The Ukrainian government wants the action game “Atomic Heart”, released on Tuesday, to be banned from the video game world. The developers of this title, which depicts an alternate reality in which the USSR would dominate the world, are accused of being linked to Russian companies, such as Gazprom.
“Great graphics” and “really cool puzzles to solve.” But above all a mountain of controversy against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine for “Atomic Heart”, a brand new action game, released Tuesday February 21 on Xbox, PlayStation 5 and PC.
“The Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation will send an official letter asking Sony, Microsoft and Valve [la société qui gère Steam, la principale plateforme de jeux sur PC] to ban the sale of this game in Ukraine. And we encourage other countries to limit the distribution of this title to toxic ideology, the profits of which could be used to finance the war waged by Russia against Ukraine,” Kyiv said on Wednesday (February 22).
To the glory of the USSR?
In Ukraine, anger has been brewing “for months against ‘Atomic Heart’ within the community of players and professionals in this sector”, underlines Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a specialist in questions of online propaganda and disinformation at the University of Copenhagen. .
Videos that have attracted millions of views have been posted on YouTube by Ukrainians calling for a boycott of this title which, just last year, was considered one of the most anticipated shooters of 2023. Because “Atomic Heart” is not a small propaganda game that would be sold under the coat, but a major title that hopes to establish itself as one of the commercial successes of this year.
This video game work is, first of all, accused of conveying a very pro-Russian – or rather pro-Soviet – message. This game depicts, in fact, an alternative reality where the USSR, after having been the big winner of the Second World War, would have imposed itself thanks to impressive technological progress, particularly in terms of robotics. Thanks to this advantage, Moscow would have offered an ideal society where everyone could flourish as they pleased.
Of course, the story of the game turns out to be more complex, with a triumphant Soviet Union less eager to help humanity than it seems, and the player takes on the role of a KGB agent who will realize this. But “when we know that since 2014, Vladimir Putin has been building his anti-Ukrainian rhetoric by playing on nostalgia for the Soviet era, we can understand that the simple decor is disturbing”, notes Yevgeniy Golovchenko.
From Moscow to Cyprus
This is, however, far from being the only criticism addressed to “Atomic Heart”. Buying it would also support the Russian war effort, say its critics. An accusation that is not in the lace and is based on the supposed links between Mundfish, the game development studio based in Cyprus, and Russia.
The company itself has Russian origins, since its headquarters were still in Moscow in 2019. His team certainly has an international dimension, made up of veterans of the video game industry from different countries, the fact remains that several eminent members are Russian nationals. Starting with the CEO, Robert Bagratuni, who previously worked for Mail.ru, the most important Russian internet portal and social network, which became VK in 2021.
One of Mundfish’s main financiers, Russian investment fund GEM Capital, is headed by Anatoliy Paliy, who previously served as deputy director of a Gazprom subsidiary. The game is also distributed in Russia by VK, which has been controlled by the Russian energy giant since 2021. So Mundfish critics see Gazprom all over Mundfish and fear that part of the profits from the sale of the game will be recovered by this mastodon whose links with the Kremlin are proven.
The studio’s silence about the war in Ukraine didn’t improve their reputation either. He waited for January 2023 to ensure on Twitter that “Mundfish is an international team that is for peace and against violence”. The lack of direct reference to the situation in Ukraine in this statement did not calm the critics, although, “due to Russian laws sanctioning any criticism of the military, it is possible that the studio did not have want to endanger the relatives or the family of Russian employees”, notes the site specializing in digital culture Ars Technica.
“This whole affair illustrates how impossible it is for a Russian or Russian-related company to continue to operate as if there were no war. And the declarations of the Ukrainian government show that Kiev will do everything to prevent these companies to pretend that they can turn a blind eye,” said Jeff Hawn, a specialist in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and an external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for geopolitical research.
Victim of the information war
The accusations against “Atomic Heart” and Mundfish “are based more on bundles of clues than definitive proof”, admits Yevgeniy Golovchenko. There is no evidence, for example, that Gazprom will recover part of the profits of the game and then use the funds to feed the war effort.
But for Yevgeniy Golovchenko, this game is above all a victim of the “information war between Russia and Ukraine”. “It doesn’t matter, in reality, whether ‘Atomic Heart’ is pro-Russian or not, from the moment this product appears to be linked to Russia, if it becomes a success, it will strengthen Russian soft power. And that’s it that Kiev seeks to prevent”, details this specialist.
The sling against this game aims to ensure that Russia remains as isolated as possible. For Kiev, it is not only Russian oil or gas exports that must be limited, “but the same goes for cultural products and video games are an important representative of this industry”, notes Yevgeniy Golovchenko.
Video games are all the more important in the eyes of Ukrainians “because there is a very active community of professionals in the sector, renowned on the international scene and politically engaged”, underlines Jeff Hawn. The creators of one of Ukraine’s flagship video game productions – the STALKER game series – have repeatedly called for support for Ukraine against Russia. One of the game’s developers, Volodymyr Yezhov, died on the front line at Bakhmout in December 2022.
Source: France 24