War Thunder somehow released official art with the debris cloud of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster as background

War Thunder
(Image credit: Gaijin Entertainment)

War Thunder by Gaijin Entertainment is a large-scale military simulation with an emphasis on realism, and the game's known for one thing in particular: a community that just cannot stop itself from leaking classified military documents to win forum arguments about virtual tanks. Well, that and having game footage used (without the studio's knowledge) in the background of Russian propaganda clips.

Usually it's Gaijin Entertainment that's mopping up the mess, sternly reminding players not to leak stuff with potentially severe real-world consequences. But now Gaijin itself has made a colossal and unforced error linked to a real world tragedy.

The latest War Thunder event titled "Seek & Destroy" comes with a new piece of key art featuring three separate images of aircraft in combat. Behind one can be seen a distinctively shaped debris cloud, which features individual debris trails. This unusual shape is one of the most distinctive debris clouds in history: the immediate aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Challenger launched in January 1986. Shortly afterwards the shuttle disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean and broke apart, with all seven crew members killed. It was the first fatal accident involving an American spacecraft in flight, and saw the entire shuttle program put on hiatus during a government investigation. It is one of those tragedies that remains a scar on the American psyche. 

Not the type of subject, in other words, that one should be incorporating into artwork for a military simulator. The particular cloud formed by Challenger is distinctive to the extent that there's no doubt the version in War Thunder is the same cloud, despite minor alterations you can tell with the naked eye, but Gaijin itself has at least come out and owned up.

"We have accidentally used the explosion from the Challenger disaster in one of our key art images," says community manager Magazine2. "Please accept our sincere apologies for this, the picture was part of an aerial explosion reference pack used by our artists and the context was lost.

"We’ll be altering this artwork as soon as we can and will take measures to ensure that this doesn’t repeat again in the future."

This is not the first nor will be the last time that unauthorised imagery accidentally finds its way into a videogame, though this easily ranks among the worst examples seen. The first episode of Telltale's Batman game (2017) showed an image of the body of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, who was murdered in Ankara in 2016. Going even further back Law & Order: Double or Nothing (2003) was somehow released containing a still from CCTV footage of the murdered toddler James Bulger

Having previously investigated the Telltale example, in that case the explanation from every industry professional I spoke to was the same: Someone in Telltale's art department had googled "assassination", taken a picture of Karlov from near the top of the results, and used it as a background placeholder while constructing the scene in question. That individual had never gotten around to replacing the placeholder (no doubt Telltale's infamously brutal schedules didn't help), and the other parts of the process that should've picked it up failed to do so before release.

At the time, the images of Karlov's assassination travelled the world: partly because the incident took place in an art gallery and the photographs are striking in that context. But the Challenger disaster, even almost four decades later, is globally infamous on another level. No-one would dream of implying that Gaijin's done this deliberately but, nevertheless, it has done it. At the very least this suggests a level of carelessness about key assets that must be addressed, lest it end up in this situation again.

I have contacted Gaijin's press office asking for comment and about what these "measures" to prevent a repeat may be. I'll update this article with any response.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."