Earlier this year, video clips of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were seen by more than 110,000 people (opens in new tab), and shared 25,000 times, before they were taken offline—because they weren't actually clips of the invasion at all. Instead they were gameplay videos taken from Bohemia Interactive's military sim Arma 3. It wasn't the first time this sort of thing has happened, and apparently Bohemia has had enough, because today it issued an explainer aimed at helping people tell the fakes from the real thing.
"While it's flattering that Arma 3 simulates modern war conflicts in such a realistic way, we are certainly not pleased that it can be mistaken for real-life combat footage and used as war propaganda," PR manager Pavel Křižka said (opens in new tab). "It has happened in the past (Arma 3 videos allegedly depicted conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and even between India and Pakistan), but nowadays this content has gained traction in regard to the current conflict in Ukraine.
"We've been trying to fight against such content by flagging these videos to platform providers (FB, YT, TW, IG etc.), but it's very ineffective. With every video taken down, 10 more are uploaded each day. We found the best way to tasckle this is to actively cooperate with leading media outlets and fact-checkers (such as AFP, Reuters, and others), who have better reach and the capacity to fight the spreading of fake news footage effectively."
More videos purporting to be from Russia's invasion of Ukraine have surfaced since that February example: In October, for instance, a video claiming to show a Ukrainian missile strike on Russian tanks (opens in new tab) also turned out to be Arma 3 footage. But as Křižka said, it's been happening for a long time. In September 2021, for instance, an Indian news channel used Arma 3 footage to claim that Pakistan had bombed Afghanistan (opens in new tab), and in May of that year a video purporting to be of Israel's anti-air defenses (opens in new tab) was also quickly found to be from Arma 3. In September 2018, Russian state media aired a clip of Arma 3 that it claimed showed a Russian Su-25 aircraft conducting strikes against a military convoy (opens in new tab). The phenomenon is common enough that there's an entire section dedicated to it on Arma 3's Wikipedia page (opens in new tab).
Arma being one of the most moddable games in the genre may be one of the contributors to this falsified footage problem. Arma 3's Steam Workshop section is full of Ukrainian and Russian cosmetics, models, and scenarios depicting the conflict, all downloadable for free. Of course, that player-made material sits alongside everything from unofficial Star Wars assets and importable T-Rexes to Warhammer Fantasy mods.
So, how can excitable news directors and Facebook users distinguish Arma 3 videos from actual combat footage? Bohemia has a few tips:
- Very low resolution - Even dated smartphones have the ability to provide videos in HD quality. Fake videos are usually of much lower quality, and are intentionally pixelated and blurry to hide the fact that they’re taken from a video game.
- Shaky camera - To add dramatic effect, these videos are often not captured in-game. Authors film a computer screen with the game running in low quality and with an exaggerated camera shake.
- Often takes place in the dark / at night - The footage is often dark in order to hide the video game scene’s insufficient level of detail.
- Mostly without sound - In-game sound effects are often distinguishable from reality.
- Doesn't feature people in motion - While the game can simulate the movement of military vehicles relatively realistically, capturing natural looking humans in motion is still very difficult, even for the most modern of games.
- Heads Up Display (HUD) elements visible - Sometimes the game’s user interfaces, such as weapon selection, ammunition counters, vehicle status, in-game messages, etc. are visible. These commonly appear at the edges or in the corners of the footage.
- Unnatural particle effects - Even the most modern games have a problem with naturally depicting explosions, smoke, fire, and dust, as well as how they’re affected by environmental conditions. Look for oddly separated cloudlets in particular.
- Unrealistic vehicles, uniforms, equipment - People with advanced military equipment knowledge can recognize the use of unrealistic military assets for a given conflict. For instance, in one widely spread fake video, the US air defense system C-RAM shoots down a US A-10 ground attack plane. Units can also display non-authentic insignias, camouflage, etc.
Dear community,We are fully aware that fake videos from our #Arma3 title appear on the internet, pretending to be original videos from various armed conflicts.Here you can read our official statement 👉 https://t.co/jwMNB1AMwl pic.twitter.com/zGoTBGR8NINovember 28, 2022
The studio also called upon Arma 3 players to do their part to combat misinformation by using Arma 3 footage "responsibly."
"When sharing such materials, please refrain from using 'clickbait' video titles, and always state clearly that the video originated from a videogame and is not depicting real-life events," the studio said. "We have seen many Arma players pointing out mistakenly identified footage, which helps viewers understand what they’re seeing."