While Russian forces use heavy artillery and defensive minefields to try to fend off a Ukrainian counteroffensive this summer, the Kremlin is deploying different weapons on the digital battlefield.  

According to The New York Times, Russian operatives are aggressively pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda on online video game sites in a campaign to boost domestic support for Vladimir Putin’s brutal and costly war.   

Russia is capitalizing on popular games like Minecraft and Roblox, which allow players to craft their own environments and interact in immersive settings of their own creation. In Minecraft, which is owned by Microsoft, players have reenacted battles where Russia captures Ukrainian territory, glorified the Russian army through hyper-patriotic symbolism, and parroted Putin’s mendacious portrayal of Ukrainians as Nazis. 

Digital games have been exploited for political propaganda (and covert influence operations) in the past. The far right has used the medium for years to spread extremist narratives in the U.S. and other Western countries. In 2017, political strategist Steve Bannon openly declared, “These guys, these rootless white males, had monster power… You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.” Gamergate was a misogynistic right-wing online harassment campaign aimed primarily at women gamers and game reviewers. Radical Islamist groups like ISIS have also exploited gaming sites to glorify terrorism and recruit followers.  

Now, Russian operatives are borrowing the same tactics, channeling the powerful features of online gaming to disseminate mostly Russian-language propaganda in favor of the war against Ukraine.   

Online games have immense reach and influence — something that Putin, who reportedly has called gaming “a colossal business,” seems to understand well. With a global audience of 3.2 billion, video games generate more revenue than the movie and music industries combined. Besides providing access to a massive audience, online games serve as powerful communication and networking tools. People don’t typically think of video games as social media, but in fact, online gaming sites have become the social networking platforms of choice for many children and teens. Multiplayer games allow participants to communicate in real time as they interact and co-create in immersive environments — all of which can lead to the formation of strong social bonds, especially in proto-metaverse environments like Roblox and Minecraft.    

Many games are also effective conduits for propaganda because they blur the lines between fact and fiction. Some games are highly realistic in their graphics and storylines — recreating real-world warzones and weaponry — but they don’t necessarily purport to be accurate or reasonable. This ambiguity provides a useful cover for purveyors of conspiracy theories, spurious historical claims, and extremist narratives, as it allows them to justify their misguided representations and suggestions as merely “part of a game.”   

These aspects of video games make them attractive propaganda outlets for Putin and his associates, who are savvy manipulators of the digital sphere. The same features have been exploited with some success by extremists in the United States and elsewhere seeking to promote violent ideologies, as detailed in a recent report (which I co-authored) from the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. The Kremlin’s effort to leverage online games to shape public opinion among certain demographics has similar potential and could help the Kremlin prolong its destructive war in Ukraine. It should be counteracted vigorously.    

So far, many game companies have been slow to counter extremism on their sites and platforms. There is reason to think their approach to state-sponsored disinformation is even more primitive. Whereas most major game companies, including Microsoft and Activision Blizzard, now prohibit some forms of extremist rhetoric and behavior in their codes of conduct, most of them lack policies regarding political propaganda and state-sponsored disinformation.  

Policing state propaganda and disinformation in the context of semi-fictional video games is, admittedly, a harder task than detecting and stamping out violent extremist content and behavior, which are often blatant and immediately harmful. Discerning propaganda requires a nuanced understanding of context, motive, and information regarding provenance. Yet, it is companies’ responsibility to find adequate solutions for both problems.  

Outside researchers and experts can help — but to do so, companies must first give them access to their platforms and in-game communication data. Such access would enable the type of large-scale, quantitative analysis that could inform well-grounded policy interventions against both, extremism and state-sponsored disinformation. Until now, game companies have been reluctant to open up their platforms for independent research, citing privacy considerations as a justification for shielding their platforms from scrutiny. But reasonable expectations of privacy in gaming chatrooms can be balanced with the need for research and evidence-based interventions.  

When faced with tragic loss of life and material destruction, inaction is not an acceptable option. Russia’s reckless war in Ukraine should provide the needed impetus for game companies to step up their efforts against violence-enabling extremism and propaganda. They should develop sensible policies for state-driven disinformation and invest significant resources into moderation tools that can implement those policies in real time. And they should do so before expanding the realm of instant and immersive virtual interaction to other areas of life.  

Today, many game companies are branching out into metaverse-like platforms and applications that promise to bring 3D immersive experiences and interaction to work, commerce, healthcare, and education. Russian forces’ exploitation of gaming demonstrates that virtual battlefields have a bearing on real ones. We need robust counteroffensive strategies to fight both.  

IMAGE: Over-the-shoulder shot of an individual playing a video game. (via Getty Images)