in Kiev and our employees there,” Alex Brewer-Disarufino, a spokesman for Wargaming in North America, said in an email.

Jacob Davey, the head of research of far-right and hate movements at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London, said Minecraft and other games could be useful tools for those looking to influence vulnerable young people, especially if those people had already sorted themselves into private groups where they were eager to discuss fringe ideologies.

“We know that hostile actors who are seeking to shape minds and influence people are opportunistic,” said Mr. Davey, who has studied the gamification of extremist content online. “They go where they think they might find a receptive audience, and they adopt a wide range of tech platforms to push their messaging out.”

Giving the martial nature of many games, it is not surprising that the war in Ukraine would have an influence on content, but in some cases, the games have become a battleground.

A company in Germany made a video game, Death From Above, that simulates Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian forces. The company’s owner called it “a propaganda game.” A newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, used the video game Counter-Strike to create a conduit for factual information about the war to a Russian audience largely shielded from it.

“Could we create a place in Counter-Strike where the millions of young Russian men playing this first-person shoot game would be forced to face the terrors of the war in Ukraine?” the newspaper asked in an interactive feature.

Joseph Brown, an assistant professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, spent five years teaching about video game development in Russia, and said he had seen firsthand the country’s commitment to propaganda through video games and other forms of media.

“They need to get everybody back on board with the war,” Dr. Brown said. “It’s another piece of this whole puzzle of constant propaganda, all the time. In every single medium they can get to you with, they will get to you.”

Steven Lee Myers covers misinformation for The Times. He has worked in Washington, Moscow, Baghdad and Beijing, where he contributed to the articles that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2021. He is also the author of “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin.” More about Steven Lee Myers

Kellen Browning is a technology reporter in San Francisco, where he covers the gig economy, the video game industry and general tech news. More about Kellen Browning

A version of this article appears in print on , Section


, Page


of the New York edition

with the headline:

Russia Takes Propaganda Into Gaming. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe



Russia Takes Its Ukraine Information War Into Video Games (2024)


How many people play video games in Russia? ›

Russia has the largest video games market in Europe, with an estimated 65.2 million players nationwide as of 2018. Even though piracy has been a great issue in the Russian gaming industry, the games market more than doubled in the past five years to over $2 billion in 2019.

What is the war between Russia and Ukraine about? ›

Ukraine became a battleground in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and began arming and abetting separatists in the Donbas region in the country's southeast. Russia's seizure of Crimea was the first time since World War II that a European state annexed the territory of another.

Does Russia have video games? ›

Russia had one of the highest gaming penetration rates in Europe. In the third quarter of 2021, nearly 79 percent of internet users in the country played games on any device. The market faced an exodus of game publishers in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

What is the Russia Ukraine war and how did it all begin? ›

In March, Russia organised a controversial referendum and annexed Crimea. This was followed by the outbreak of the war in Donbas, which began in April 2014 when armed Russia-backed separatists seized Ukrainian government buildings, proclaiming the independent Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic.

How many gamers are in the US? ›

In 2022, there were approximately 188.9 million gamers in the United States, the majority of which were digital gamers. Among all digital gaming segments in the United States, mobile games had the largest audience with about 150 million users. Almost half of the gamers in the United States are female.

How many US citizens play video games? ›

Number of gamers in the US: Around 215.5 million Americans play video games, accounting for 65% or around two-thirds of the population in the country. User Penetration: The average gaming penetration among internet users worldwide is 81.9%, which means that around eight out of 10 internet users play games.

Why is Russia so big? ›

The acquisition of territories such as Siberia, the Caucasus, and the Far East contributed significantly to Russia's vast size and diverse population, which includes numerous ethnic groups, languages, and religions.

Who is winning war in Ukraine? ›

Morale. If you were to judge who is winning the war based on morale, Ukraine would emerge as the victor, according to all four experts.

Which language is spoken in Ukraine? ›

Ukrainian, the official language, belongs with Russian and Belarusian to the East Slavic branch of the Slavic language family. Ukrainian is closely related to Russian but also has distinct similarities to the Polish language.

Is Roblox safe for my child? ›

Still, because of the learning potential Roblox offers, Common Sense Media rates it OK for users age 13+. Help your kids protect themselves by enabling privacy settings and teaching them how to be safe online.

Does Xbox sell in Russia? ›

Microsoft Suspends Sales in Russia, Including Xbox Hardware and Games - IGN.

Is Xbox still available in Russia? ›

Microsoft Is Suspending All New Product Sales In Russia, Which Includes Xbox.

Is Ukraine a member of NATO? ›

Ukraine applied to integrate with a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2008. Plans for NATO membership were shelved by Ukraine following the 2010 presidential election in which Viktor Yanukovych, who preferred to keep the country closer to Russia, was elected President.

Was Ukraine ever part of Russia? ›

Most of Ukraine fell to the Russian Empire under the reign of Catherine the Great; the Crimean Khanate was annexed by Russia in 1783, following the Emigration of Christians from Crimea in 1778, and in 1793 right-bank Ukraine was annexed by Russia in the Second Partition of Poland.

When did Ukraine split from Russia? ›

Ukraine officially declared itself an independent state on August 24, 1991, when the communist Supreme Soviet (parliament) of Ukraine proclaimed that Ukraine would no longer follow the laws of the USSR, and only follow the laws of the Ukrainian SSR, de facto declaring Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union.

Does Putin play video games? ›

Although he doesn't appear to be a games player, Putin does seem to recognize the significance of this nonlinear form of entertainment in the modern world.

Which country has the most video gamers? ›

Which country has the most gamers in the world?
  • China. 45.8B. 744.1M.
  • United States. 45.0B. 209.8M.
  • Japan. 20.0B. 77.1M.
  • South Korea. 7.9B. 34.1M.
  • Germany. 6.6B. 49.5M.
  • United Kingdom. 5.5B. 38.5M.
  • France. 4.1B. 38.8M.
  • Canada. 3.4B. 22.0M.

What video game do Russians play the most? ›

What video games do Russians play the most?
  • Space Rangers. “Space Rangers” is a game designed for people who love sci-fi thrillers and space adventures. ...
  • Silent Storm. ...
  • King's Bounty. ...
  • War Thunder. ...
  • Heroes of Might And Magic. ...
  • Beholder 2. ...
  • Sector. ...

What is the most popular Russian video game? ›

World of Tanks was the most popular video game among Russian men, with 14 percent of male respondents playing it in 2022. The Sims and various patience games, such as Solitaire and Spider, were the leading choices of female gamers.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Foster Heidenreich CPA

Last Updated:

Views: 6457

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (56 voted)

Reviews: 87% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Foster Heidenreich CPA

Birthday: 1995-01-14

Address: 55021 Usha Garden, North Larisa, DE 19209

Phone: +6812240846623

Job: Corporate Healthcare Strategist

Hobby: Singing, Listening to music, Rafting, LARPing, Gardening, Quilting, Rappelling

Introduction: My name is Foster Heidenreich CPA, I am a delightful, quaint, glorious, quaint, faithful, enchanting, fine person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.