“This isn’t something that anyone will ever forget or walk away from unchanged,” says Wael Amr, chief executive at Frogwares, a Ukrainian game development studio based in Kyiv. His employees are contending with direct shellings, destroyed homes and life in bomb shelters. Families have been split up as women and children flee but men stay in case they are called for the draft. Some have already joined the armed struggle voluntarily.
Part of his team, creators of The Sinking City and the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, have fled to the west of the country. Others are in Kyiv or Odesa, Amr says, “ready for whatever comes next”. He views relocation as a last resort, since it implies a painful capitulation. “The future of our company is heavily tied to the outcome of the war. Every one of us wants to work and live in a free and independent Ukraine.”
Other Ukrainian studios, including Vostok Games and GSC Game World, creator of the popular S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, have also been posting updates and requesting support on social media. Games are even playing a role in misinformation about the war: videos of combat in Ukraine that went viral on social media were later shown to be faked using military simulation games. One example is still live on the official Twitter account of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence.
The gaming industry has responded to the war with speed and resolve. The Pokemon Company, SEGA and Remedy Entertainment pledged donations to humanitarian causes, while Doom designer John Romero raised more than €25,000 with a new level he created for 1994’s Doom II. A charity bundle of almost 1,000 games from indie game store itch.io has brought in more than $5mn.
On March 2, Ukraine’s vice-prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov published a letter addressed to the gaming industry asking companies to block Russian and Belarusian accounts and prevent their teams from participating in esports events. “We are sure that such actions will motivate the citizens of Russia to proactively stop the disgraceful military aggression,” Fedorov argued. Over the course of a week, almost all the major players cut off sales to Russian gamers, including Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, EA, Activision Blizzard, Epic Games, Take-Two Interactive, Ubisoft and CD Projekt Red.
Large companies wading into politics can be viewed with scepticism. Are they making a meaningful gesture or opportunistically leveraging a global catastrophe for a PR opportunity? In this case, restricting sales to Russia will probably result in a significant loss of profits. According to analysts Newzoo and IDG Consulting, the Russian gaming market is the 15th biggest in the world, valued at $3.4bn. There is something momentous about this united move: the globalised gaming industry understands that it is now expected to take a stand on current events. Today’s players want developers not just to deliver quality titles but to reflect their values.
The gaming industry’s boycott of Russia comes amid widespread economic sanctions and ostracism from Fifa, Formula One, Netflix and even the Eurovision Song Contest. Is this an effective strategy? For Amr, it’s a question of proportion and priority. “Yes, it is terrible that everyday Russian citizens need to be the targets of these economic methods,” he says, “but right now Ukrainian citizens are the targets of Russian rockets and shelling.”
Some believe that this cultural pressure could encourage Russians to look beyond the dominant narrative of the war within Russian media, where access to information is tightly controlled, social media restricted and words such as “war” and “invasion” banned. “Clearly the Russian state is acting this way because they fear that their population of [around] 140mn is going to wake up if they don’t,” Amr says. “So any and every sanction that gets more Russians on to this path of defiance is fair game.”
It may not be realistic to expect a gaming boycott to incite revolution in Russia, particularly when protests are being brutally suppressed, with thousands of protesters arrested. Yet even if it cannot achieve this goal, simply keeping Ukraine at the top of the international agenda makes a crucial difference, says Amr. “When going through something as horrible as war, it’s a beacon of hope to see that the world has not forgotten about you.”