Russia's FSB, the federal security service, shot and killed three men in the Voronezh region of Russia on November 23. Russian state media subsequently reported on the incident and claimed the FSB had eliminated a terrorist cell, and the FSB released an official statement describing the group as (machine translation) "a clandestine cell of supporters of the Ukrainian nationalist ideology."
But it now looks like things were not so simple, and that the individuals shot may have been killed in a case of mistaken identity because they roleplayed as characters from the videogame S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl.
The FSB's statement gives an account of the alleged incident in which it claimed the individuals opened fire before being killed. "When they tried to detain the ringleader and his two accomplices [...] the latter offered armed resistance to the Russian FSB officers and were destroyed by retaliatory actions."
The state claims that its agents found various items on the scene, including two "improvised explosive devices" and firearms.
The Russian state TV report on the incident, however, unwittingly opened another line of enquiry. In the video below the supposed terrorist compound can be seen: on the wall a British flag is hung, in front of which is a flag featuring the head of a wolf. A notebook is shown that is an accounting of the "Svoboda Group".
Be aware that this video contains footage some might find distressing.
The Svoboda political party is an ultranationalist political party in Ukraine. However, it is also a faction in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, and the imagery shown in the state video is from the game's faction, not the real-world political party. This was first noticed by military historian and researcher Chris0_Wiki on twitter.
1/ In what may be a bizarre case of mistaken identity, the Russian FSB has killed a group of Russian people it claims are pro-Ukrainian saboteurs – but who reportedly appear to be Airsoft enthusiasts who were engaged in live-action roleplay of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/LOfYpWOs8xNovember 25, 2022
"It's not clear what the three men were supposedly planning," writes the military expert. "But according to the Moscow Times, two of the three were well-known participants in the Voronezh airsoft community. One used the nickname Stalker Phosgene for live-action roleplay based on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games."
The real-world political party does not use any imagery that could be confused with the fictional faction.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl has given rise to a live-action roleplaying community in Russia and Ukraine, and further reporting by the Moscow Times tracked down the social media accounts and friends of the individuals killed (thanks, Vice). One was Vladimir Kotovsky, who had the character Stalker Phosgene for roleplay, and whose account shows pictures of him and friends cosplaying stalkers and exploring Voronezh. His social media pages also include the same wolf emblem shown in the compound footage.
The Moscow Times spoke with friends of the individuals killed, who confirmed that the men were part of a local LARPing community who roleplay Stalkers and played with air guns. The below video is from the LARP group the individuals were apparently involved with.
The FSB was also in the news earlier this year after a bizarre piece of propaganda that linked the Sims 3 to an alleged assassination plot. In that case, the confusion seemed to be over the game and mobile phone sim cards.
It does look like the FSB has made a terrible mistake here, three men are dead because of it, and the fact that the Moscow Times, an organisation that would be subject to the extensive pressure that the state asserts over the media in Russia, is querying the state version of events says everything.
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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."
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