Russia says popular games have 'hidden inserts' targeting its youth, and it wants to whip up a ban list

Vladimir Putin at his computer
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Russia's quest to remake its videogame industry continues. This time, reports Kommersant, the country's government has tasked the Prosecutor General's office and various ministries with protecting Russian kids from the "negative influence" of games. What kind of negative influence? Well, a commission under the council of legislators looking into the matter alleges that a bunch of unnamed popular videogames contain "hidden inserts" and "ways of spreading information that affect one's consciousness and subconscious".

The commission is pitching a new pair of registers of approved and prohibited games, and a system whereby any game releasing in Russia will first have to be checked for "malware and prohibited content"—and, one assumes, mind-altering subliminal inserts—by one of the country's 'autonomous non-profit organisations' called the Competence Centre for Import Substitution in the ICT Sphere (TsKIKT). The head of TsKIKT, Ilya Massukh, is Russia's former deputy minister for telecommunications, and Kommersant wasn't able to get a hold of him for comment.

There are also proposals to mandate pre-installed parental control apps on Russian PCs, and the creation of a catalogue of "approved online games" that functions like the country's RuStore alternative to Google Play and the App Store. But the fact remains that the things these proposals are meant to guard against are almost impossibly vague. If I were being generous, I'd suggest that terms like "hidden inserts" could refer to dark patterns and other cognitive tricks meant to dupe users into spending money on games, but with Russia at war, under sanction, and ratcheting up its control of information, it's difficult to see this as anything other than the state mulling over various ways to stifle opposition in games.

These are only proposals for now, but they're yet another glimpse into how the Russian government is thinking about its games industry in the wake of western tech's exodus from the country, and the state has recent precedent in deliberately-vague laws. The recently-expanded ban on "LGBT propaganda" in the country was incredibly fuzzy about what, specifically, it wanted to crack down on, leaving the government plenty of room to stamp down on things it didn't like using that law as a pretext.

Still, on the bright side, pretty much everyone Kommersant spoke to thought the proposals were doomed. Multiple experts that the newspaper spoke to said the measures, if adopted, would only serve to strangle the life out of Russia's already-floundering games sector. "Creating a list of right and wrong games [...] won't force the audience to play Russian patriotic products," said a director at the Centre for Strategic Research think tank, for the simple reason that "there aren't any" Russian patriotic products to play yet. An intellectual property lawyer, meanwhile, made the obvious point that players will just torrent whatever the government forbids.

Whether the Russian government heeds this wise counsel as it reviews the commission's proposals remains to be seen, but it seems dead-set on remaking the country's games industry somehow. Whether it's a national game engine or a "Russian EA," the Russian state can't stop thinking about how to revitalise—and control—its games industry.

Joshua Wolens
News Writer

One of Josh's first memories is of playing Quake 2 on the family computer when he was much too young to be doing that, and he's been irreparably game-brained ever since. His writing has been featured in Vice, Fanbyte, and the Financial Times. He'll play pretty much anything, and has written far too much on everything from visual novels to Assassin's Creed. His most profound loves are for CRPGs, immersive sims, and any game whose ambition outstrips its budget. He thinks you're all far too mean about Deus Ex: Invisible War.