Atomic Heart, a video game under Russian influence?

Ukrainians have posted videos on YouTube with millions of views calling for a boycott of the Atomic Heart game (Mundifsh/Screenshot)

“Great graphics” and “very cool puzzles to solve”, but above all, a controversy set against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine: Atomic Heart, a brand new action game on Xbox, PlayStation 5 and PC, is strongly criticized for the Ukrainian authorities, who called for a ban on the game on their territory and encouraged other countries to follow suit.

In honor of the USSR?

In Ukraine, anger has not ceased “for months against Atomic Heart in the community of players and professionals in the sector,” says Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a specialist in online propaganda and disinformation issues at the University of Copenhagen.

Ukrainians have posted videos on YouTube with millions of views in which they call for a boycott of the game, which was promoted as one of the most anticipated games of 2023. Because Atomic Heart is not a small propaganda game, but a great title. which is expected to be one of the commercial successes of this year.

This video game is accused, first of all, of transmitting a very pro-Russian, or rather pro-Soviet message. The game depicts an alternate reality in which the USSR, having won World War II, would have prevailed thanks to impressive technological advances, particularly in the field of robotics. Thanks to this advantage, Moscow would have proposed an ideal society in which everyone could prosper as they wanted.

Of course, the purpose of the game is more complex, with a triumphant Soviet Union less willing to help humanity than it seems, and the player playing a KGB agent who will realize this. But “when you know that, since 2014, Vladimir Putin has been building anti-Ukrainian rhetoric of him playing on Soviet-era nostalgia, you can understand that the simple setting is disturbing,” says Yevgeniy Golovchenko.

Links with Gazprom

However, this is not the only criticism that Atomic Heart receives. Its detractors claim that buying it would also support the Russian war effort. This accusation is based on alleged links between Mundfish, the Cyprus-based game development studio, and Russia.

The company itself has Russian origins, as its headquarters were still in Moscow in 2019. Although its team has an international dimension, made up of veterans of the video game industry from different countries, the truth is that several prominent members are Russian nationals. . Starting with the CEO, Robert Bagratuni, who used to work for, the largest Russian internet portal and social network, which became VK in 2021.

One of Mundfish’s main backers, Russian investment fund GEM Capital, is led by Anatoliy Paliy, who was previously deputy head of a Gazprom subsidiary. The game is also distributed in Russia by VK, controlled by the Russian energy giant since 2021. Mundfish’s detractors therefore see Gazprom everywhere and fear that part of the profits from the sale of the game will be recovered by this giant with proven links to the Kremlin.

The silence of the study on the Ukrainian war has not improved its reputation either. He waited until January 2023 to ensure on Twitter that “Mundfish is an international team that is in favor of peace and against violence.” The absence of a direct reference to the situation in Ukraine in this statement did not appease critics, although, “due to Russian laws that penalize any criticism of the military, the studio may not have wanted to endanger relatives or relatives of the Russian employees”, points out the site on digital culture Ars Technica.

“This whole affair illustrates how impossible it is for a Russian or Russia-linked company to continue to operate as if there were no war. And the statements by the Ukrainian government show that Kiev is going to do everything possible to stop these companies from turning a blind eye,” says Jeff Hawn, an expert on the Ukraine-Russia conflict and an external consultant at the New Lines Institute, a think tank. American geopolitics.

Victim of the information war

The accusations against Atomic Heart and Mundfish “are based more on indications than on definitive evidence”, admits Yevgeniy Golovchenko. There is no evidence, for example, that Gazprom will recoup any of the gambling profits and then use the funds to fuel the war effort.

But for Yevgeniy Golovchenko, the game is first and foremost a casualty of the “information war between Russia and Ukraine.” “It doesn’t really matter if Atomic Heart is pro-Russian or not, as long as this product appears to be tied to Russia, if it becomes a success it will bolster Russian soft power. And that is what kyiv tries to prevent”, affirms the specialist.

The sling against this game is intended to keep Russia as isolated as possible. For kyiv, not only should Russian oil and gas exports be limited, “but also cultural products, and video games are an important part of this industry,” says Yevgeniy Golovchenko.

Video games are even more important in the eyes of Ukrainians “because there is a very active, internationally recognized and politically engaged community of video game professionals,” explains Jeff Hawn. The creators of one of Ukraine’s most iconic video games, the STALKER series, have made repeated calls to support Ukraine against Russia. One of the game’s developers, Volodymyr Yezhov, died on the front lines in Bakhmut in December 2022.

Originally Posted by RFI

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