Amongst the more trivial consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was the postponement of the turn-based military tactics title Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp, originally scheduled to appear on Nintendo’s Switch console last April. “In light of recent world events,” said Nintendo, it was now temporarily considered too insensitive to release.
Gameplay from online PC war game Arma 3 has frequently been abused to purportedly show genuine battlefield triumphs by either side in the conflict, fooling many credible observers – including a former Romanian Defense Minister. However, as Nintendo’s game was set in a fictional world full of exaggerated anime characters, some of whom could paranormally summon tsunamis, meteor strikes, and snow-storms, this was unlikely to have occurred with Advance Wars. Nonetheless, video games both fantastic and realistic have become yet another front in Ukraine’s propaganda war.
Ukrainian programmers speedily created titles condemning Russia’s aggression. One is Slaputin, in which players repeatedly slap the titular Russian dictator in the face with Ukraine’s national bloom, the sunflower. Another is Ukrainian fArmy, in which brave tractor drivers tow away defeated Russian tanks, as has famously occurred in real life. There is also Putinist Slayer, a 2D side-scrolling shooter where the player flies the disembodied laser-spewing heads of President Zelensky or Boris Johnson through space, killing Z-shaped Putinist spaceships. Such titles are a profitable electronic extension of the war effort, reaching younger audiences with their pro-Kyiv message.
Ukraine is only imitating similar titles already emanating from Russia, the land that gave the world Tetris. In 2013 Russia’s Culture Ministry announced funding for nationalistic-themed games which should “teach and be conducive to patriotic education.” The first was ILYA Muromets, a collaboration between 1C-Softclub and the Russian Military History Society, concerning the alleged heroics of the Russian Imperial Air Force in WWI and in particular its “outstanding bomber[-plane] called the ILYA Muromets.”
Western-produced equivalents, like the best-selling Call of Duty series, have long been decried as fighting an anti-Russian “information war” in Moscow, with negative depictions of Russian troops a genre staple; games like ILYA Muromets became the Kremlin’s tit-for-tat response. In 2014, as Putin annexed Crimea, a proposal was even made to legally ban negative depictions of Russia’s military in video games, although in practice any titles involving such content generally fail to receive domestic distributors anyway. Russians are not the only ones trying to warp gaming to their unjust cause, however: today, there is even a pixel jihad.
Besides Bob-Ombs and Bullet Bills (famous enemies in the long-running Super Mario franchise), you may have thought Osama bin Laden’s interest in the family-friendly, pastel-colored world of Nintendo would have been rather slight. Yet surprisingly, when the CIA released details of the contents of the al-Qaeda leader’s hard drive following their deadly raid on his secret Pakistani compound back in 2011, several pirated Nintendo DS games were found, including Animal Crossing: Wild World and Yoshi’s Island DS.
Probably, however, these were just being played by some of his many children. Also clogging up bin Laden’s hard drive were lashings of anime and several CGI kids’ movies like Antz, Cars and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, all of which bin Laden was unlikely to have wasted his days watching personally (although if he did, it certainly helps explain why he so hated the West). If bin Laden himself was not a gamer, though, that does not mean some of his terrorist underlings were not – indeed, some were actual video game developers.
In 2013, an al-Qaeda franchise in West Africa released their own free game online, the 1980s-style 2D vertical shooter Muslim Mali, hoping to entice new recruits to battle French troops in the region. Once you click ‘PLAY’, an inspiring message appears saying “Muslim Brother, go ahead and repel the French invasion against Muslim Mali.” Potential jihadis who answered this call to duty were given a rather unrealistic image of the likely conditions of battle: inexplicably, the wannabe Islamist player pilots a super-advanced USAF-style stealth fighter draped with a giant black al-Qaeda flag, totally outclassing the opposing French jets.
Even better, the player enjoys access to a screen-clearing smart-bomb, accessed via a big black button in the bottom-left of the screen labelled ‘There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.’ Click it and everybody dies instantly, as in many an al-Qaeda atrocity. Rather than the usual ‘GAME OVER’ screen, unsuccessful players are greeted instead with the cheering message ‘CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE BEEN MARTYRED.’ Thus, the game is impossible to lose as, if you die, the explosion-incinerated player wins anyway—the true logic of the suicide bomber.
Al-Qaeda’s more social media-savvy rival ISIS possibly entered into this youth-friendly electronic world too, supposedly releasing their own bootleg version of the ever-popular GTA franchise in 2014. The Arabic subtitle of Grand Theft Auto: Salil al Sawarem means ‘The Clanging of Swords’, with probably faked footage released online showing players shooting policemen or attacking U.S.-led convoys in a generic, sandy, Middle Eastern environment. However, given that the file size of the game was only a tiny 375KB, it was likely little more than a Trojan Horse for malware.
In fact, ISIS decries video games as an ‘un-Islamic’ medium, even ones allowing you to slaughter infidels with machine-guns. The slogan on the game’s purported cover even reads, in classic poorly-translated style, “Your games which are producing from you, we do the same actions in the battlefield!” Translation: “While you decadent Westerners shoot people virtually, we shoot them in real life!”
The programmers of Al-Qaeda appear more genuinely committed to their art. Their first known game, Quest for Bush (AKA: Night of Bush Capturing) appeared as online freeware in September 2006, the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. A simple Doom-style First-Person Shooter (FPS), it tasks players with infiltrating a heavily-guarded US military base and taking out a very special final boss: President George W. Bush, the Iraq-invading occupant of the White House at the time.
However, bin Laden’s men simply reskinned a similar pre-existing FPS named Quest for Saddam, in which the player had to single-handedly hunt down the brutal Iraqi dictator in question. All al-Qaeda did was stretch low-res textures of Bush and his soldiers over the jagged polygonal heads of Iraqi troops from the original game.
The U.S. State Department officially labeled Quest for Bush terrorist propaganda. But, as some pointed out, what did that make Quest for Saddam? As in today’s Ukraine, both sides in the War On Terror saw the potential for video games to make their players go out and willingly shoot someone; the U.S. military has also successfully made use of games as recruitment and training tools down the decades, notably with the long-running America’s Army FPS series.
Perhaps certain video games do make you violent after all, then, as their detractors have long complained. Al-Qaeda and Vladimir Putin certainly hope so.