433. Gaming Information Dominance

[Editor’s Note:  The Mad Scientist Laboratory introduces our new Bit series, exploring a finite but key component of the greater Operational Environment in a succinct post.  Today’s post by returning guest blogger Kate Kilgore explores how video games and their streaming platforms are the newest front in the on-going battle for Information Dominance — Enjoy!]

Video games and video game streaming platforms have emerged as an unprecedented element of the information fight surrounding Russia’s war in Ukraine.  Online gaming communities driven by shared interests present a unique tool in the war for perception, which Ukrainian military and government officials as well as civilians have leveraged to grow support for Ukraine both within and outside of the country. Often, these games are military-themed or involve tactical gameplay and range from tank and flight simulators featuring vintage and modern military systems to dystopian first-person shooters. While gaming provides unique opportunities due to its role in enhancing global connectivity, these communities may also pose threats to both personal and institutional security.

Online gaming forums and streaming sites enable information operations to reach broad audiences, both domestically and internationally.  The Ukrainian developers of the video game series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. used advertising for its upcoming installment to fundraise for the Ukrainian military. International fans of individual Ukrainian streamers like Escape From Tarkov player “Bobi” have gathered their efforts to send these streamers information which enabled their escape from the country. The Polish developers of This War of Mine integrated immersive technology with their 2014 game to create an experience in which gamers take the role of civilians in a war zone designed to resemble modern Ukraine and explain the nation’s experience to international audiences.

International influencers are increasingly using sites like the Amazon-owned live streaming service Twitch to raise relief funds and report on conflict.  Many Ukrainian streamers broadcast live photos and videos of their wartime experiences to inform Russian audiences of the conflict’s realities.  Popular Western Twitch creators often cover the war in Ukraine, both informing their audiences about the conflict while firmly curating the conversation topics. Most streaming services also include real-time chat functions which allow viewers to interact with the content in real-time and can range from genuine questions to accusations of spreading misinformation. Twitch also slashed Russian streamers’ revenues and banned Russian state media from broadcasting on the platform.

Some countries may ban video games or gaming forums to exert greater control over their domestic information spaces.  Russia recently issued bans on many internationally-renowned games, stating they contain content which “violates legislation” and could influence people to “[carry] out socially dangerous acts.” The Federal Security Service (FSB) reportedly shot and killed three men in Voronzeh whom it claimed were a “clandestine cell of supporters of the Ukrainian nationalist ideology.” While these men were likely dressed in tactical gear and carrying airsoft rifles to roleplay as characters from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, the game features a faction which shares the name Svoboda with a Ukrainian ultranationalist political party and online fan forums have devoted significant efforts to curate pro-Ukrainian information and sentiment.

Trends connecting video gaming communities and real-life militaries which predate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have also reemerged.  In 2020, the systems-based game War Thunder partnered with the Systems Department of the Russian Ministry of Defense to host a gaming tournament featuring Chinese and Russian tanks. Starting in 2021, however, War Thunder players have repeatedly shared restricted or classified documents about military equipment and technology from the U.K., France, China, and the U.S. to win community arguments and lobby for more realistic gameplay. World of Tanks, which features Twentieth Century armored combat, has nearly twice the number of Russian players than Western players and has had similar issues with document leaks.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict demonstrates how online communities can be a powerful tool in generating support and fighting for national and international information dominance.  Video games and online streaming allow individuals to access and interact with information from sources from around the globe and provide a personalized way to combat misinformation. The casual and accessible nature of gaming communities, however, also poses a challenge to protecting sensitive information from dissemination and exploitation in both competition and conflict.

If you enjoyed this post, check out the following related content:

What the Joint Force can learn from K-Pop “Stans” by Matthew Ader

LET’S TWEET, GRANDMA – Weaponizing the Social to Create Information Security, by CDR Sean M. Sullivan

China and Russia: Achieving Decision Dominance and Information Advantage by Ian Sullivan, along with the comprehensive paper from which it was excerpted

Information Advantage Contribution to Operational Success, by CW4 Charles Davis

Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Sign Post to the Future (Part 1), by Kate Kilgore

Weaponized Information: What We’ve Learned So Far…, Insights from the Mad Scientist Weaponized Information Series of Virtual Events, and all of this series’ associated content and videos 

About the Author:   Kate Kilgore is a TRADOC G-2 Intern and a graduate of Indiana University, where she studied Law and Public Policy, Comparative International Politics, Soviet History, and Russian and Eastern European Studies. Kate has been greatly influenced by her father’s Army career, and she grew up all over the United States and in Germany, which influenced her passion for Eastern European history. Much of her undergraduate research focused on analyzing the path dependence and modern social implications of Soviet laws and in the former Eastern Bloc, with a focus on Hungary. When she’s not reading about culture and politics of the former Warsaw Pact States, she enjoys baking and antiquing.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Army Futures Command (AFC), or Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).

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